So, what’s the real scoop on MSG?
MSG, short for monosodium glutamate, is simply the sodium salt of glutamate, an amino acid found in many of your body tissues. MSG naturally occurs in many foods, such as cheese and tomatoes, giving them that rich, savory flavor which has become known as “umami.” The food industry picked up on the wonderful, flavor-enhancing properties of umami, and a new food additive was born.
Though the FDA considers MSG safe, equating it with salt and pepper, many critics have heaved a litany of complaints against MSG, claiming that it causes all sorts of symptoms from sweating and flushing to facial pain and tenderness, headaches, and even cardiac issues.
The alleged reactions to MSG became known as “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” due to the large amounts of MSG found in Chinese food and the feeling of unwell that many people associated with eating Chinese food. This does not take into account the unusually large amounts of sodium, sugar, and fat that most Chinese takeout food harbors as well. In addition, MSG is often found in highly-processed food items and snacks, which are often not healthy.
This controversy over whether MSG is actually unhealthy or is simply the victim of a hyped up media assertion has sparked a number of scientific experiments aimed at proving MSG either “harmless” or “unsafe.” Both sides of the debate have scientific victories to claim as their own. However, many of these studies have problematic designs and inherent bias, causing scientists to doubt the veracity of their conclusions. An interesting point to note is that people participating in studies who thought they were ingesting MSG, reported symptoms of discomfort even when they were actually only ingesting a placebo.
To date, I could not find a study that has conclusively proven that MSG is the cause of problematic symptoms. In contradistinction, MSG has a positive quality: its ability to enhance the inherent flavor of a savory dish without the addition of salt. In other words, MSG can be used to replace and lower the amount of salt in many dishes. Americans on average eat 3400mg of sodium a day as opposed to the recommended less than 2300mg a day for healthy adults. That’s more than 1000mg extra a day! Too much sodium in a diet has been proven to be bad for one’s health, as opposed to MSG, which has not been proven to be harmful in any way.
Further, the alleged effects of MSG are generally short-lived and are quite reversible. MSG intolerance has been proven to be incredibly individualized and is more commonly reported by people who already have other allergies or sensitivities. MSG sensitivity can be compared to an allergy, such as a peanut allergy. Some individuals are allergic to peanuts, and they should not consume peanuts. Even though peanuts are unsafe to a certain population, for the general population they are 100 percent fine. The fact that MSG causes problematic symptoms to a specific population does not signify that MSG is problematic in general.
My advice to the general population would be that if MSG does not bother you, do not bother yourself about it. Instead, look to capitalize on MSG’s ability to replace sodium. However, if you do find that MSG does cause you discomfort in any way, feel free to stay away from foods containing MSG with no harm done.