Monosodium Glutamate, more commonly known as MSG, has had a rough ride in the press and throughout many health publications over the years. There have been some seriously harsh words directed at this flavor enhancer, with some calling it the “silent killer”, and some claiming that it can lead to cell damage, brain damage, learning disabilities, and even death.
If you’re health-conscious and always try to make the right food choices, then the negative press and countless articles against it may have led you to exclude it from your diet wherever possible.
However, most evidence suggests that MSG is nowhere near as harmful as has been made out, and it could in fact be a good alternative to table salt in some situations. The truth about Monosodium Glutamate is far different to what has been presented in the media, and this guide will help to break down some of the facts so that you can make an informed decision.
What is Monosodium Glutamate
Millions of Americans and people in the western world think of it as a dirty word in terms of food. It is associated with processed food, fast food, and sodium-rich American-Chinese cuisine.Monosodium Glutamate is found in everything from potato chips, to canned meat, and instant ramen.
Anecdotal reports about the dangers of MSG all follow a similar pattern. They claim that Monosodium Glutamate leads to serious and often immediate side effects. Due to the prevalence of MSG in some Chinese cuisine, the claimed symptoms were referred to as Chinese Restaurant Syndrome throughout the 1960s.
The claims are that MSG can lead to:
- Vision impairment.
- Dizziness and disorientation.
- Rapid heartbeat.
- Facial pressure.
- Chest pain.
- Weakness and general malaise.
That’s quite a list, and the average consumer would see these side effects and steer well clear of anything that contained MSG. However, there is actually little scientific evidence to suggest that Monosodium Glutamate leads to any of them.
MSG As a Chemical Compound
MSG is the sodium salt component of glutamic acid. It is one of the most abundant amino acids that occurs naturally. Glutamic acid is found in a range of foods that provide a savory or “Umami” taste. Examples include ripe tomatoes, mushrooms, cheeses, and even fruits like grapes.
MSG was isolated in 1908 in Japan and has since been reproduced as a food additive to bring savory flavors to a whole range of dishes. Today, most in its pure form is derived from a fermentation process.
If you were to purchase MSG for use in your own kitchen, it would be in slightly transparent white crystals. MSG is highly stable, so it doesn’t break down when cooked, and it is used extensively throughout East, Central, and South East Asia. In developed countries,Monosodium Glutamate is used in the process of food preservation.
How Did Monosodium Glutamate Get Such a Poor Reputation?
There are many theories as to how MSG got such a bad reputation, particularly in the western world. Throughout Asia, MSG is used in moderation to enhance food and bring out the flavors of other ingredients. It is known as a safe and versatile ingredient.
Anecdotal evidence suggesting that Monosodium Glutamate is dangerous is often limited in credibility. As an example, when the term Chinese Restaurant Syndrome first appeared in the 1960s, the very doctor who reported the syndrome admitted that the side effects could also be linked to other ingredients, including standard table salt.
Essentially, from the beginning, there was no evidence to support the claim that MSG is dangerous, and there is in fact mounting evidence to the contrary.
Scientific Findings on Monosodium
Due to huge public interest, there has been a significant amount of research conducted to discover the truth behind MSG. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration commissioned some of the most extensive research, as it is widely used in the American food processing industry.
In 1995, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology performed extensive research and found that MSG was completely safe when consumed at levels below 3mg per serving. The study did note that a small subgroup developed some side effects, but that these side effects were not fully quantifiable and were often anecdotal. Similar studies have found that side effects can not be triggered in laboratory conditions and can change often, even with the same subject reporting them.
This indicates that side effects are either related to other ingredients, or, they could be due to other underlying conditions.
An earlier 1993 study found that even up to 5mg of Monosodium Glutamate could not trigger reactions in subjects. Interestingly, there was one subject in the control group who identified as MSG-sensitive. The subject presented side effects associated with MSG when being given a placebo. This suggests again that people who suffer from it’s side effects may instead be suffering side effects from other ingredients, or even an underlying psychological reaction to the food that they are consuming.
Adding yet again to the mounting pile of evidence is a technical report from Food Standards Australia New Zealand, which found that “There is no convincing evidence that MSG is a significant factor in causing systemic reactions resulting in severe illness or mortality.” The report found that there was little evidence to suggest that MSG can trigger side effects in otherwise healthy individuals.
Don’t Be Afraid of Adding Monosodium Glutamate to Your Recipes
Even though higher doses have been proven safe, it is still advised that you don’t consume more than 3mg of MSG in a single meal. The great thing about MSG as a flavor enhancer is that a very small amount can go a long way, with 5mg added to a meal for 4 or more people often being enough to bring out rich savory flavors.
Monosodium Glutamate can be used in place of salt in some recipes, as it adds more flavor per gram, while being lower in sodium.
As with all ingredients, moderation is key, and a balanced diet with plenty of exercise is the best way to live. If you suffer from any condition that requires a low sodium diet, it is recommended to consult your physician before incorporating MSG into your recipes.