The Truth About MSG: Why It's Not As Evil As It Seems

November 11, 2015
The Truth About MSG: Why It's Not as Evil as It Seems

Vegan sweet and sour “chicken”

MSG (monosodium glutamate) is a food additive dating back over 100 years. It was more recently- in the late 1960’s- that the substance started to develop the bad reputation that it’s known for today.

Have you heard of “Chinese restaurant syndrome”? This controversial term was coined when a diner wrote in to the New England Journal of Medicine about negative health symptoms that he experienced after dining out. Headache, tingling, chest pain- the man attributed all these to the MSG that was present in the Chinese food he ate that day, and the rest was history. Ever since then, an association has been made between Asian restaurants, MSG, and health concerns.

Now let’s fast-forward to the present-day. Umami, the “fifth taste” that gives food its savory quality, is trending. Everywhere you look, umami is making its way onto the menu- in burgers (or veggie burgers), fermented foods, even dessert. Consumers lust after the hot “new” term and any food items that claim to capture it.

So where do the dots connect? Well, MSG is umami, in its simplest form. Or maybe we should say umami is MSG. Either way, they are essentially one in the same. Yet mention of one can attract hoards of hungry diners while the other sends them running.

It just so turns out that ill-effects of MSG are largely unfounded. No current studies have led to any substantial evidence against the additive. In fact, some researchers believe that any ailments that do seem to be linked are due to placebo effect. In other words, MSG-eaters think that they’re experiencing symptoms because they’ve been conditioned to expect them.

On the other hand, umami is touted as being beneficial to one’s health. The foods that have its trademark flavor are generally healthy ones, like potatoes, mushrooms, tomatoes or seaweed. Many fermented foods, like kimchi and sauerkraut, also yield that savory flavor.

The difference between umami and MSG is that the first is naturally occurring, while the second is added to food products. However, the two are indistinguishable to the human body. Not to mention the fact that man-made MSG is created through a natural fermentation process- just like kombucha, sourdough bread and many other foods we know and love.

MSG is a type of non-essential amino acid, just like some of those found in Bragg’s Liquid Aminos. (Disclaimer: the company does not add MSG- it comes naturally from the soybeans.) When used in appropriate quantities, it is a low-sodium alternative to salt, and a lot more flavorful too. Even if you are sensitive to MSG, you would have to eat a lot of it (about 6 times the average intake) to do any damage.

The umami flavor of MSG provides a feeling of satiety when eating, and it contains loads of B-vitamins. Glutamate can even keep the metabolism functioning at peak efficiency. See, not so scary after all.

It’s so easy to throw stones when it comes to the food industry, so it’s essential to do your own research before taking something you hear as fact. As always, everyone’s bodies are different and react to foods in specific ways. For most people, however, MSG should not pose any sort of problem.

     Have you heard any positives about the substance, or only negatives? Do you believe MSG is truly something to be feared?

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Photo: Rubyran via Flickr

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Quincy is an NC-based college student who is passionate about leading a healthy and compassionate life. Aside from classes, she fills her time with cooking, writing, travel, and yoga. You can find more from her on her blog Shugurcän and on Instagram.

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