The Truth About Whether MSG Is Bad for You
The latest scientific research may have actually you sprinkling MSG on your next meal.
Are you wary of MSG in food? Many food companies boast the fact that their products are free of MSG-but is the demonization of this ingredient really deserved? Here's a look into what MSG is, how it got its bad reputation, and what research really says about its nutritional impact.
What Is MSG Anyway?
MSG stands for monosodium glutamate, a compound made from sodium (salt) and glutamate. Glutamate is an amino acid that's found naturally in foods like Parmesan cheese, tomatoes, mushroom, cured meats, soy sauce, and even breast milk. When sodium and glutamate are combined, they create an umami flavor, that savory, meatiness in foods like warm broth and seared animal protein.
Many foods that you probably love naturally combine sodium and glutamate, like pizza, ramen, and mushroom sauces-hence, why they're so good.
MSG seasoning is made from seaweed or fermented sugar extract, which is combined with sodium to create tiny white crystal-like flakes. You may see the MSG shaker next to the salt shaker on tables at a few restaurants as some chefs have started to embrace its delicious flavor. Food companies like to add MSG to prepared foods, as it makes the food taste like it was made yesterday, despite being made a year ago.
Interestingly, the human body digests added MSG the same way as natural MSG in food, and cannot distinguish between the two. So why has the perception of MSG been so hateful for so many years?
The History of MSG's Bad Reputation
The alleged dangers and side effects of MSG date back to a letter to the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine published in 1968. In the letter, the author describes symptoms such as generalized weakness, heart palpitations, headaches, and skin flushing after eating at a Chinese restaurant. The author claims that his symptoms could have been from a number of things he ate, including sodium, alcohol from the cooking wine, or MSG. But after this letter was published, the public associated these symptoms with a new "condition" called Chinese restaurant syndrome-which was equated with consuming MSG. This letter led to a flurry of research surrounding the safety of MSG.
A study published a year later in the journal Science examined the effects on MSG in mice. Extremely high doses of MSG were injected into the abdomen of newborn mice, who were found to likely develop health issues, including stunted physical development, disturbances in brain development, and obesity. However, even though humans aren't baby mice and you don't ingest MSG by injecting large doses into your abdomen, the U.S. took these results as scientific proof that MSG is bad for you. MSG was subsequently added to the International Headache Society as a causative factor for headaches.
What More Current Research Says About Whether MSG Is Bad for You
Fast forward 30 years and scientists conducted many independent studies using validated scientific methods to better understand the effects (or lack thereof) of MSG. For example, in a December 1993 study published in Food and Chemical Toxicology, researchers assigned 70 adults various amounts of MSG or a placebo for five days in a randomized, double-blind setup. Most of the subjects had no response to either the MSG or placebo and those who had been given MSG did not experience symptoms or side effects any more than those given the placebo.
Over the years, additional research has shown the same results. In 2000, the American Society for Nutritional Sciences published "The Safety Evaluation of Monosodium Glutamate" where the Joint Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) evaluated the safety of MSG. Because human studies failed to confirm the involvement of MSG in "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome," the JECFA allocated an "acceptable daily intake" to MSG (though they did not specify the amount). The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) concurred with the safety evaluation of the JECFA. In 2003, Australia and New Zealand came out with a safety assessment for MSG with similar conclusions.
Concerns regarding a link between MSG and obesity have been raised, especially following the publication of a 2011 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. In this study, the researchers followed individuals for an average of 5.5 years to look at the association between obesity and MSG consumption in China (a population that consumes significantly higher levels of MSG than American, typically). The researchers did find that individuals who ate the most MSG (4.2 grams a day) were also the most likely to be overweight compared to individuals who ate the least MSG (0.4g/d). However, people who ate the most MSG were also less active; ate more calories, fat, and carbohydrates; and were more likely to be a smoker. The clumping of these factors which we can generally categorize as "unhealthy" brings into question the overall health of the individuals who ate high levels of MSG in this study. That's why many researchers were critical of this study's findings. One rebuttal published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded, "...extreme caution needs to be exercised not to raise undue public safety concerns regarding MSG consumption."
In 2018, the International Headache Society even removed MSG from its list of causative factors for headaches due to the lack of scientific evidence. In addition, after reviewing the research to date, the FDA's website states that they consider MSG to be generally recognized as safe (GRAS) and "although many people identify themselves as sensitive to MSG, in studies with such individuals given MSG or a placebo, scientists have not been able to consistently trigger reactions."
So, is MSG bad for you? No, there's no real scientific basis to the fear of MSG. (Related: Food Additives That Sound Scary But Are Actually Safe)
The Nutritional Benefits of MSG In Food
MSG is often used as an additive in nacho cheese tortilla chips, canned soups and sauces, processed meats, and bouillon mixes. These processed foods-which are typically high in calories, saturated fat, and/or sodium-aren't helping with MSGs bad reputation. (Related: Should You Really Hate on Processed Foods?)
MSG also offers that umami taste, giving the food more flavor depth. In addition, MSG has two-thirds less sodium than table salt, so using this it instead can help decrease the usage of salt. At least 90 percent of Americans go over the recommended daily maximum of 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day, according to the 2015-2020 dietary guidelines, so having an ingredient that can add flavor and cut sodium by 67 percent certainly seems like an advantage, not a danger.
If you want to give it a try, start by adding one-half teaspoon of MSG (which you can find it on Amazon from Ajinomoto and McCormick and in Asian specialty stores) to one pound of meat or four to six servings of vegetables, soups, or casseroles. Just a small sprinkle can enhance the flavor of your dishes.
How to Create Umami Flavor Without MSG
If you want to boost umami flavor in your diet without resorting to sprinkling MSG on your steak, you can try one of these high-umami foods:
- Tomatoes (the riper the tomato, the more umami flavor)
- Parmesan cheese
- Soy sauce
- Fish sauce
- Chinese cabbage
You might want to limit MSG in your diet primarily because the foods that come with MSG in them are usually of the fast or junk food variety, but the strategic use of MSG in your cooking might make healthy staples (like veggies, lean proteins, and whole grains) taste as good as your Friday night pizza. (Also try these inventive spice blends and products that'll add flavor to everything you eat.)