As I was thinking about writing a blog on monosodium glutamate or MSG, I first tried to come up with a snappy title. Fond of using acronyms, I pondered over the letters MSG to come up with one that would be catchy and convey my purpose in discussing it. First, looking at it from the negative perception MSG has had for years, I considered “Misperceptions Slander Gibberish” or “Myths Should Go.” On the flip side, I thought of “More Savory Grub” or “Making Seasoning Great,” because MSG truly enhances the flavor of food. But in the end, I landed on “The Real Truth about MSG: Myths, Science, Guidance.” Using this theme, I’ll lay out the MSG myths and misperceptions often heralded in the headlines, counter those with the scientific facts and conclude with ways to use MSG to create delicious dishes you’ll love to eat.
While “No MSG” never reached the fever pitch of no-high fructose corn syrup, gluten-free or non-GMO, it has nevertheless negatively permeated the consciousness of Americans for over five decades. Discovered over 100 years ago, MSG is a flavor enhancer that is a staple in Asian kitchens like salt and pepper are here. But over the years, it has garnered an unfair share of damaging headlines like “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome: What you need to know,” “4 Signs MSG is Poisoning Your Body,” and “MSG is Dangerous – The Science is In.” But once you really get to KNOW MSG, you’ll never say NO MSG again!
So how did MSG end up on the “public enemy” food ingredient list? It all started in 1968 when a U.S. Chinese physician wrote a letter to the editor published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. He noted that when he ate in a Chinese restaurant in the U.S., he experienced symptoms which usually began 15 to 20 minutes after he ate the first dish and lasted for about 2 hours without any hangover effect. The most prominent symptoms were numbness at the back of the neck, gradually spreading to both arms and the back, general weakness and palpitation similar to, but milder, than those he had from a sensitivity to aspirin. He heard complaints of the same symptoms from Chinese friends, both medical and nonmedical people. In the article, he theorized that these symptoms might be caused by the cooking wine, monosodium glutamate or the high sodium content of the Chinese food. He did not single out one possible cause over another, but MSG is what caught the attention of the media.
In response, researchers conducted studies in mice, injecting large amounts of MSG directly into their brain and abdomen, which produced negative effects. This led to further questions about MSG’s safety, despite its use in the U.S. food supply for over 50 years. But these studies are not relevant to MSG consumption in humans because, as you will read below, there is no way MSG can actually enter the blood stream and travel to the brain or abdomen unless it is injected! And who’s going to do that?
MSG - monosodium glutamate - is a salt combining sodium and glutamic acid, a non-essential amino acid. When glutamic acid loses a hydrogen from its structure, it becomes glutamate. In the body, glutamic acid almost always exists as glutamate. When MSG is exposed to liquid, whether in a recipe combined with liquid or in saliva, the sodium separates from the glutamate. Therefore, it cannot and does not enter the body as MSG but as glutamate and sodium separately. And these two components are not reformed into MSG in the body.
Glutamate is what provides “umami” to food, a savory taste that enhances the flavor of dishes. The discovery of the umami taste receptor on the tongue in 2002 led to the designation of umami as the fifth basic taste along with sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Umami is the distinctive flavor you taste in foods like tomatoes, mushrooms, aged cheeses and meats.
People have eaten glutamate-rich foods throughout history long before MSG was around. Infants even consume up to 145 mg/day of free glutamate in breast milk. Here are some common foods with the amount of glutamate they contain.
3 oz. cured ham 285 mg
1/2 cup tomato 220 mg
1 Tbs. soy sauce 65 – 200 mg
1 Tbs. Roquefort cheese 110 mg
1/2 cup corn 90 mg mg.
1 Tbs. Parmesan cheese 60 – 85 mg
1/2 cup broccoli 80 mg
1/2 cup green peas 80 mg
1 cup Napa cabbage 75 mg
1/2 cup dried shitake mushrooms 15 mg
The body is unable to tell the difference between glutamate in MSG and free glutamate that comes from proteins in food. Our bodies metabolize them both in the same way. The average adult consumes approximately 13 grams of glutamate/day from protein in food, while intake of added MSG is about 0.55 grams/day. You would have to eat 3 mg. of MSG all at one time without any food in order to produce the mild symptoms that have been seen in only a small number of people.
Numerous studies attest to the safety of MSG. In one a panel of experts evaluated the metabolic and safety aspects of monosodium glutamate and concluded that general use of glutamate salts, like MSG, as a food additive can be regarded as harmless for the whole population. (1) In another, researchers found that human studies failed to verify that MSG is a cause of "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome" or other individual intolerances. (2) And a third stated that the reported negative health effects of MSG are not relevant because they are based on excessive amounts that people do not normally consume. (3)
MSG’s safety has also been affirmed by regulatory agencies. According to Food Standards Australia New Zealand, there is no convincing evidence that MSG is a significant factor in causing reactions resulting in severe illness or death. (4) Likewise, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration states it has never been able to confirm that MSG has caused effects such as headache and nausea. (5)
Guidance (and Goodness!)
One of the great benefits of MSG is its potential to lower sodium in dishes without compromising flavor. (6) One study demonstrated that it could potentially reduce the intake of sodium by approximately 3% in the population overall and by 7% among consumers of products in which glutamates could replace salt. (7) And a review of seven studies on the acceptability of low salt products found MSG to be the best replacement for salt to maintain the pleasantness, saltiness, familiarity and taste intensity while reducing health problems linked to a higher sodium consumption. (8)
In contrast to table salt with 2300 mg. sodium/teaspoon, MSG has just 800 mg. sodium per teaspoon. Even better, it can replace up to 61% of the salt in a dish without compromising flavor. For instance, 1/2 teaspoon of MSG (400 mg.) can enhance the flavor of a 1 pound of meat (4 servings) or 4-6 servings of vegetables, casserole or soup for just 100 mg. sodium per serving. Replacing half of the salt in your salt shaker with MSG reduces the sodium in the mixture by about 40%. There is even a product now available that is half MSG and half salt.
Here are tips for using MSG in a variety of dishes from Ajinomoto, a company that produces MSG.
For additional recipes and information about MSG, check out their website, Facebook page or @know_msg on Instagram. And if you’d like to give MSG a try, some brands to look for are Accent, Ajinomoto MSG and McCormick Culinary MSG.
MS, RDN, LD, FAND
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