Chinese food myth debunked: Examining why you don’t have to hold the MSG

Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) has been an age-old flavor enhancer in food, bringing out umami for close to a century now. For some time, however, people have been viewing it as a bad ingredient that is best avoided. So, is it actually harmful?

What is MSG?

Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) is the sodium salt of glutamic acid, an amino acid that our body produces on its own. The salt is a white and odorless crystalline powder. MSG is also highly water soluble, meaning it dissolves well into water and breaks down into sodium and free glutamate. The flavor enhancer consists of fermented starches or sugars such as sugar beet, sugar cane, and molasses. Glutamic acid is also found naturally in foods like tomatoes and walnuts. Our body will process the acid in the same way whether it comes from a tomato or a sauce with MSG. In Asian cooking and highly processed snack foods, MSG is a popular additive.

MSG is able to bring out flavors in dishes by making your mouth water by promoting salivary secretions. This can ultimately help food taste better. Studies have also shown that umami-rich dishes can decrease the desire to add additional salt to food. As such, research has begun to show that replacing MSG with salt can lower people’s overall intake. Excessive sodium intake is linked to high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke.

Why do people think it’s bad?

MSG got its bad reputation in the 1960s when Chinese-American doctor Robert Ho Man Kwok wrote a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine explaining that he got sick after eating Chinese food. Kwok’s symptoms quickly became associated with “Chinese restaurant syndrome.” For some time, many within the medical community reportedly used the letter to promote racist rhetoric and jokes about it. After this, studies started to come out suggesting that the substance was neurotoxic, linked to obesity, and promoted metabolic dysfunction.

However, there are many reasons to question the accuracy of these studies:

  • a lack of appropriate control groups
  • small sample sizes
  • flaws in methodology
  • the use of extremely high doses that don’t reflect what people normally eat
  • the administration of MSG through routes like injections, which also doesn’t reflect typical intake patterns

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), MSG is generally recognized as safe. As of now, current research suggests that MSG does not pose a significant risk to people who eat it in moderation.

Monosodium glutamate, MSG on a spoon
Monosodium glutamate, MSG on wooden spoon. (© lesterman –

What are MSG sensitivities?

MSG system complex refers to a group of symptoms that some people might experience after eating MSG. This could include headache, muscle aches, dizziness, and trouble breathing. It’s estimated that under one percent of the general population experiences this. There is little research on this, so it’s difficult to come to solid conclusions. Additionally, there aren’t any tests for MSG symptom complex.

Foods with the highest amount of MSG

Bottom Line

MSG is added to many foods to bring out the flavors, but it also is naturally-occurring in foods like tomatoes and cheese. Once considered highly toxic, the additive has received shady criticism in the past that isn’t fully rooted in fact. So far, research shows that for most people, it isn’t a significant health threat. However, foods that commonly have it such as chips and processed meats should be limited for reasons such as excessive fat, salt, or refined carb intake as these are more closely linked with adverse health outcomes than MSG.

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