Monosodium glutamate (MSG) continues to be a controversial food additive used around the world. In this Honest Nutrition feature, we explain the benefits and risks of MSG and dispel popular myths.
MSG, also known as the fifth taste or
It was widely accepted and used in Asian countries since its discovery but has been received with less
It is commonly added to restaurant foods to
In agriculture, it is used in combination with other ingredients and sold as AuxiGro, which is a fertilizer, pesticide, and plant primer whose role is to increase crop yield.
Myth: MSG is high in salt, or sodium
Fact: Sodium is an important nutrient the body needs in small amounts to maintain blood volume and blood pressure. However,
Unlike regular table salt, which is 40% sodium, MSG contains only 12% sodium, which is one-third the amount in table salt.
Myth: Foods that contain MSG also contain gluten
However, glutamate — the main amino acid in MSG — is found primarily in protein-rich foods and is an important neurotransmitter that
Myth: If food package labels do not have ‘MSG’ on them, the food is MSG-free
MSG occurs naturally in many plant and animal foods. If the packaged product includes any of these MSG-containing ingredients, the product may have MSG. The FDA does ensure, however, that products with MSG-containing food ingredients cannot claim to be MSG-free.
Myth: The body is unable to process MSG effectively
Fact: There are numerous glutamate receptors throughout the gut and nervous system. Moreover, the body metabolizes glutamate consumed from natural foods in the same way it metabolizes glutamate from food additives.
In the context of this long-lasting systemic racism, when in 1968, Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok wrote to the
In his letter, Dr. Kwok wrote that he experienced symptoms approximately 20 minutes after the start of a meal, and he attributed these to the use of MSG, specifically in the Chinese dishes he had consumed, although a variety of foods naturally contain MSG.
His report was then followed by several case studies that collectively gave rise to the term “
The term “Chinese restaurant syndrome” has racist and xenophobic undertones, and while it still features in some sources, such as the Merriam-Webster dictionary, lexicographers acknowledge that it is both misleading and offensive.
Now, if people do describe experiencing reactions that could be due to MSG consumption, experts refer to those by the proper terminology, that is,
According to a
However, the authors of the review point out that the quantity of MSG used in these animal studies did not reflect reality in terms of human consumption of MSG.
The review concludes:
“Based on a critical analysis of existing literature, we posit that many of the reported negative health effects of MSG have little relevance for chronic human exposure to low doses. In order for preclinical studies to be significant for human dietary intake, they must mimic the real context of exposure to flavor enhancers (adequate species, dosage, route of administration).”
A 2017 lab study found that high doses of MSG potentially act like an endocrine disruptor and may play a role in the development of obesity.
Once again, however, the doses of MSG administered in these studies were higher than both the
For example, in one experiment, rats received
For an adult weighing 68 kg (150 pounds), this equates to 34–102 g of glutamate per day, which is 2.5–7.5 times greater than the current average daily intake.
It is therefore important to note that one cannot extrapolate the results of these animal- and lab-based studies to humans.
It is unclear how long-term low-dose exposure to MSG from various food sources affects human health. More rigorous research in humans is necessary.
MSG is the salt form of the amino acid glutamate, which occurs naturally in a wide range of protein-rich foods and vegetables, such as shrimp, seaweed, and tomato.
Despite the FDA having approved MSG as a safe food additive, several health controversies surround its culinary application, and this is reflected in the historical use of the contested term “Chinese restaurant syndrome.”
This terminology has its roots in racism and xenophobia. Any symptoms potentially associated with MSG consumption have since been renamed as MSG symptom complex.
The link between MSG use in humans and the onset of conditions such as obesity, heart disease, infertility, or liver disease remains unclear and unproven.