More dining establishments are going MSG-free these days, reflecting widespread consumer concerns about the consequences of eating too much of this commonly used flavour enhancer.
Formally known as monosodium glutamate, MSG is usually found in Asian cooking, as well as in canned soups and sauces. Some people try to steer clear of MSG completely, claiming it gives them headaches and causes weight gain.
It’s perhaps most synonymous with Chinese food, thanks to a 1968 opinion piece in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine in which physician R.H. Kwok explained how he had feelings of weakness, heart palpitations and pain in his arms right after a meal at a Chinese restaurant. He suggested that MSG was to blame for these symptoms and dubbed it “Chinese restaurant syndrome”. MSG was derided as a food additive with harmful side effects, and Chinese eateries have been bearing the brunt of MSG-phobia ever since.
But are these concerns valid?
The short answer is no. Modern-day nutritionists say there’s nothing to worry about – MSG in small doses is harmless. Some consumers may believe that they are sensitive to MSG and experience similar symptoms after consuming it, but studies have yet to link these symptoms to MSG consumption.
Where does MSG come from?
MSG is a seasoning derived from glutamate, a naturally occurring amino acid found in many types of fruits, vegetables, seafood and animal products. It is what gives food its savoury, umami flavour. Meat, fish and seafood tend to be higher in glutamate, hence their rich umami taste. Tomatoes, eggs, aged cheeses, mushrooms and nuts are also high in glutamate.
Japanese scientists created MSG in 1908 by isolating and stabilising the glutamate through the addition of sodium. They discovered that glutamate was what gave dashi broth, which is made out of seaweed, its savoury taste. Used sparingly, MSG makes food taste better. Fermented foods, packaged foods, canned and bottled sauces, and frozen foods are all often high in MSG.
MSG has a third of the sodium found in table salt, which makes it a great alternative for those on a low-salt diet. Yet it enhances flavours more efficiently – according to Ajinomoto, the makers of MSG, a half teaspoon of MSG is all you need to season 500 grams of meat or six servings of vegetables.
So how did MSG get such a bad name?
In 1969, scientists injected baby mice with 25,000mg per kg of MSG – an enormous dose of MSG considering that a typical serving of MSG in a dish is less than 5g. The mice showed brain abnormalities and deterioration. When the mice reached adult stages, they were significantly smaller, overweight, or had difficulty reproducing. The scientists then recommended that pregnant women avoid MSG as it may lead to similar effects in their newborns.
Together with the article by R.H. Kwok the previous year, this research created the perception that MSG was harmful. However, no studies since then have found a link between consumption of MSG and harmful physical effects. In fact, research in more recent times has shown no link between the two.
Some anti-MSG crusaders believe that it causes headaches. With regards to more recent findings, there was a study in 2016 researching the link between headaches and MSG, but scientists could not pinpoint if MSG was the real cause.
Why it’s safe
The average adult consumes about 0.5 grams of MSG a day. The number is slightly higher among Asian consumers, but it is certainly nowhere near the amount of MSG injected into the mice in the now-refuted study.
MSG is broken down by the body in the same way naturally-occurring glutamate does. A December 2018 study by the University of Newfoundland concluded that MSG in the food supply does not enter the bloodstream by the time it is ingested.
As for weight gain, there isn’t any scientific evidence linking it to MSG. According to a survey on MSG and incidence of overweight in Chinese adults, it found that those who consume MSG frequently do tend to be overweight. While there’s a correlation, there’s no causation: it could simply be a case of this group eating more MSG-laden food because it’s tastier.
There is a natural ceiling on our consumption of MSG. Food and beverage establishments that add MSG typically use just enough to bring out the flavour of their dishes. Continuously adding more doesn’t help: it can actually tip off the balance in flavours, and result in a dish that’s overwhelming in taste. Too much MSG can make food taste somewhat “fake” – the natural flavours have been dialled up to the point where they no longer taste authentic.
Many people still avoid MSG in their diet as they want to preserve the natural taste of their food. There’s nothing wrong with this, and through the use of spices, herbs, and homemade stock, sauces and broths, you can prepare delicious meals rich in unprocessed foods that don’t require a sprinkling of MSG.
But if you are craving some Chinese food or want a quick instant noodle lunch, rest assured that there’s nothing to be afraid of.