The myth of MSG


MSG crystals. Credit: Ragesoss / Wikipedia

You’ve probably seen the label “No MSG” on the menus of Chinese restaurants or on packages of some self-proclaimed healthy snack. But what is MSG? According to the FDA, MSG, also known as monosodium glutamate, is the sodium salt of glutamic acid, a common α-amino acid which is naturally present in our bodies and that’s found in a myriad of foods and food additives. Seems pretty harmless, right? Well for several decades, people have bought into the idea that MSG is bad for you as it apparently causes headaches and nausea after consumption. But are these claims true?


MSG was discovered in 1907 by Kikunae Ikeda, a Japanese chemist, while he was investigating a common quality he’d noticed among foods such as asparagus, tomatoes, and the seaweed soup broth his wife made. Ikeda concluded these foods all had umami and contained glutamate, the ionic form of glutamic acid, which created umami (one of the five basic categories of taste in food and described as savory, brothy, and meaty). After making this discovery, Kikunae Ikeda figured out how to synthesize the glutamate molecule and combined it with water and table salt to create a seasoning and then patented the final product. He gave the crystallized seasoning the name “AjinoMoto,” which translates to Essence of Taste and in the US it became known as MSG.


Kikunae Ikeda. Credit: Wikipedia

In the 1930s American food companies began to add MSG into their products as an inexpensive taste-enhancer. By the end of WWII, MSG could be found in a large number of food products in the United States. Historian Ian Mosby believes in 1969 there were about 58 million pounds of MSG being produced per year in the United States, and it showed up in a variety of products: "breakfast cereal, TV dinners, frozen vegetables, condiments, baby food and canned soup."


For a time, MSG was simply an ingredient in many food products that most Americans were blissfully unaware of until Chinese restaurants rose to popularity in the United States around the late 1960s. People began to report ill effects after consumption of Chinese food and this phenomenon was deemed “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” by the scientist, Robert Ho Man Kwok in a letter to The New England Journal of Medicine. Ho Man Kwok coined the term after he ate large amounts of Chinese food and experienced heart palpitations, weakness, and strange sensations of numbness. He and his colleagues determined the culprit for these side effects was MSG. This claim, although without evidence, soon spread and quickly MSG garnered a bad reputation with the American public.


This prompted an onslaught of research which reported finding an association between consuming MSG and the symptoms. However, those studies had flaws and therefore were biased. For instance, participants knew whether or not they were consuming MSG. Subsequently, more recent research has found that the vast majority of people, even those claiming to have a sensitivity to MSG, don’t have any symptoms when they don’t know they are consuming it.


The American public deemed Chinese food as “unhealthy” and “evil” due to the MSG in the food, however MSG or glutamate can be found in many other types of food, such as tomatoes, mushrooms, and parmesan cheese. But only Chinese food was demonized. The negative connotations of MSG only being linked with Chinese food reveals the xenophobic nature behind the rhetoric and sentiments surrounding MSG. In his 2009 paper, Ian Mosby states the fear of MSG in Chinese food is part of the US’s long history of viewing the “exotic” cuisine of Asia as dangerous or dirty. The intense disdain directed towards MSG is a thinly veiled attack against Chinese food and Chinese people as it’s clear the American public's problem wasn’t with MSG but with Chinese restaurants.


There hasn’t been an unbiased, well-conducted study that has proved or found that normal consumption of MSG causes negative side effects. Though it’s important to note that a small group of people will experience very mild symptoms after consuming approximately 3 grams or more, a huge quantity of MSG. While in comparison, the average person consumes around 0.55 grams of MSG daily. As the old saying goes, too much of anything is bad.


The reports of headaches or any other side effects after eating MSG from most people can be explained by the nocebo effect, which is where a negative outcome or side effect occurs due to a belief there will be a negative experience or outcome beforehand. The Parker and Coleman 1993 study found that people with unconfirmed reactions to foods were “influenced by the popular news media,” essentially people experienced the nocebo effect.


For the majority of people, MSG is completely safe to consume in normal portions and the fears surrounding MSG for most part are baseless and unfounded, rooted in xenophobia. To learn more about MSG visit this website, which contains a variety of information on monosodium glutamate, ranging from an about page, quick facts, nutrition facts, news pertaining to MSG, and so much more.

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