The xenophobic origin of the MSG health scare, why it's time to update your facts on MSG and how it may actually improve the health of the US population.
The discussion on the safety and culinary usage of monosodium glutamate (aka MSG) is back and I’m thrilled. Here’s the thing: sometimes in the food and health world there are outdated perceptions. The most recent example is fat: we went from fat free everything to understanding the incredibly important role of healthy fats for the body, then skewing so far as to think avocados and coconut oil are the answer to everything. When we look back to an origin story of a food or health misconception, in this case, “why MSG is bad”, it starts with an opinion letter and an editor with brilliant, sticky wording. But we’ll get to that later.
This post is my deep dive into MSG and umami as a dietitian, food lover and someone who values efficiency. It’s the bullet point friendly read to get you all the information you need. If that’s not fast enough for you I’ll cut to the chase: MSG can actually be a valuable tool and ingredient for us in the culinary and health world. Outdated, old school myths need to stop being perpetuated. You’re going to see and hear so much more of the conversation on MSG and umami this year and beyond. I want you to be informed. I want you to have tools to make informed decisions.
Before we go further here’s my up front transparency. I have had a shaker of MSG umami seasoning in my cabinet for at least two years now for use in culinary applications due to chef/food friend influences. I also went to Japan in late spring 2018 with Ajinomoto (the largest producer of umami products and MSG). I’m not bound by anything that says I have to edit what I say about MSG. As someone who is pro-science, moderately skeptical and who values honesty and transparency above many other things, this is me giving you honest, science backed information. During my trip I asked the questions you (readers, fellow health professionals, strongly opinionated online forums) wanted the answers to, directly to the company, third party researchers and those we interacted with on this trip.
My honest opinion is that the Ajinomoto team is incredibly proud of their Japanese culture, their product and by extension their discovery of umami as a taste. They’re confounded as to why Americans actively hate and distrust MSG and I feel like I owe it to those of you looking for updated, in depth information to give it to you. For accuracy’s sake after writing this, I asked the Ajinomoto team and third party PR team involved with Ajinomoto read this post for fact checking (it’s not efficient if the info is muddy or wrong). They changed nothing related to the positivity or negativity of statements. To me, relationships with brands that are open to honest conversation and feedback are the ones I value most.
I would be remiss if I did not address a larger issue related to transparency. There’s a recent trend of (well deserved) general mistrust in some organizations be they for profit, not for profit, government based or research based. There’s also been more focus on funding sources (and there should be)- but there are times we get side tracked by a desire to seek to automatically condemn any statement, study, etc as “industry purchased”. Research costs money. But good studies that follow regulations and strong methodology (what we should really be looking at when considering a study’s outcome statement validity and thereby how the press interprets it) cannot have desired results forced. Many health organizations use these studies to form statements of guidance to help the public form their own opinions on a topic. If you are here with a bias that any statement coming from a national or international organization is purchased by ‘big pharma/food/etc”, you’re not open to looking at the validity of information, old or new. Everything deserves a look with a keen, dubious eye, but it’s worth considering if our own bias has clouded our ability to consider new data.
So let’s get to it. Here we are in mid 2018 and the food world is bringing back the discussion on MSG. In spring 2018, Helen Rosner wrote a piece in the New Yorker as a MSG convert (Ajinomoto had nothing to do with it- it’s purely coincidence). - during that same time, the Washington Post tackled MSG as well asking why Americans are still avoiding MSG even though the health effects have been debunked. David Chang’s Ugly Delicious Netflix show even brings the discussion of racism, xenophobia and MSG to the table on Netflix. Even as I sat in the airport in early summer, I listened to the latest Bon Appétit podcast episode (episode 167 “all the veg”) where they bring up using MSG in conjunction with using it as an ingredient with melon recipes. If I’m seeing the MSG discussion come from this many angles of the food media world at this time, it means it will expand to other outlets soon enough.
What is MSG?
Monosodium Glutamate aka MSG is an umami seasoning ingredient that takes the amino acid of umami (glutamic acid/glutamate) from natural sources and pairs it with a sodium ion to make it crystalline. The glutamate is what you’re tasting in umami foods like ripe tomatoes, parmesan cheese, aged meats, onion, seaweed, broccoli, asparagus and mushrooms. Think of it as Umami Salt. Umami compound + sodium.
What is Umami?
Umami is the 5th taste. When humans taste, we enjoy sugar, salt, bitter, acid and umami flavors based on receptors on our tongue. To generalize, umami tastes ‘meaty’. It’s been theorized the purpose of tasting umami is for the body to sense protein consumption. Umami has 3 additional sensations associated with it:
- Umami spreads across the tongue and coats it.
- Umami lingers in the mouth longer than other flavors (having major impact on aftertaste of foods).
- Umami promotes salivation: sourness and acidity promote salivation but umami triggers sustained secretion of saliva. Interestingly the saliva produced with umami is more viscous than with other tastes (not vicious…I know a few of you read that wrong). Since saliva helps you taste and enjoy food more, think of the flavor impact umami has on enjoying a dish.
Is MSG natural?
