Is MSG bad for you? How food flavoring has become one of the most talked about additives.
When you hear initialism MSG, certain meanings and possible red flags must come to mind.
MSG (monosodium glutamate) was discovered in Japan in 1908 and is one of the most commonly used food additives in the world. But despite its popularity, MSG has become one of the most controversial flavor enhancers on the market, due in large part to misinformation and ethnocentrism.
But that wasn’t always the case. Initially, MSG was a popular ingredient in American kitchens, and at one time the United States was one of the largest consumers of MSG worldwide.
So how and why did flavor-enhancing crystals go from a spice cabinet staple to one of America’s most controversial additives?
What is MSG?
Again, MSG stands for monosodium glutamate. It consists of two molecules that stick together: sodium and glutamic acid. Glutamic acid is a naturally occurring amino acid used to form proteins in almost all living things, Keri Gans, a registered dietitian nutritionist and author of The Small Change Diet, told Yahoo Lifestyle.
“That’s the first thing to realize – it’s not a mystery,” Gans said. “It’s actually a naturally occurring amino acid.”
It’s everywhere. Karen Ansell, a registered dietitian nutritionist and author of the book “Superfoods for Anti-Aging Therapy,” tells Yahoo Lifestyle that most people “get about 13 grams of naturally occurring glutamate a day from foods like asparagus, walnuts, mushrooms, meat and Parmesan cheese.”
When combined with sodium, glutamate has another unique and pungent use: flavor.
“It is unique in that there is a receptor on the tongue that tells the brain that it is tasting fresh. So glutamate is actually an amino acid that represents the freshness in food,” Gans explains.
Freshness is considered the “fifth” taste and can be described as a “savory” concentrate, usually brought on by MSG.
“So we have all the other flavors – sweet, sour, salty, bitter – and umami is our fifth flavor, and MSG takes advantage of that,” Gans said.
MSG was first discovered in Japan by Kikunae Ikeda and came to the United States around 1930. Tia Raines, nutritionist and current vice president of customer engagement and strategic communications for Ajinomoto, a Japanese multinational food and biotechnology company and MSG manufacturer.
“In 1909, Ajinomoto was founded to bring this tabletop seasoning to the people of Japan,” Raines told Yahoo Lifestyle. “For decades, MSG was consumed around the world without issue. As a result, in the 1930s and 1940s, the United States was one of the top three consumers of MSG worldwide, and no one disputed that. It was used in military rations. The product Accent was released again in the mid-1940s as a food flavoring and was consumed without question.”
MSG was originally used in Asian cultures and is associated with Chinese food in the United States, Gans said. “But the truth is, it can be used for just about anything,” she says. “I’ve added it to my eggs. If you want some flavoring but you want less sodium, I mean, that’s it.”
Food additives are actually found in a large number of everyday foods. “MSG is often added to processed foods such as soy sauce, instant noodles, canned soups, salad dressings, crackers and fries, hot dogs and cooked meats,” Ansell notes.
When did attitudes toward MSG change?
Although MSG has always been a popular food flavoring, things quickly changed – and it all started with a letter.
“In 1968, a physician wrote a letter to the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine” â€” titled “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” â€” and talked about his experience with MSG in the New England Journal of Medicine. -and talked about his personal experience eating Chinese food in the United States,” Raines said. “In the letter, he mentioned that sometimes after eating Chinese food, he would feel weak, sometimes panicky and have numbness in his outer limbs. He suggested in this letter that it could be the cooking wine. It could be too much salt used in the food, or it could be MSG – overuse of MSG.” Raines said the doctor asked “if anyone could better understand how he felt when he ate at these restaurants.”
While the letter is clearly a hoax, the damage has been done. Since MSG is largely associated with the flavor of Asian cuisine, many Chinese restaurants have borne the brunt of MSG-centric judgments ever since.
The bias continued to grow in the 1970s after several scientists conducted experiments designed to illustrate the presumed harms of MSG. However, some felt that the testing methods were flawed.
