With these three letters, pause for a moment and recall everything you feel about them strung together. What pops into your head?
See, whenever the conversation turns to MSG, people tend to have different perspectives. One side says it’s good; its component glutamate, after all, occurs naturally in many sorts of food, including cheese and tomatoes.
On the flipside, others argue how horrible MSG is. This notorious reputation has restaurants — especially Chinese ones — printing “NO MSG” in their menus to alleviate “concerns.”
In an attempt to solve this food scare conundrum, let’s zoom out and review facts.
MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is the sodium salt of glutamic acid, a common amino acid.
Glutamic acid — or glutamate, in the form that has lost a hydrogen atom — is naturally produced in the human body. Almost two kilograms of glutamate can be found in your brain, kidneys, liver and other organs, according to the International Glutamate Information Service.
It also occurs naturally in a variety of food, such as corn (70–130 milligrams), oysters (40–150 milligrams), potatoes (30–180 milligrams), tomatoes (140–250 milligrams), Cheddar cheese (180 milligrams), kimchi (240 milligrams), cured ham (340 milligrams), anchovies (630 milligrams), green tea (220–670 milligrams), Parmesan cheese (1200–1680 milligrams), soy sauce (400–1700 milligrams) and seaweed (550–1350 milligrams). The lists curated by the Australia/New Zealand food board and Umami Information Center, a Japanese NGO, go on.
That being said, what about the manufactured, crystallized additive that is MSG?
First, a little context. The white, powdery MSG so widely available in stores and supermarkets is the brainchild of a Japanese scientist by the name of Kikunae Ikeda.
One day in 1908, Ikeda came home from the Tokyo Imperial University to a broth of tofu and vegetables prepared by his wife. Delicious it as always was, he asked his wife its secret and found his eyes on a bunch of dried seaweeds.
The seaweed was of the kombu type, a heavy kelp that has since become a staple of Japanese and other East Asian cuisines. Kombu brings a distinguished flavor to a type of broth called dashi, the one likely prepared by Ikeda’s wife.
That would be the fifth flavor, umami. Ikeda, its discoverer, described it as “a taste which is common to asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat but which is not one of the four well-known tastes.”
From that moment, Ikeda and his team worked to isolate such deliciousness. By 1909, they successfully isolated a chemical with the molecular formula C5H9NO4. They found that it had the same properties as glutamic acid, The Guardian noted.
At that point, all they had to do was stabilize the chemical.
The process, fortunately, was a piece of cake: they only had to mix it with salt and water to produce — get the drums rolling — the mighty monosodium glutamate.
Thanks to MSG, Ikeda died a rich man. But while the umami it brings is indeed irresistible, the million-dollar question finally comes.
Is it safe to eat?
The simple answer is yes, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The agency considers its addition to food to be “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS), pointing that the natural glutamate found in food ends up the same as the manufactured MSG when metabolized:
“The glutamate in MSG is chemically indistinguishable from glutamate present in food proteins. Our bodies ultimately metabolize both sources of glutamate in the same way. An average adult consumes approximately 13 grams of glutamate each day from the protein in food, while intake of added MSG is estimated at around 0.55 grams per day.”
The FDA has received reports of headache and nausea from people who consumed food with MSG throughout the years. However, in studies among such individuals who claimed sensitivity, scientists have been unable to consistently trigger reactions after giving them either MSG or a placebo.
But where did all the bad rap come from?
Well, it dates back to the complaint of a Chinese-American doctor named Robert Ho Man Kwok in 1968.
In his letter to the New England Journal of Medicine, he ruminated on the possible causes of symptoms he experienced after eating at Chinese restaurants in the U.S. He described a sensation of numbness on the back of his head, which spread to his arms and back, as well as general weakness and palpitations.
Dr. Kwok called it the “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” a term that’s been made obsolete in the late 90s for being “pejorative and not reflective of the extent or nature of the symptoms,” BBC noted. At the time, the FDA commissioned the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) to study all the available evidence and determine the true nature of MSG.
What they found out indicated some merit in Dr. Kwok’s claims. Indeed, some healthy individuals may respond negatively to MSG, but as observed only in studies where they were given at least three grams of MSG dissolved in water — without food.
As the American Chemical Society (ACS) put it:
“MSG can temporarily affect a select few when consumed in huge quantities on an empty stomach, but it’s perfectly safe for the vast majority of people.”
Despite its current GRAS status, MSG retains a controversial reputation. This is why many Chinese restaurants have since labeled options in their menus with “NO MSG” just to allay their customers’ fears.
At the end of the day, there’s really nothing to worry about. MSG is too busy improving dishes to give everyone headaches.
Get something for your dashi, bring it to a boil and chill. You might be the next Ikeda.