Monosodium Glutamate, more popularly known as MSG, is one of the most controversial types of food additives used all over the world. Here, we will discuss the actual benefits, risks, and explain the well-known myths about it.
MSG, which is the sodium salt of glutamate, is one of three umami substances and considered the fifth basic taste. It’s an amino acid, an essential building block in the body, which naturally develops in a number of foods and food additives.
Discovered from kombu seaweed all the way back in 1908, glutamate was found by Professor Kikunae Ikeda, a Japanese professor of physical chemistry. Later on, he managed to extract the amino acid, put it in water and dissolve it, then neutralize it with sodium hydroxide to make MSG.
While glutamate is normally bitter to taste, MSG has quite a particular flavor. This is what led Ikeda to create the term umami in the first place, as he broadened the spectrum of the four basic tastes, namely sweet, salty, bitter and sour.
MSG actually happens inherently in a large number of foods like onion, potato, carrot, anchovies, cabbage, shrimp, cheese and soy sauce. Another way MSG is produced is through fermentation of animal-based and plant-based foods like sugar beet, molasses, sugarcane, mushrooms, beans and seaweed.
What Are the Uses of MSG?
Meanwhile, in Asian countries, it is commercially and popularly used. But in most Western countries, it’s perceived as unhealthy but has managed to gain a bit more acceptance in the latter part of the 20th century.
Many times, restaurants often use it to make their food tastier and more pleasing to the palate. And even more often than not, it has been used to supplement processed foods too, like canned tuna, salad dressing, dietary supplements, frozen meals, and even infant formula.
Moreover, when used for agriculture, MSG is partnered with other ingredients and reproduced and sold as a fertilizer, pesticide and plant primer called AuxiGro, which is used to increase crops.
MSG Myths and Their Truths
Myth 1: MSG is High in Salt or Sodium
FACT: Sodium is one of the most important nutrients needed by the body, but in small amounts. It helps maintain the body’s blood volume and blood pressure. According to health experts, taking in too much sodium is associated with high blood pressure and elevated risk of heart disease.
Table salt consists of 40% sodium, while MSG consists of just 12% sodium, a third of regular table salt. Because of this, researchers are looking into using MSG as an alternative to salt in order to lessen the amount of sodium intake and better public health in the process, all by lessening the chances of developing hypertension.
Myth 2: Foods That Have MSG Also Have Gluten
FACT: Gluten is a protein mostly found in wheat-based food which people with gluten intolerance or Celiac disease need to avoid. Glutamine, which is an amino acid that consists of around 35% of the gluten protein, plays a very vital role when it comes to someone’s immune health, especially when they are sick.
But glutamate, which is the main amino acid in MSG, is found mostly in foods rich in protein and acts as neurotransmitters that energizes the gut cells. The body utilizes it to make more amino acids but does not require large amounts when ill or stressed.
Myth 3: When Food Label Don’t Say ‘MSG’, It’s an MSG-Free Food
FACT: According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), food manufacturers are required to include such food additives such as MSG as “monosodium glutamate” in their ingredients list or panel. On the other hand, foods that doesn’t have MSG extract as an additive are exempt from this rule, but that doesn’t mean that they are actually MSG-free.
MSG occurs naturally in certain plant and animal foods. So when a food that contains such ingredients that can produce MSG, there is a possibility that the product could contain MSG, but they are not required to put it on the label. However, the FDA does require that the product does not claim to be free of MSG.
Myth 4: Your Body Cannot Process MSG Properly or Effectively
FACT: The gut and nervous system has a large number of glutamate receptors, which means that the body can metabolize glutamate that comes naturally from foods, as well as glutamate from food additives.
A study from 2013 shows how MSG consumption can actually beneficially increase one’s sensitivity to glutamate, which then increases the amount of receptors in the gut as well.
