Poor MSG. So misunderstood. It's easily one of the most incorrectly represented food additives in history. If you lived through the 80s then you probably think of it as an evil, life-destroying substance. But the reality is, it’s really just better-tasting salt.
Let’s set aside rumors and bad PR and simply break it down: MSG is monosodium glutamate. The monosodium part is just water and salt (though MSG has only about ⅓ the amount of sodium as table salt). Nothing too exciting there. It’s the G, or glutamate, that gives MSG it’s special powers of deliciousness.
Glutamate is an amino acid. And, in fact, it’s one of the most common amino acids in all of nature. Your own body produces it naturally, which means it’s also found in all meat products, including fish and milk. There’s also quite a bit of glutamate in vegetables like tomatoes, mushrooms, peas, beets, spinach, carrots, green peppers, and corn. If you’re noticing a trend here, then you’re probably already clued in to the next tidbit about glutamate. It’s the flavor that makes Umami.
Umami, of course, is the fifth of the five basic tastes, discovered for the first time in the early 1900s but not officially coined as a scientific term until 1985. Umami is the representation of the flavor “savory” and, quite correctly, comes from the Japanese words Umai (delicious) and Mi (taste).
It’s hard to believe that something so yummy can get such a bad rap. After all, in 2000 scientists discovered that your tongue is covered in receptors specifically for glutamate so you can detect its savory flavor. Nature literally intended for you to eat it!
Early on, MSG was extracted from seaweed. Today it comes from the natural fermentation of molasses made from sugar cane or sugar beets. Studies have shown that the human body doesn’t make a distinction between glutamate that occurs naturally in food or MSG that’s added later to enhance the flavor. And, actually, another study in 2000 found that glutamate is the single largest contributor to energy generation in your intestines. Meaning the amino acid is an essential element in helping along the digestion of your food.
So why all the fuss?
Well, first of all, there were a lot of poorly done and unreliable early studies that suggested some strange interactions between MSG and the body. When glutamate enters your brain it acts as a neurotransmitter, which means it sits at the ends of your nerve cells and helps trigger or inhibit the firing of cells. It’s easy to hear that information and find it a bit scary to intentionally ingest an ingredient that has implications for your brain function. But there is nothing at all to be worried about. One study that had subjects ingest nearly 200 times the average daily dose of MSG every day for 42 days found no neurological changes whatsoever in patients and, actually, the scientists conducting that study found that the MSG was well tolerated in the body--even in such absurdly high amounts.
There has also been speculation that some folks might have an allergy to MSG. Something you may know as Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. Though an allergy is possible, scientists have never been able to replicate the reported allergy. One double-blind test of MSG and placebos tested 130 people who were sure they had an MSG sensitivity. Scientists conducting the study couldn’t find any adverse reactions. Some folks now believe that Chinese Restaurant Syndrome might be more a case of bad Chinese food than an MSG allergy.
The bottom line here is, there’s nothing wrong with eating MSG. The FDA has placed it on its “Generally Recognized as Safe” list of food additives along with citric acid, cornstarch, and Vitamin A. The only thing to think about when sprinkling it on your food, according to New York University nutritionist Dr. Lisa Young is that it has sodium in it--so don’t use too much if you’re watching your salt intake. Otherwise, have fun, experiment, and enjoy the benefits of kicking that savory flavor up a notch.
If you want more information about MSG and its science check out the International Food Information Council Foundation’s website.