Is a food additive and flavor enhancer typically added to canned vegetables, processed meats, and is widely associated with Asian cuisine.
It’s also naturally occuring and you’d be surprised at how many foods contain it innately.
And it’s garnered a pretty bad reputation in the West. In fact, it’s kind of the bogeyman of the food world. But is MSG really that bad for you, or is it a myth like the bogeyman?
MSG is a flavor enhancer that turns up the savory and meaty taste known as “umami”, which is the fifth basic taste alongside sweet, sour, bitter, and salty, and can be found in foods like mushrooms, anchovies, and aged cheeses.
This flavor enhancement comes from the glutamate in MSG—more specifically known as the common amino acid glutamic acid, which is naturally present in our bodies and plays a key role in the metabolism of major nutrients and aids in the reconstruction of body proteins.
It’s also in a ton of food items like meat, dairy products like cheese, seaweed, and certain produce items like tomatoes and mushrooms.
But MSG is the sodium salt form of glutamic acid, which is basically what allows you to sprinkle it on your food.
The use of MSG as a flavor enhancer was discovered in 1908 by a Japanese professor named Kikunae Ikeda, who was able to extract glutamate from the popular Asian dish seaweed broth and realized that glutamate was responsible for its savory flavor.
Professor Ikeda then filed a patent to commercially produce MSG, and the rest is history.
Though today, MSG isn’t exclusively extracted from seaweed broth. Instead, it’s produced in a specialized fermentation process.
And it bears noting that the glutamate in MSG is chemically the same as the glutamate in food proteins, so our bodies process both the same way.
So if MSG is so widespread and already in our bodies naturally, why do so many people avoid it?
Well, in 1968, in a letter to the Editor in the New England Journal of Medicine, a man named Dr. Kwok described symptoms that he experienced after eating food from Chinese restaurants in the United States.
About 20 minutes after starting the meal, Kwok described a numbness or burning sensation at the back of his neck, a radiating in both arms, a general overall feeling of weakness, and palpitations. He referred to this as “Chinese restaurant syndrome”.
The journal suggested that MSG was the culprit, and many other people confirmed that they too felt similar symptoms upon eating Chinese food.
But is this syndrome for real?
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Well, a few studies have reported that MSG consumption does trigger symptoms like headache, burning sensation, and headache in some individuals.
Meanwhile, other studies report that these symptoms are typically triggered by the consumption of 3 or more grams of MSG. But, when MSG is added to an average serving of food, it’s typically less than 0.5 grams. And some believe that these sensitivities actually have more to do with glutamate than MSG.
However, the FDA themselves have never been able to confirm the reported effects of MSG. In fact, the FDA considers MSG as an additive to be “generally recognized as safe.”
However, it does require that foods containing it as an additive have to list it in their ingredients.
But some have criticized that the “No added MSG” label only adds to the stigma of something that is generally considered to be safe. So what do you think?
Is MSG diabolical, or just plain delicious?