When my parents and I used to go to Chinese restaurants, my mom would always tell the server not to use MSG.
That was in the ’80s. Not only did we have no idea about the chemistry behind MSG, we also weren’t aware that the belief around MSG and Chinese food is deeply rooted in racism and xenophobia.
When we know better, we do better. So, that’s the reason for this post: to educate all of us about MSG. And no, I am not working with the MSG people. I’m writing this post entirely on my own. I see so many posts online about how MSG causes everything from neurological damage to autism, and it’s time to set the record straight.
What is MSG?
Glutamic acid is a non-essential amino acid that we all have in our bodies. Glutamate is formed when one hydrogen ion is knocked off of glutamic acid. Glutamate is a neurotransmitter used in bodily processes such as transamination, and the making of GABA, which is another neurotransmitter.
Monosodium glutamate, what we know as MSG, is the sodium salt of glutamic acid. Meaning, it’s glutamate plus a sodium ion.
MSG was discovered in Japan in 1908 by a Japanese biochemical scientist named Kikunaé Ikeda. He was attempting to uncover the unique flavour compound found in seaweed, what we now know as umami.
Umami is often considered the fifth taste (the other four are from sour, bitter, salty, and sweet).
The MSG that’s added to food is a white crystalline powder, and is commonly used as a flavour enhancer. A dash of the powder has the ability to enhance the richness and depth of foods, making them absolutely delicious.
The umami from MSG and foods that contain glutamate produces a sensation of ‘mouth fullness’, and long-lasting, deep, complex flavours, all of which contribute to the sensation of satisfaction and enjoyment of your meal. Glutamate is naturally-occurring in lots of foods that you probably eat regularly.
You might recognize its umami flavour when eating a steak, fish or chicken, enjoying a sliver of parmesan cheese, a splash of soy sauce, or a slice of ripe tomato. Glutamate is also found in many vegetables including mushrooms, seaweed, onions, broccoli, asparagus, and peas.
MSG is used as an additive in a lot of snack and restaurant foods. If you’ve ever eaten Doritos, ranch dressing, or pepperoni on your pizza (with cheese and tomato sauce, pizza is an MSG umami bomb), you’ve eaten added MSG.
Every time I post something about MSG, I invariably get some comments from people questioning why, as an RD, I’m speaking so positively about such a ‘toxic’ ingredients. Or, they tell me that they get terrible symptoms from MSG, so I shouldn’t be promoting it.
I also can’t account for every single person’s intolerances or allergies in my posts, so if you get symptoms from dairy, MSG, meat, tomatoes, eggs, lentils, or whatever, that’s about you. I’m not going to stop posting because of it, because that would mean I’d stop posting about food altogether.
Natural MSG vs added MSG – what’s the difference?
Our bodies can’t tell the difference between naturally occurring glutamic acid in foods and added MSG, but strangely, I don’t see any of the nutrition ‘experts’ and influencers who vilify MSG, telling us to avoid mushrooms or fish. Do you ever get symptoms after eating these things? Probably not.
Some people are sensitive to MSG, mostly when eaten on its own and in high doses. Tyramine, another amino acid that some people have symptoms from, is found in many of the same foods accused of giving MSG symptoms, including cheeses, meats, soy sauce, shrimp, and tofu. Intolerance to tyramine can cause headaches, increased blood pressure and heart rate, sweating, and hives.
Any time I see someone saying that we should all be avoiding MSG, I know that they don’t science.
And unfortunately, I see this a lot – even from people who I think should know better.
Just because something is naturally-occurring or labelled as ‘natural,’ doesn’t mean that it’s safer or ‘better’ in some way. This perception is called the naturalistic fallacy, and it’s used a whole heck of a lot by some very popular influencers who I name below.
Is MSG safe? Will it give me symptoms or hurt my brain?
Probably not to the symptoms, definitely no to the ‘hurt my brain.’
A number of a high quality, randomized studies have shown that in normal dietary amounts, when consumed with food as part of a meal (including those found when used as a flavour enhancer), have no relationship with the symptoms described in the dreaded “MSG syndrome”.
Several studies have shown that VERY high levels of MSG consumed in broth, without other food, may be linked to headaches, but these are at levels far above what we would consume, and even then, the evidence is mixed.
The doses of MSG that may be associated with MSG syndrome are greater than 43 mg/ kg of body weight, per day. This would be like a 65 kg (143 lb) person consuming 2800 mg or 2.8 grams of MSG in one day. This is far beyond any level of MSG you would normally consume at a meal or in any reasonable span of time.
For perspective, the average American consumes 0.55 grams of MSG per day. (and here)
The US Food and Drug Administration and Health Canada have categorized MSG as safe, while the European union permits its use.
