MSG, also known as monosodium glutamate or the fifth taste or umami, is a naturally occurring amino acid that’s been used in food for centuries. But despite its long history of use and popularity, it’s been given a bad name. The truth is that MSG is actually an important ingredient in many foods—and it could even be key to healthy eating!
What Is MSG and Where Did It Come From?
MSG, also known as the fifth taste or umami, is the sodium salt of glutamate. It is an amino acid naturally occurring in many foods and food additives. It is also an important building block of protein in the body. (1)
Glutamate was discovered from kombu seaweed in 1908 by a Japanese professor of physical chemistry, Prof. Kikunae Ikeda. He later extracted the amino acid, dissolved it in water, and neutralized it with sodium hydroxide to form MSG.
Where Did The Myth About MSG Start?
The myth about MSG began in 1968 after Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok ate out at a chinese restaurant in the United States. He reported symptoms such as numbness at the back of his neck after eating Chinese food. Dr. Kwok wrote a letter about it, which sparked major controversy. This was in large part to do with Anti-Asian racism in America, as people used this as a reason to villainize Asian people and their food. (2)
This was followed by another study called “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” in which the researchers concluded that MSG was responsible for causing these symptoms. This sparked a controversy over whether or not MSG was safe and resulted in many people believing that it caused adverse reactions. However, studies have shown that there is actually no link between MSG and these symptoms.
Myths About MSG
Since then, there have been many myths about MSG that have cropped up over the years. They are mostly unfounded and not based on actual evidence. More recent research proves just that. (3)
Myth 1: The body is unable to process MSG
Truth: The body is able to process MSG. It is a naturally occurring substance that has been used for thousands of years in many Asian cuisines. In fact, it’s found in nature and can be extracted from seaweed or fermented foods like soy sauce or miso paste. The amount of MSG added to food is very small compared to what is found in nature.
Myth 2: Foods that contain MSG contain gluten as well
Truth: This is not true. MSG and gluten are two different things, with very different chemical compositions. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye that causes an immune response in some people. MSG is a flavor enhancer found naturally in foods like seaweed or fermented soy products like miso paste.
Myth 3: If a food package label does not say MSG on it, this means it is MSG free
Truth: This is not true. MSG is a naturally occurring amino acid, and can be found in many different foods. It is used as a flavor enhancer in processed foods to make them taste better, but it doesn’t have to say “MSG” on the label for it to contain the ingredient. If you want MSG-free food products, look for those that are labeled “no added MSG” or “no msg ingredients.”
MSG: Is It Bad?
MSG has been the subject of many rumors and myths over the years, including claims that it causes headaches or other symptoms. However, there is no evidence that this is true. There have been a few studies suggesting that MSG can be bad for people with asthma, but these studies were done on small groups of people and have not been repeated since.
In addition, some people may be sensitive to MSG. If you notice that a certain food makes you feel sick or gives you an allergy-like reaction, avoid it in the future. But if your symptoms are mild and don’t last long after eating a meal containing MSG, then it’s not likely to have caused them.
Study Shows MSG Might Actually Be Good For You
There are studies that show that foods containing MSG might actually help you to eat healthier. One study, in particular, showed that eating broth containing led to participants consuming less snacks that are high in fat and sugar. This, in turn, helped them to eat healthier and maintain or even lose body weight. The researchers noted that it didn’t necessarily help the participants consume less energy (aka calories) overall, but rather that the calories they did consume came from healthier sources.
They found that there was actually an effect on the brain. First, even in a buffet situation, the participants were more focused on their meals than the other temptations on the buffet. Second, they noted that there was more activity in the left prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain associated with self-control when making food choices. The researchers don’t fully understand the mechanism still, however, they think it has to do with glutamate sensing in the stomach, rather than the umami taste of the MSG. Not all studies came to this conclusion, including this one. As always, more research is needed.
As with most things, moderation is key. If you’re concerned about the safety of a food product or ingredient and want to avoid it, check out the nutrition label first. If MSG is listed as an ingredient, it’s probably in there somewhere.
Keep Reading: Being Surrounded By Chronic Complainers Could Be Damaging Your Health
- “Nutrition and healthy eating.” Mayo Clinic. Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D.
- “The Strange Case of Dr. Ho Man Kwok.” Colgate. Michael Blanding
- “M S G: What the science says about its safety.” Medical News Today. Amber Charles Alexis, MSPH, RDN. May 26, 2021
- “Supplementing chicken broth with monosodium glutamate reduces energy intake from high fat and sweet snacks in middle-aged healthy women” Journal Apatite. August 2014
- “Supplementing chicken broth with monosodium glutamate reduces hunger and desire to snack but does not affect energy intake in women” British Journal of Nutrition. June 2011.