“They injected very large doses of MSG directly into the abdomen and brain of laboratory rodents,” Raines says. “Just like you would find any time you overdose an animal with a particular compound, it makes rats and mice very sick. So all of these things suddenly started to paint a bad picture about Chinese food, and then about MSG – even though there’s no scientific evidence in humans, [and] no clinical evidence that there’s anything wrong with MSG. But all of these factors combined led to the slander of this ingredient.”
Is MSG bad for you?
The word sodium usually raises some level of concern in health consciousness, which also plays a role in condemning MSG – even though it contains less sodium than standard table salt.
“If you use MSG, you can actually reduce the amount of sodium in a recipe,” Gans says. “MSG has about one-third the sodium content of sodium chloride,” which is table salt.
As with any other seasoning, excess can be harmful, but MSG is “generally recognized as safe” by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The organization found no evidence that MSG in food caused symptoms.
The link between xenophobia, food and “clean eating
General health misinformation is not the only reason for MSG’s notoriety. Racial bias also plays a role.
Speaking of the increased prejudice that began in the 1960s and ’70s, Raines says, “There was a lot of negativity around Asian-Americans. That was the Vietnam War – and as we saw on COVID, there was a rise in Asian hatred. That’s what was happening in this country at the time. So you bring all those things together and it’s easy to point the finger at Chinese food and start suggesting that Chinese food is inherently unhealthy or problematic, and then link it to MSG.”
Gans says this has proliferated due to a general desire to avoid the unknown, and he thinks a curious mindset may be part of the solution to reducing food-based racial stigma. “If you don’t understand something, ask questions,” Gans said.
The promotion of “clean eating” is another culprit in the stigmatization of MSG. Clean eating usually refers to eating unprocessed and unrefined foods as a healthier way to eat. However, some nutrition experts have found this to be racially microaggressive and can lead to restricted diets.
“If you look at what people think of as a clean diet, it’s usually this Western European eating pattern,” Raines said. “It doesn’t include other food cultures, if any, and it puts all Asian cuisine in the ‘dirty’ bucket, and I think MSG was put in that place for that reason.”
First and foremost, Gans says, “food should be enjoyed. If you’re worried about every ingredient that goes into your mouth, then trust me, you can’t possibly enjoy your food.” She adds, “People worry about every ingredient and develop this throwaway attitude. Striving for perfection in your diet can turn into anorexia,” which is an unhealthy focus on healthy eating that usually damages a person’s health.
What is MSG syndrome?
MSG syndrome, formally known as “Chinese restaurant syndrome,” refers to a set of symptoms such as general weakness, headaches, muscle tightness and flushing that only a small percentage of people experience after consuming foods containing MSG. MSG syndrome is said to affect about 1% of the population.
“Interestingly, I’m sure some people may experience this effect, just as they may be affected by consuming another ingredient,” Gans said, noting that adverse reactions to food are not necessarily MSG-specific.
“Is it just because there’s too much sodium in the soy sauce? Are they drinking beer with soy sauce? Did they overeat? There are other factors that are sometimes difficult to identify and pinpoint as specific ingredients,” Gans noted.
A double-blind, placebo-controlled study found that people who consider themselves sensitive to MSG may experience symptoms such as general weakness or headaches when taking high doses of MSG on an empty stomach – which is not usually how people consume MSG. However, the study showed no lasting or serious effects from MSG ingestion. What’s more, when subjects who thought they were sensitive to MSG were retested, the results were inconsistent. The researchers also noted that it appears that study subjects who are sensitive to MSG may not have the same response when MSG is taken with food. Other studies have shown that people react similarly to placebo just as they did to MSG.
Raines said, “We try to make sure that people understand that even though they may have these symptoms, regulatory agencies have said they are temporary and not harmful to health.”
Ansel agrees, saying, “MSG has a long safety record, so if it doesn’t bother you, there’s no reason to avoid it. Of course, if you’re one of the few people who are highly sensitive to MSG, it makes sense to avoid it.”