It’s the food-industry produced version using fermentation technology of something that’s naturally occurring (glutamic acid/glutamate). There is no chemical difference between the glutamate in MSG and glutamate naturally occurring in umami foods. The body cannot tell the difference. Glutamic acid is a common amino acid and our bodies produce 50 grams of free glutamate a day. We see this even more so in nursing mothers. Seven days after birth, glutamic acid, glutamine and taurine are the most prevalent amino acids in breast milk, accounting for about 50% of total amino acids (study: Carlo Agostini et al).
In the US, the average person consumes about 11 grams of glutamate daily from natural sources and less than 1 gram of glutamate from MSG. In other countries, like Taiwan, daily MSG intake averages close to 3 grams per day. So what does 1 gram of MSG compare to? It’s about the same glutamate level as adding 1 to 1.5 ounces of parmesan cheese.
What does MSG taste like?
MSG enhances the taste of whatever it’s used on without color or flavor. MSG doesn’t have a taste on its own.
Why would MSG be used as in ingredient? Why not add naturally occurring ingredients with glutamate?
MSG does not change the color or texture of foods. So in some cases, I’d want to use a parmesan cheese, but if I don’t want textural changes but want to up the umami, I could use MSG. MSG is also a good sodium reduction tool (30% of the sodium of table salt) but we’ll get into that later.
In some brands, MSG is used as a flavor enhancer (remember, umami has lasting flavor power) and public perception of those brands is they use it to cut corners in quality of ingredients. HOWEVER, this is up to the brand itself. Just like with salt. Salt is sometimes used in packaged foods to improve taste acceptance to the general population as a work around for using inferior ingredients (think some soups etc). With any purchasing decisions you make, it’s up to you to buy products you love and enjoy with respect to the emphasis of importance you place on ingredient quality, sourcing, etc. As an example, some Frito Lay products contain MSG, but in early 2018, they updated a web page listing products in their portfolio without added MSG with the disclaimer that for those avoiding glutamate, 'these products are still not likely a good fit because they naturally contain glutamate'.
Is MSG vegan?
Yes. MSG is made from a fermented plant.
Is glutamate gluten? Can I have MSG if I’m gluten intolerant?
MSG is not gluten and has nothing to do with gluten. The word glutamate sounds very similar to ‘gluten’, but they’re nothing alike at all.
How was umami and MSG discovered?
Ancient Romans were the first to mass produce umami in the form of fermented fish intestines. Before umami was umami, it was known as ‘osamazone’.
In 1908, Kikunae Ikeda who was a Japanese chemist, identified what he thought was a ‘new taste’ in kombu (seaweed). He isolated the unidentified compound (glutamate) and called it umami. In 1909 he acquired a patent to manufacture MSG umami seasoning after the Japanese Interior Ministry found it to be harmless and production started as the brand Ajinomoto.
Is Umami only Japanese?
Yes and no. In 2013 UNESCO added Japanese cuisine to the intangible cultural heritage list. A major part of that Japan’s cuisine is all about umami, but the taste of umami appears globally. Country to country there are many traditional umami flavors. In the US we love BBQ, ketchup and gravy. In Mexico it’s mole. Brazil has dried cod. Throughout Europe there’s cheese, cured ham and anchovies. Malaysia: shrimp paste. Nigeria: ground crayfish. Prepare to see umami and synergistic umami flavors being discussed A LOT as a food trend.
How is MSG made?
This was the one of the most fascinating things I learned when I went to Japan. MSG creation is natural, simple and sustainable. Essentially a sugar is fermented, crystalized and dried. To get more in depth, there are three sugar sources used depending on where production is so the most sustainable option can be used instead of shipping sugar sources from across the world. In Asia, it’s sugar cane. In South America, it’s cassava root. In the US, it’s corn (no surprise there). Through fermenting one of these sources, glutamic acid is produced. A sodium ion is added to make it crystalline and stable. The compound is filtered (to remove any additional fermentation byproducts) dried and it goes into a container. If you’re lucky you get it in a panda shaped Ajipanda bottle.
Is MSG dangerous or bad for you?
This is the most important question answered in this post. MSG is 100% safe. MSG has been GRAS status by the FDA since 1958. GRAS means ‘generally recognized as safe’ and is on the list with spices, agar agar and algae. The only thing to consider here is if you are sensitive to MSG, like some people are sensitive to sulfites in wine. And like everything- it’s in moderation (like sodium). I encourage you to think about the last thing you heard about MSG. Was it an acquaintance of family member saying MSG gives them headaches? Or that they’re allergic? It seems like the last thing many of have heard related to MSG is third hand personal stories.
Wait, then why did everyone get worried about MSG in the first place?
In 1968 a letter to the editor from Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok, was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. It was an opinion letter suggesting MSG was associated with ‘strange syndromes when having Chinese food from restaurants of Northern China’. The editor of the journal who was- let’s be honest- a genius called it Chinese Restaurant Syndrome (CRS). While the opinion letter listed cooking wine, soy sauce, salt or MSG as possible causes (without data) of these feelings, xenophobia fanned the flames to single out MSG.
