Foods with an ethnic flair offer some great variety to a healthy diet, but many people shun the food additive monosodium glutamate (MSG). MSG is commonly used in Chinese foods and although it may sound like some industrial additive cooked up in a chemical factory, MSG is as natural a flavorant as you can find. Here’s some interesting information and related research about MSG.
MSG is about 78% glutamate (also called glutamic acid) and 12% sodium. The former is an amino acid (a building block of protein) that occurs in human cells and many foods. A plate of spaghetti with tomato sauce probably has more glutamate than a similar amount of Chinese food.
MSG was first isolated in Japan around 1908, where it was extracted by boiling seaweed. Widely used all over the world, it can also be made from molasses or sugar beets, for example. Many foods, especially the most flavorful and nutritious, are rich in free glutamate (without the sodium molecules). These include walnuts, tomatoes, grape juice, peas, mushrooms, potatoes, chicken, Parmesan cheese, and soy protein. Human milk contains glutamate. A glutamate-free diet would be rather difficult to create.
Nevertheless, many Americans fear MSG—their fear being a source of amazement in such nations as Taiwan and Japan, where people consume large amounts without reporting adverse reactions. The term “Chinese restaurant syndrome” was coined in 1968 in a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine. It was said to consist of vague symptoms, including headache, weakness, rapid heartbeat, and facial burning.
But years of scientific research have never been able to establish that any such syndrome exists. You’ll even find claims on some websites that MSG is a poison and the cause of everything from migraines to cancer, and is hidden in our foods by people who want to kill us.
Should you avoid it?
The FDA, World Health Organization, and other authorities have concluded that MSG is safe in the quantities commonly used in foods. Many large, well-designed studies have failed to find any association between MSG and adverse symptoms of any kind, including asthma and migraines. It’s possible that a very small percentage of people are sensitive to MSG and feel strange after they eat it—but no study has ever been able to show that MSG causes more than transient and mild symptoms, even in people who believe they are sensitive.
An international symposium at the University of Heidelberg in 2006 reviewed all the evidence. The researchers concluded that MSG is harmless in the amounts added to foods, even for pregnant women and fetuses, and that MSG might improve appetite in the elderly. The body processes MSG exactly the same way it processes free glutamate.
If you believe MSG gives you headaches or causes other reactions, there is no reason to consume it. When it’s added to foods, the labels must say so. Recognizing their customers’ preferences, many Asian restaurants in the U.S. no longer use MSG. You can ask about this when you order. And keep in mind that soy sauce has lots of MSG.
Thanks for reading and best of health to you!