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Sensitive to MSG?  Guess What… You’re Not! Featured / Food Safety / Food Technology / Nutrition

I can’t keep count of how many people have casually told me “I’m actually really sensitive to monosodium glutamate (MSG).”  News breaker… you’re not.  I know you think you are… and you really want to tell me all about your symptoms… and that you’re the special one… but I promise, you’re not.

That being said you probably could cut back on the fried rice and General Tsao’s chicken.  I mean you did just complain about being bloated…

Let’s walk through the science.

What is MSG?

MSG is a flavor enhancer which has been used effectively for nearly a century to help bring out the best flavors in foods.  MSG can be used in many savory dishes including meat, fish, poultry, many vegetables and in sauces, soups and marinades.  It harmonizes well with salty and sour tastes but contributes little or nothing to sweet or bitter foods.

MSG is the sodium salt of the common amino acid glutamic acid (or glutamate), which is naturally found in most foods and in your body (remember – amino acids are the building blocks for proteins).  It occurs naturally at high levels in many foods such as tomatoes and Parmesan cheese, and the glutamate in commercially produced MSG is chemically indistinguishable from the glutamate naturally present in food.  Our bodies handle both sources of glutamate in the exact same way. Breast milk actually contains high levels of glutamate that’s produced naturally by the human body.

The average adult consumes about 13 grams of glutamate each day from the protein in food, while intake of added MSG is around 0.5 grams.  Want to taste the best scrambled egg on earth?  Add a pinch of MSG.  Try it… you won’t regret it.

How is MSG created?

In 1908 a Japanese scientist, Kikunae Ikeda was able to extract glutamate from seaweed broth and show that it provided the savory taste to the soup.  Today, instead of extracting MSG from seaweed broth, it is created by the fermentation of starch, sugar beets, sugar cane or molasses. This process is the same used to make other common food products such as soy sauce, vinegar and yogurt.

Is MSG safe?

Absolutely. Scientists have not been able to confirm MSG causes any of the reported effects (e.g., headache, nausea, etc).  There is no limitation for use of MSG in foods because international scientific and regulatory bodies have failed again and again to identify any harm from consumption of MSG.

In 1968, an American doctor wrote a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine claiming to have experience symptoms of numbness in the back of neck and a feeling of pressure in the fact and upper chest muscles, which he coined as “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.”  He suggested this was caused by MSG because of its widespread use in Chinese restaurants, without any study, data or proof.  While the term Chinese Restaurant Syndrome caught on in the U.S., study after study has failed to show any consistent effects among individuals who claim to be “MSG-sensitive” when blindly exposed to fairly high levels of MSG.

How much sodium is in MSG?

MSG has a low sodium content.  It contains about 12% sodium while salt contains 39%.  MSG is used at levels much lower than salt.  Using low levels of MSG allows food scientists to effectively reduce the sodium content of foods, like ready-to-eat soups by up to 40%, without sacrificing flavor.  Take out salt, add a pinch of MSG, and cheers to your health.

Don’t get me wrong, you are a very special person… just not one that’s sensitive to MSG.

For additional information see the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s “Questions and Answers on Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)” consumer information website.


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