Is MSG really that bad?
a curious look into the chemical compound that’s loved and feared by many
I grew up on MSG. My mother had a small container of it in the kitchen, next to the assortment of soy sauces that are common in an Asian household. For us, it was the holy grail of making anything taste good. However, over the years, MSG’s reputation went down the drain after word started to spread about how bad it is for your health.
It didn’t take my mother long to jump onto the healthy bandwagon and got rid of the offending white crystals that could have been mistaken for really large grains of salt. But not everyone got rid of it.
Her friends still use it in their cooking and the compound is still used widely in ready made foods and instant noodles. It’s not outlawed by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration and is considered “generally recognized as safe”.
So how bad can it really be? I decided to go investigating.
What exactly is MSG?
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, monosodium glutamate — or the substance we commonly know as MSG — is a sodium salt of glutamic acid. What this means is that there are two parts to MSG. The first being the sodium and the other is the glutamic acid. Glutamate is a form of glutamic acid which is attached to a mineral ion. In the case of MSG, that mineral ion is sodium. The combination of the two results in the flaky white crystals that are sold in almost every Asian food store.
Glutamic acid itself is abundantly and naturally occurring in things such as tomatoes, seaweed, cheese and mushrooms. All meats, eggs and dairy products are also great sources for glutamic acid. It is also a non-essential amino acid, which means that the human body also has the ability to create it if needed. Glutamic acid itself is used by the body as part of a biosynthesis process of proteins — a multi-step process that transforms food consumed into something that can be readily used by the body.
Our taste buds are also specifically equipped with glutamic acid specific receptors and is triggered with glutamate compounds are consumed. Glutamic acid itself has no strong flavor but when bound to another carrier substance such as proteins and salts, it enhances the taste profiles and increases the natural seasonings of the food item. The taste of everything intensifies when more glutamic acid is present and increases our appetite to consume more. As a result, MSG is often classified as a flavor enhancer by governmental agencies.
This leads me to ask the question, if glutamic acid itself is a necessary requirement and encouraged by our bodies, why is it considered bad when it comes in the form of MSG?
What does the science say?
The controversial relationship with MSG started back in 1968 when a man named Robert Ho Man Kwok wrote a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine with complaints that drew the association of Chinese food he consumed to the “symptoms [of] numbness at the back of the neck…[and] general weakness and palpitations”. Although unfounded on any science or study, the association with Chinese food and general practice of using added MSG took root.
However, studies under controlled conditions proved that no such symptoms were caused by the compound MSG alone. These studies included placebo-controlled double-blinded experiments delivered through capsules to maintain MSG’s isolation from any personal and cognitive biases.
Since 1959, The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has classed MSG as generally recognized as safe and has remained so until this day. According to the European Community’s Scientific Committee For Foods, the recommended and maximum safe level of consumption is at 10 grams of glutamic acid per kilogram of food. For context, it’s estimated that a typical diet contains around 3 to 6 grams of glutamic acid per day with studies showing safe short term supplementation of up to 14 grams per day.
Consuming MSG added food can be seen as a way to increase glutamic acid intake. Long term studies however are inconclusive when it comes to the impact of increase glutamic acid consumption on the body.
We’re forgetting the salt
When we talk about MSG, we address the compound as a whole rather than two parts of a puzzle.
According to the National Health Services, the recommended daily salt intake for adults is no more than 6 grams — or 2.4 grams of sodium. In contrast to the recommended maximum daily intake of glutamic acid, which is calculated at per kilogram of food, salt is a clearly defined number.
Glutamic acid does not naturally occur on its own and needs something to bind to. When MSG dissolves, the glutamate component is strongly attracted to proteins and work to enhance those flavors. The sodium component remains and works to give food its salty flavor.
In the case of MSG added food with recipes already containing additional sodium, you are essentially adding salt to salt. The issue of unhealthiness may not be the glutamate component of MSG but the high sodium content.
A study by the Technical University of Denmark revealed that adding MSG without additional salt related additives to certain foods such as spicy soups can result in superior quality taste in food items whilst reducing the overall sodium content. High sodium intake is linked to high blood pressure, heart disease and strokes. In contrast, high intake of glutamic acid and glutamates is still inconclusive and still regarded as generally safe by national health institutes around the world.
MSG’s bad rep seems to only be associated with Asian food while it is widely used in Western brands and products, creating a bias stigma towards the flavor enhancing substance.
Asian countries do not shy away from using MSG in their daily dishes and if it is truly ‘bad’, it begs the question of why doesn’t everyone experience headaches, tensions and numbness as reported by self diagnosed MSG sensitive people and other symptoms that are being reported? Japan also widely uses MSG and is considered one of the healthiest populations in the world.
The unhealthiness of MSG is possibly popularized due to where it is commonly found —packets of instant noodles being among the main associations. However, MSG is not the bad guy. There are other factors at play such it being nutritionally low, high in fats, sodium and nothing much else. MSG just helps it taste good, sort of like a good roast dinner or beef stew which are also high in glutamates.
Overall, based on my findings, MSG itself appears to be harmless and acts as an effective flavor enhancer — but like anything, excessive consumption can lead to side effects, although the extent of side effects remains inconclusive and yet to be properly documented and discovered.