The Science Behind Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)

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Many of us once subscribed to the "no MSG" school of thought, scanning ingredients lists and choosing MSG-free products, thinking that they're harmful to our diets and our health. However, that's not the full story. While highly processed foods containing MSG are not considered the best choice, using MSG as a seasoning can unlock the greatness of umami and may also be helpful in cutting back on your sodium intake. So, while MSG may not be for everyone, it certainly does not deserve to be completely blacklisted.

What Is MSG?

MSG stands for monosodium glutamate. The dynamic duo is created from a mix of sodium and glutamate, an amino acid found naturally in foods like Parmesan cheese, tomato, mushrooms, cured meats, and soy sauce.

MSG seasoning is made from seaweed or fermented sugar extract, which is combined with sodium to make the tiny white crystalline flakes used to add flavor to our food.

Combined, these elements create the classic umami taste many of find so desirable. Umami is the key to savory and deep flavor profiles. Today, the flavor has gone mainstream and is more easily identified in foods like soy sauces, broths, and meats. Many recipes from various cultures include this natural pairing, which may help explain why foods like pizza, ramen, and mushroom sauces taste so good to us.

Sodium in MSG

Despite popular belief, not all foods containing MSG are high in sodium—at least not from the addition of MSG. Thanks to its ability to enhance the flavors of food, MSG actually shows promise as a way to cut back on too much added salt.

According to the International Glutamate Information Service, MSG can maintain the same flavor of a recipe while reducing the sodium content by as much as 40 percent.

History

So how did MSG earn such a bad reputation?

The alleged dangers associated with MSG intake date back to the late 1960s. Not long after being introduced to Asian American cuisine and American culture, MSG was the victim of a trending scandal that stemmed from a letter to the editor printed in the New England Journal of Medicine. The author told a tale of the numerous unpleasant symptoms he suffered after eating at his favorite Chinese restaurants. Headaches, neck pain, and skin flushing were symptoms of a condition he coined as "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome."

The news of this condition quickly spread, leading to a small amount of poorly executed research. According to reports, lab animals were injected with an exorbitant amount of MSG and suffered ill effects, including obesity and death. This sealed the deal—MSG was officially put in a negative light.

Emerging Research

Over the last few decades, food historians, educators, scientists, and companies that produce MSG have been making a greater effort to get the good word out about it. The main messaging involves two key points: MSG does not cause an extreme health crisis and MSG is in impressive flavor enhancer.

While some still feel the need to steer clear of MSG, it's important to take the previous studies on lab rats into perspective—they were not human studies, and MSG was administered in large amounts unlikely to be consumed in the human diet. And while it is true that some people have an intolerance to MSG, it is a seasoning staple in multiple countries throughout the world and all consumers do not experience health effects. Chefs in the United States are more openly beginning to experiment with MSG's flavor-enhancing benefits. Some restaurants even offer it as a condiment next to the salt and pepper shakers.

After reviewing available research, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's website states that the "FDA considers the addition of MSG to foods to be generally recognized as safe (GRAS). Although many people identify themselves as sensitive to MSG, in studies with such individuals given MSG or a placebo, scientists have not been able to consistently trigger reactions."

Also, after a decade of being considered a headache trigger, MSG was removed from the International Headache Society's list of causes.

Foods With MSG

MSG has been an ingredient in many foods in the United States for years—it's just rarely called out. Popular nacho cheese tortilla chips and other snack foods, seasoning blends, bouillon mixes, canned soups and sauces, processed meats, and more often use MSG as an additive.

The fact of the matter is, not-so-healthy and highly processed foods contain MSG.

Even though MSG is getting the all-clear from being a harmful substance, its addition to highly processed foods does not make those foods a healthy choice.

Cooking With MSG

Curious enough to try MSG for yourself? Sprinkle some to finish broths, soups, sauces, pasta dishes, and burgers. If you prefer not to use the seasoning, you can create your own combination of sodium and glutamate by making recipes that combine foods like tomatoes and parmesan cheese, or a noodle bowl with mushrooms, tofu, miso, and a splash of fish sauce.

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