Few food additives have received as much hype as MSG. A simple Google search about this unique ingredient leads to numerous webpages and so-called "health authorities" spouting off about the hidden dangers of MSG. Some sources even go so far as to claim this ingredient is a poison to the body and should be avoided at all costs. You may have even checked labels in an effort to avoid this additive.
Is MSG really as dangerous as some would make you believe? This answer to this question isn't exactly crystal clear, but by understanding what MSG is and how it may (or may not) affect the body you can make an educated decision whether avoidance is the answer for a better diet.
What Is MSG?
Before making an informed decision about the safety of consuming MSG, it is important to take a step back and understand what this ingredient is.
MSG, or Monosodium Glutamate, is classified as a type of amino acid, though it is specifically the sodium salt of glutamic acid. As the "monosodium" part of the name suggests, MSG is more precisely one sodium/salt atom that is attached to an atom of glutamic acid.
You have probably heard of amino acids before or the importance of certain essential amino acids. Glutamic acids is in the category of non-essential amino acids. This means that glutamic acid is actually produced by the human body and therefore doesn't need to be consumed via diet.
On the subject of diet, many automatically lump MSG in with artificial ingredients added to foods, not realizing that MSG actually occurs naturally. Some natural dietary sources you may be unaware of are tomatoes, cheeses, seaweed, mushrooms, potatoes, corn, and even green tea. In fact MSG was originally extracted from a seaweed broth in 1908 by Kikunae Ikeda, a Japanese professor. Kombu is the specific seaweed base where the umami flavor is derived from.
The characteristic savory flavor, referred to as umami, is difficult to describe but recognized by many. Professor Ikeda determined that is was the glutamate extract that gave the broth it's wonderful flavor, and thus began the history of MSG being used as a food additive. Originally MSG was extracted from the seaweed broth and then crystallized for use, but this process wasn't efficient for commercial production.
The additive found in today's foods are instead produced through a fermentation process, typically with starches or different types of sugars (beet, cane, etc). This fermentation process isn't very different than how some sauces and vinegars are made, and it still leaves MSG in an easy to use crystallized form.
As you can see, monosodium glutamate isn't some scary lab-created artificial additive being pumped into our everyday foods. However, commercially-produced MSG, or any MSG that has been extracted from glutamate, is changed from it's natural form found in the foods mentioned earlier. Some believe this extraction process is the real reason why MSG may cause negative side effects.
How Does MSG Affect The Body?
The main reason MSG has a bad rap is that there are an overwhelming number of people that claim this additive causes negative side effects. Some of the most commonly cited effects include:
Headache or migraine
Sweating or feeling hot
Numbness or "pins and needles" in extremities
Chest pain and/or heart palpitations
Nausea or upset stomach
These side effects are linked to MSG often enough that some refer to the response as "MSG Syndrome" or " Chinese Restaurant Syndrome," the latter in reference to the common use of MSG in Asian cuisine. Most articles online recognizes MSG as a potential cause of the symptoms though they claim this is only likely an issue for a small percentage of people.
The FDA has a similar viewpoint on the possible adverse effects of MSG, stating that "Over the years, FDA has received reports of symptoms such as headache and nausea after eating foods containing MSG. However, we were never able to confirm that the MSG caused the reported effects."
The FDA conducted a study in the '90s when side effects became a concern. This study was done by the FASEB, which was an unbiased, independent research group. They found that some mild symptoms had been reported but only reliably in participants that consumed 3+ grams of MSG. These participants consumed pure MSG, meaning it was in it's crystallized form and not in food. With the average serving of processed food containing less than half a gram of monosodium glutamate FASEB agreed that the 3 gram reaction wasn't cause for concern.
If you believe the study done back in the '90s is outdated, this study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners found that even today there is still a lack of a reliable data.
Is MSG Really That Bad For You?
When it comes down to whether MSG is dangerous, the answer is no. The US Food and Drug Administration has labeled monosodium glutamate under the category of GRAS or "Generally Recognized as Safe". This doesn't mean the FDA recommends it as part of the diet, but it does mean that their studies and research have proved MSG to be safe to consume based on their requirements.
It is interesting to note that MSG is one type of food additive that doesn't necessarily do well in large studies but also doesn't exactly fail either. Studies done by different groups with varying demographics of participants can't get consistently negative reactions. This means that when researchers compare possible negative health effects among their participants, it seems as though MSG isn't reliably the trigger, as some were triggered when given a placebo.
So should you be afraid of MSG? No, as there isn't enough research to show that monosodium glutamate is toxic or reliably causes side effects in monitored studies. Asian cultures regularly enjoy MSG in their meals and many popular processed foods without complaint.
That being said, it also can't be ignored that some people may be more sensitive to MSG or feel unwell after consuming a meal where MSG may have been used heavily in flavoring. It all comes down to your individual body and your own diet choices.
Simply put, if you enjoy foods with MSG added for flavor, you don't need to stop enjoying them. MSG isn't a poison, nor will it destroy your health. However, you may want to limit your intake, as these foods typically are high in sodium which can cause separate side effects. If you think you may be sensitive to MSG or believe you are experiencing side effects from it, avoid it for a couple weeks and see how you feel. Your body may be sensitive or you may find that MSG wasn't really the culprit for your headaches after all.
Zoey is a part-time blogger and a full-time nurse. She is the founder and editor of leanrecipes.com an avenue for sharing her passion about juicing, plant-based diet and living a healthier lifestyle.
Main Photo Credit; Second Photo Credit; Fourth Photo Credit & Fifth Photo Credit: Namning/shutterstock.com; Third Photo Credit: Sivapoom Yamasaki/shutterstock.com