The history of anti-MSG sentiment.
In 1968, a doctor named Robert Ho Man Kwok ate a meal at a Chinese restaurant, and reportedly suffered fatigue, arm numbness, and a racing heart from the MSG in his food. Notably, no scans, or blood, or food tests were done to try to link the ingredient with these symptoms.
He figured he’d write a firsthand account of this experience and submit it to the New England Journal of Medicine, which published it.
Big mistake. The publishing of this letter created a phenomenon in which the alleged symptoms of MSG consumption were then associated with Chinese food.
This spawned more ‘case reports’ published in the journal, as people rushed to tell their own stories about feeling unwell after eating Chinese food.
The New York Times published an article shortly after, coining the term ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’ and pointing a finger toward MSG.
MSG and xenophobia.
Xenophobia has deep roots in American history, and unfortunately continues today. Most recently we have seen it in response to infectious diseases, in the form of COVID-19, but the sentiment extends far beyond, including to the contents of food.
Dating back to the mid 1800’s, Asian immigrants were ‘welcomed’ to America with substandard wages, living conditions and acts of humiliation and violence. This included mocking their dietary hygiene as disgusting.
This recent editorial highlights the ways in which long standing North American prejudices against far-East cultures have perpetuated and magnified the flawed science around the MSG syndrome. Fast forward a hundred years, and a large wave of Chinese immigrants into the US in the 1960’s led to a rise in the number of Chinese restaurants in America.
As highlighted above, it wasn’t long after that finger started being pointed regarding ‘their’ food.
While it’s easy to blame our culture from decades ago, it still persists. At one point, this sentiment was felt to such a degree that one of the world’s largest MSG manufacturers started a campaign to force Merriam Webster to change the definition of ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’ in their dictionary to something less racially charged. In response, the definition is now under ‘MSG Symptom Complex.’
Bobby Parrish aka FlavCity, and the Medical Medium, both of whom I’ve reviewed and debunked several times, often tell their followers to avoid MSG for various reasons, none of which make any sense.
This is what Anthony William says about MSG on his site:
MSG typically builds up in your brain, going deep into your brain tissue. It can then cause inflammation and swelling, kill thousands of your brain cells, disrupt electrical impulses, weaken neurotransmitters, burn out neurons, make you feel confused and anxious, and even lead to micro-strokes. It also weakens and injures your central nervous system. MSG is especially harmful if you have an illness that involves your brain or central nervous system. However, there are no circumstances under which it’s good for you. As a result, this is an additive you should always avoid.
Mercola actually said this first, and Anthony William probably ‘borrowed’ it from him. The grifters are grifting…off of each other.
None of William’s MSG quote above is even remotely true. In fact, MSG doesn’t even cross the blood brain barrier. This is just one more example of William’s nonsensical fearmongering and complete lack of scientific knowledge.
Here are the facts: dietary MSG doesn’t affect the brain at all. Rodent studies on MSG have used animals that had large doses of MSG injected directly into their brains and bodies. This isn’t the typical way we’d consume this ingredient, obviously.
Many of the animal studies on MSG used massive doses that would never be consumed by humans.
A lot of people who are anti-MSG conveniently ‘forget’ these very relevant facts.
There have been a ton of studies on MSG, but the common denominator is that MSG is harmless when consumed in normal amounts.
Large, methodologically sound, repeatable human studies have put the ‘MSG is harmful’ thinking to bed in the scientific community, but unfortunately not in the chemophobic alternative health sphere.
Is MSG safe to eat?
MSG is delicious and yes, it’s safe. I use it in fried rice, meatballs, spaghetti sauce, and a variety of other meals.
MSG contains 1/3 of the sodium found in table salt, and using MSG in foods instead of salt can reduce sodium levels by 30%.
MSG is used liberally in Japan, but there don’t seem to be any related health effects in that country.
MSG is safe; if you feel not-so-hot after a big meal at KFC, it probably wasn’t the MSG.
MSG gets a bad reputation for a number of outdated reasons, including long-held racist stereotypes, fear-mongering media, and now, unfortunately unqualified online influencers who continue to perpetuate the MSG myth. Mercola, Booby Parrish, and the Medical Medium are among the worst offenders when it comes to nutrition misinformation. Wake Up and Read the Labels is another person who’s spreading orthorexic BS. Consider yourself warned.
We must do better. Cultural humility should become so engrained in us that prejudices become a thing of the past. We need to examine our own beliefs and ask ourselves if they are rooted in fact or fear. Food plays an important role in this issue.
Co-written by Lise Wolinyuk