Food fears aren’t a novel thing. The evolution of diet trends and food preferences has certainly influenced what we’ve purchased and eaten over the years.
However, there’s one ingredient that’s been given a bad rap for generations: Monosodium glutamate (MSG).
While it’s known for adding a unique “umami-like” flavor to your food, some people claim MSG causes a slew of negative symptoms, from headaches to heart palpitations. This widespread misperception has even led some restaurants to advertise “no MSG” on their menus.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the World Health Organization (WHO) and other food-regulating bodies around the world have debunked and dispelled these claims, yet stigmas against MSG continue.
So, what is the truth? Is MSG friend or foe?
Kelsey Arndt, a registered dietitian at Banner Health in Phoenix, AZ explains what MSG is and the latest research on this controversial ingredient.
What is MSG?
While the name alone sounds like it’s not found in nature, MSG is simply sodium (salt) + glutamate (also called glutamic acid, an amino acid). Glutamate is the most abundant amino acid found in nature. It’s formed within our bodies and is found in many protein foods.
“MSG was historically created as an extract from seaweed, but today it is typically made via the fermentation of sugar-containing foods like fermented corn, sugar beets, sugar cane and tapioca,” Arndt said. “This fermentation process is commonly used in making other well-known foods and beverages.”
MSG is often added to foods including:
- Baked goods
- Canned soups
- Chips and crackers
- Deli meats
- Salad dressings
- Soy sauce
It’s also added to takeout, fast food and restaurant dishes like stir fry, fried rice, french fries and tomato sauces.
“By itself, MSG doesn’t have much flavor, but it can enhance the flavor when it’s combined with certain foods, giving an effect known as umami,” Arndt said.
Umami is known as the fifth taste (in addition to sour, sweet, salty and bitter). It balances and deepens flavor and contributes to the savory flavors of certain foods.
What are the potential benefits of MSG?
MSG has been largely researched for its potential use in low-sodium foods. Whereas NaCl, also known as table salt, directly adds sodium to your diet, adding MSG largely enhances the flavor of the food without as much additional sodium.
“While 1 teaspoon of MSG contains 500 mg of sodium, 1 teaspoon of salt contains 2300 mg,” Arndt said. “Using MSG can help decrease the total amount of sodium intake in our diet, which should be between 1,500 to 2,000 mg per day. And it can help aid in improving the overall nutritional status of the elderly.”
This could be a win-win for those on low-sodium diets and those who may be at risk for high blood pressure and heart disease.
Why does MSG have a bad rap?
MSG has been used to flavor foods since the turn of the 20th century. It’s touted by chefs and is used in many processed foods — many you may not even be aware of.
It wasn’t until the late 1960s, when a letter published by a U.S. medical journal spurred widespread misperceptions. The study claimed eating Chinese food triggered weakness, heart palpitations, numbness and other symptoms.
The author said these symptoms could have resulted from several things, including sodium, alcohol, cooking wine and MSG, but the public focused only on MSG. Xenophobic sentiments, prejudice against the Chinese, at the time fueled this perception and led to the term “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.”
Since then, anecdotal reports have questioned the safety of MSG and linked MSG with a long list of health effects, including headache, nausea, sweats and facial flushing, but decades of careful, double-blind clinical research studies have shown there is no evidence.
“Most studies showing negative effects of MSG were done in lab rats that were given MSG doses that would be nearly impossible to replicate in a human diet,” Arndt said. “In typical physiological levels, studies have not been able to effectively reproduce these symptoms.”
In fact, International Headache Society removed MSG from its list of causative factors for headaches in 2018.
Are you sensitive to MSG or could it be something else?
Some people may experience mild symptoms if they eat 3 grams (roughly half a teaspoon) or more of MSG on an empty stomach, but this far exceeds the less than 0.55 grams recommended by the FDA. It’s highly unlikely you’d eat this much MSG in one day.
However, if you’re experiencing headaches or other negative symptoms, it may help to evaluate the type of food you’re eating. Don’t assume your symptoms are from consuming MSG alone.
“MSG is typically associated with highly processed foods, which are already known to have less beneficial effects on health,” Arndt said. “So, it’s possible that it’s not the MSG alone producing these undesirable side effects.”
Talk to your health care provider or a dietitian about the symptoms you’re experiencing. They can assess your symptoms and determine potential causes, such as an underlying food allergy or sensitivity or diet modifications.
Glutamate is an amino acid naturally found in many foods. There’s no evidence that MSG is the big, bad food additive it’s been labeled. In moderation, it can make your meal more delicious without the added sodium.
If you are concerned about MSG, talk to your health care provider or a registered dietitian. To find a Banner Health specialist near you, visit bannerhealth.com.