You will find the phrase “NO MSG” displayed on everything from chicken broth to steak seasoning in Chinese restaurant menus.
But MSG, or what is known as monosodium glutamate, does not deserve its bad reputation, which all originated from a 1968 opinion piece that was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
In the article, the physician named R.H. Kwok, discussed heart palpitations, feelings of weakness, headaches, and pain radiating in his arms, after frequenting Chinese restaurants. He mentioned that MSG, or salt, cooking wine, might be to blame. The title of the paper: “Chinese-restaurant syndrome.”
At the same time, a published study showed what happened when scientists injected neonatal mice with large doses of MSG. The rodents that took the 25,000 mg/kg megadose, have experienced rapid brain deterioration.
When the mice grew to be adults, they were notably obese, smaller in stature, and had trouble reproducing. The author of that paper extrapolated this information to suggest that pregnant women should avoid MSG at all cost for fear of the same neural effects for their newborns.
Therefore, to summarize, the findings that characterized MSG as evil were based on a rodent study and opinion letter. And, currently, no peer-reviewed research since has been able to duplicate these findings.
What is MSG?
MSG is a flavor enhancer. Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is commonly added to processed meat, Chinese food, canned soups, and vegetables.
“MSG contains glutamic acid (non-essential amino acid) which is also naturally found in grapes, tomatoes, cheese, mushrooms and other foods,” according to Emily Rubin, RD, LDN, the head dietitian for fatty liver and celiac centers at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.
Why is MSG Added to Food?
MSG is added to foods for its “umami quality.” MSG is not sweet, salty, sour or bitter, but still it provides a savory flavor. Umami is actually considered a fifth flavor category.
Cases Against MSG
Did you know that 4 out of 10 people still actively avoid MSG according to International Food Information Council Foundation.
But, according to Chris Mohr a registered dietitian, you do not have to avoid MSG.
If that is not enough to convince you, consider that in January 2018 the International Headache Society had removed MSG from its list of causative factors for headaches after studies disproved any association.
Still not convinced?
In December 2018, John Fernstrom, Ph.D., professor of pharmacology and psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh, published a study review on the supposed ill effects of MSG.
His team concluded that: “Findings from other human studies and our data provide important evidence that MSG in the food supply presents no harm to the human brain. The oral ingestion of glutamate does not cross the blood brain barrier.”
Americans consume about 500 mg/day (or that is about 7 mg/kg/day for a 70 kg person). That number is higher in Asian cultures, but, it is nowhere near the 25,000 mg/kg (3000-5000 mg/kg) megadose of the now notorious mice study.
Do not fear MSG, mainly because MSG makes food taste good.
“Umami is an important factor in terms of making foods taste delicious, and MSG is a concentrated form of umami,” as per Ellie Krieger, R.D.N., and host of Ellie’s Real Good Food. “I think one of the biggest issues with MSG is the company it keeps, which means the foods it is often found in. It is not MSG itself that is of concern, but, it can make poor-quality food taste great too, so that they may be more appealing than they would otherwise be.”
But there’s also that governor chip of sorts that comes with monosodium glutamate. “MSG intake is self-limiting,” according to Fernstrom. “Just a small amount gives food an amazing flavor, while too much tastes unpleasant, therefore, limiting the amounts you are likely to consume.”
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photo credit: ajinomoto