The Link Between Xenophobia and MSG
There are tons of issues when it comes to xenophobia and MSG, which many refer to as ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.’ This is the “anti-Chinese” views that have infiltrated the United States since the 1800s when the Chinese migrant workers first made it to the US borders and eventually opened up a number of Chinese restaurants across the country.
The long-standing systemic racism has been an issue ever since then. Back in 1968, Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok wrote a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine where he said he experienced symptoms after eating in Chinese restaurants across the country. The press then used this to fuel mistrust of East Asian cuisine.
The letter of Dr. Kwok shared that he had felt symptoms around 20 minutes after he started eating his meal, and claimed that it was because of the MSG used in the Chinese dishes he ate, despite the fact that many food naturally have MSG.
Some of his symptoms included ‘numbness or burning at the back of the neck that may have radiated into both arms and the chest, as well as general weakness and heart palpitations.’
After his report came out, several case studies were done which is where the term “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” came from.
Yet, in a survey that included 3,222 people, less than 2% of them said they had ‘unpleasant symptoms potentially associated with MSG.’
Moreover, researchers have managed to find that there is no consistent or clear causal relationship between any of the symptoms explained above with MSG in restaurant food.
The “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” term undeniably has xenophobic and racist associations and connotations. The term is even used in certain sources, including Merriam-Webster dictionary, yet the lexicographers recognize that it is both offensive and misleading. This is why experts now advocate for the use of proper terminology, which is MSG Symptom Complex.
What Are the Health Risks Associated With MSG?
While the FDA has classified MSG as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS), there are a number of studies that also look at their possible association with particular health conditions, mostly following reports that share sensitivities and other mild symptoms after eating MSG.
Meanwhile, in a 2019 review of MSG, it shares that there is a link between having large doses of MSG and ‘an increased heart rate, the risk of heart attack, and a negative impact on liver health, fertility, and tumor formation in the context of MSG-induced obesity in rats.’ Notably, the authors of the study also share that the amount of MSG used in these animal studies ‘did not reflect reality in terms of human consumption of MSG.’
According to the review, “Based on critical analysis of existing literature, we posit that many of the reported negative health effects of MSG have little relevance for chronic human exposure to low doses. In order for preclinical studies to be significant for human dietary intake, they must mimic the real context of exposure to flavor enhancers (adequate species, dosage, route of administration).”
Another study showed that in fruit flies, MSG caused a spike in the production of reactive oxygen species. These are the byproducts of metabolism that actually cause disease and lessen their life span.
Moreover, in a lab study done in 2017, it found that higher doses of MSG can also work as an endocrine disruptor, which can eventually play a part in the development of obesity.
Again, it’s notable that the MSG given during these studies was higher than the daily average intake, which is just 13 grams of glutamate from natural foods, and 0.55 grams from MSG food additives per day. Meanwhile, according to the FDA, the safe daily MSG consumption dosage level is 30 milligrams of glutamate per kilogram of body weight.
For instance, in one experiment, the rats got 0.5 to 1.5 grams of MSG per kilogram of their body weight. This caused them to have a rapid heartbeat.
This means that for an adult that weighs 68 kilograms, or around 150 pounds, they can have between 34 to 102 grams of glutamate daily, which is 2.5 to 7.5 times more than the current recommended daily intake.
What these studies prove is that the findings of their research on animals and other lab-based research cannot be used on humans, and scientists note that more studies and research on humans need to be done to know the true impact the MSG has on humans.
So Is MSG Safe or Not?
It is known that MSG is really the salt form of the amino acid glutamate. MSG is also a natural occurrence in a number of protein-rich foods and vegetables like seaweed, shrimp and tomato.
Although the FDA has approved of the use of MSG as a food additive, a number of health concerns still surround its use in restaurants, which is proven in the highly controversial term ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.’ And experts continue to rally for the change in terminology to ‘MSG Symptom Complex.’
So far, the link between MSG and human use, alongside the risk of heightened health conditions of heart disease, liver disease, obesity, and even infertility, are still ambiguous and unproven.