The Real Truth Behind MSG

You've heard of MSG (and might even steer clear), but what is it and why does it have such a bad rap? Here are the story and science behind monosodium glutamate, and why you don't need to worry about it in your home kitchen.

Chicken and Chinese Vegetable Stir-Fry, Chinese-style Kung Pao ChickenPhoto: Shutterstock / Fanfo

Chances are good that you’ve heard every opinion possible about MSG (monosodium glutamate), the infamous flavor enhancer often used in Chinese takeout and many packaged Asian groceries. People talk about monosodium glutamate sensitivity, allergies and the “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” as reasons they avoid MSG. Here’s the truth and what you need to know for your cooking choices.

What started MSG phobia?

Monosodium glutamate has been around for more than 150 years, but it’s best known for the peculiar property of enhancing the umami flavor, which basically means making any dish with soy taste better (as well as specific foods like mushrooms, tomatoes, Parmesan, etc.). Back in 1968, Chinese-American immigrant Robert Ho Man Kwok wrote a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine complaining that, after eating at American Chinese restaurants, he became weak, felt numbness throughout his body and had palpitations.

This was dubbed “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” and over the decades it became associated with itchiness, headaches, swelling and many other symptoms. Eventually, MSG was pinpointed as the suspected culprit, and today it’s easy to find people who strictly avoid the flavor enhancer in all meals.

So, how does MSG actually affect the body?

Scientifically, the threat of MSG runs up against a few big problems. First, monosodium glutamate is just a synthetic form of glutamic acid, which is produced naturally in the human body. Atomically, there is zero difference between natural glutamic acid and MSG. Your body can’t recognize the difference…which is why a specific allergy to MSG (which has nothing to do with gluten, by the way!) doesn’t really make any sense.

Scientific research has backed this up. Double-blind studies indicate no symptoms from normal dietary consumption of MSG. Some studies have found mild symptoms occur in some people when given around six times the amount of daily MSG ingested, but people wouldn’t get this amount even if they ate Chinese takeout for every meal.

The bottom line

There is no evidence that MSG is harmful to the body, or that people can have a bad a reaction to it. However, MSG has become the go-to scapegoat for a grab bag of ill effects that come with eating too much tasty takeout (or takeout that isn’t very fresh).

In reality, any ill effects felt are likely due to some light food poisoning, which has similar symptoms (here’s how you can protect your family from food poisoning at home), or perhaps a mild allergy to soy, sesame seeds, sweet-and-sour preservatives or another ingredient common in takeout meals. Remember, these meals are also very high in salt, so sodium levels can also spike and cause issues. Psychological effects and expectations probably also play a role.

As long as you cook food thoroughly and prepare it well, there’s no need to avoid MSG in any packaged Asian foods that you prep at home—and you can treat yourself to takeout, too.

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T. Lacoma
I have owned a freelance writing business for the past three years, writing a variety of articles on finance, technology, environmental issues, home repair and other topics.