In our current food landscape, few ingredients are as controversial as monosodium glutamate. More commonly known as MSG, this compound is responsible for the rich umami flavor in many beloved savory foods, such as mushrooms, soy sauce, and Parmesan cheese. However, MSG is also one of today’s most widely misunderstood food ingredients. It’s surrounded by a number of pervasive myths and misconceptions that have lingered for over 50 years.
To get the facts on MSG, read on for a look at some of the most frequently asked questions about this ingredient.
What is MSG?
MSG is the sodium salt of glutamic acid. Glutamic acid, or glutamate, is a commonly occurring amino acid (amino acids are the “building blocks” of proteins) that is abundant in many plant and animal proteins.
How does the body use glutamate?
The intestinal cells of the human body use glutamate to produce energy, which means that very little of the glutamate present in food makes it past the intestinal lining. The small amount that remains after energy production is used by these same cells to make proteins and glutathione, an antioxidant that is essential for optimal intestinal function.
How was MSG discovered?
Kikunae Ikeda, a professor of chemistry at the University of Tokyo, discovered MSG in 1908. Ikeda was curious about what elements were responsible for the distinctive and delicious taste of dashi, a kind of seaweed broth that is ubiquitous in Japanese cuisine. After studying dashi and managing to successfully isolate glutamate from the broth, he found that combining glutamate with sodium allowed it to be stabilized into a powder and easily added to food. Ikeda then patented his method for MSG extraction and began selling MSG commercially: Aji-no-moto, the brand of MSG that he developed, is still popular today. Interestingly, Ikeda was also responsible for identifying the existence of “umami”—the fifth flavor outside the classic grouping of sweet, sour, salty, and bitter—and for coining the term.
Where did MSG’s controversial reputation come from?
MSG’s controversial reputation dates back to 1968, when a letter appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine that described a “syndrome” connected to eating food from Chinese restaurants in the US. The letter speculated that perhaps MSG, a common seasoning in American Chinese restaurants, was the culprit.
This rather notorious letter spawned a huge response, including many scientific studies, books about MSG, anti-MSG cookbooks, and widespread avoidance of the ingredient. However, despite the concerns surrounding MSG, no scientific research has reliably demonstrated that consuming it causes symptoms like those described in the letter. Furthermore, organizations such as the FDA, the European Community’s Scientific Committee for Food, and the World Health Organization have repeatedly affirmed MSG as a safe food ingredient.
What are some of the most pervasive myths about MSG?
Even though MSG has been approved as safe, the misconceptions originally spawned by the 1968 letter still linger. Some of the most pervasive myths about MSG include:
I’m allergic to MSG.
As identified by leading health authorities and researchers, including the FDA, the most common food allergens are wheat, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, eggs, and milk. MSG, on the other hand, is not actually an allergen, meaning that it cannot cause allergic reactions: a fact that is supported by numerous studies.
MSG is an artificial ingredient.
While MSG can certainly be commercially produced and added to foods, it is also a naturally occurring substance. Foods like tomatoes, cheeses, mushrooms, and meat all contain natural glutamate, which is what gives them their distinctive savory flavor. Furthermore, the production of MSG relies on fermentation, a natural process that has been used for millennia to make foods such as beer, yogurt, and vinegar.
MSG is only found in Chinese food.
MSG may be most commonly associated with Chinese restaurant food, but the fact is that since the 1930s, a huge range of packaged and prepared foods have contained added MSG, in addition to the foods in which it occurs naturally. Packaged crackers, bottled salad dressings, and canned soups are just a few of the many processed products whose flavors are enhanced by added MSG. The fact that fears around MSG arose specifically in connection with its use in Chinese food have led many experts to speculate that xenophobia played an important role in the rise of anti-MSG sentiment.
MSG is high in sodium.
If you think that consuming MSG drastically boosts your sodium intake, it’s time to think again. In reality, MSG contains just one-third of the sodium found in the same amount of table salt. This means that MSG could be an effective way to amplify and enhance the flavor of foods while at the same time decreasing overall sodium intake—an important point for people who need to limit their sodium due to high blood pressure or other health issues.