Now let’s back up a second and talk about why MSG as a name is problematic for American consumers. Out of the possible CRS causing ingredients MSG sounds like what we would now call a chemical or food additive (in a negative way) due to the acronym name. At the time of MSG development it was en vogue to flaunt scientific advances and so to call a product by its chemical structure and scientific name, monosodium glutamate, the producer was proud. But as time went on, and certainly today, audiences incorrectly assume it’s a negative “additive” (remember when there was a push to call high fructose corn syrup, corn sugar?). A 2013 article from the Smithsonian ties in the fact that Rachel Carson’s manifesto against pesticides during that time may have also caused the chemical sounding name to fall from grace.
But despite the fact that the FDA had already declared MSG GRAS status in 1958 and continued to study it despite this, in 1969 a poorly done mouse study reignited concerns related to MSG. Mice were over fed MSG and injected with MSG causing outcomes that furthered public concerns as media took the outcomes (without a critical eye on study methodology- for example there were no humans, we don’t inject MSG and no one is funneling MSG into their digestive system) and headlines were made again insinuating MSG was tied to brain problems.
But I do know someone who is allergic to MSG.
Actually, it’s physically impossible since MSG is not an allergen. An allergen is something that causes an immune system response. A sensitivity or intolerance is when your digestive system is affected. Like sulfites in wine, you could be sensitive to MSG. Sometimes people use the word allergy (doctors included) as a way to unfortunately and incorrectly simplify information.
Does MSG cause headaches? I always hear people get headaches with MSG.
MSG is not tied to headaches. In January 2018, the International Headache Society removed MSG from a list of causative factors for headaches. In an independent study on MSG and headaches, testing could not proceed past initial stages since participants taking the placebo were reporting symptoms and those who weren’t on the placebo had such varied symptoms or no symptoms. Can some people feel headaches after eating it? Maybe. Don’t discount someone’s symptoms, but know it isn’t necessarily MSG. And as renown food critic Jeffrey Steingarten says, then “Why doesn’t everyone in China have a headache?”.
Why are some people more sensitive to MSG than others?
When I asked this to the researchers they said they’re just not sure at this point. And I’m okay with that answer because it shows there’s always more to learn. Just like with wine or nightshades, there’s a small part of the population that seems to be sensitive to MSG. The bottom line is we just don’t know right now why it happens. It’s also worth noting that because MSG is never consumed alone in a food supply, it makes it even more difficult to determine what compound within foods causes reactions.
I looked for a specific number for how many people are MSG sensitive and found that Australian/New Zealand guidelines state it’s suggested between 1-2% of the total population.
But some people online are saying it’s dangerous for your nervous system and brain- I’ve seen people talk about something called ‘excitotoxins’.
There will always be people, especially in the health world, that won’t change their opinions on a topic regardless of the science. And that’s the other thing. Remember how we talked about that mouse study where they injected MSG into the mice? Sometimes junk studies get used as fuel for proof and most people don’t know how to verify if a study is well done or not. The general public is also are very trusting of any self-proclaimed health guru, be they trained in medicine or trained by their own internet searches.
MSG and inaccurate statements that MSG causes brain legions and causes neurological disorders are based on a specific poorly done study. And when other researchers attempted to recreate these results, even looking at MSG consumption of 40 grams per kilogram of bodyweight (about 5,000 times higher than a normal amount), no harmful effects were found. One study took it so far as to raise plasma glutamate to 10 times above normal (which would never happen in reality) and NONE of the glutamate entered the brain.
Multiple studies have shown that MSG does not have negative effects on the brain or the central nervous system despite this being the most active, and loud, public concern.
Specifically related to excitotoxicity: this term refers to a pathological process where nerve cells are damaged or killed by excessive stimulation by ‘excitatory neurotransmitters’. All neurotransmitters are either excitatory or inhibitory. Serotonin, norepinephrine and glutamate are all excitatory. Excitotoxicity has been shown to occur after a stroke or a brain injury. It has not been shown to happen as a result of dietary intake of any excitatory neurotransmitters or their precursors. For glutamate in particular, 90% of it never leaves the intestine. The cells that line the GI tract convert it into energy or other amino acids. One of the cool things about the body is that it also has a system to separate dietary intake from brain concentrations in addition to all the cellular systems that break down glutamate into different substances.
So MSG has been safe the whole time?
Yes. MSG has had FDA GRAS status since 1958. In 2000, 3 separate organizations with human testing concluded there was no link between MSG and Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.
The same year, umami receptors were actually discovered on the tongue. In 2014, the American Chemical society created a video to raise awareness of the safety of MSG. Most recently in early 2018 the International Headache Society removed MSG from their list of headache causing foods.
Hold on then. Why do some packages and restaurants still have signs that say “No MSG?”
This is part of MSG’s problem: continued bad PR despite the fact the negative health claims have been debunked for years. We first saw the “No MSG” signs in most Asian restaurants in the US after the original Chinese Restaurant Syndrome letter was published and the press took hold. Rather than continuing to answer questions from concerned diners, restaurants jumped to assure diners their food was ‘safe’ by stopping questions before they arose.
But then the labeling moved to consumer packaged products. And if ‘gluten free’ is any indication, the more we see the phrases ‘free from’ ‘zero’ ‘no’ in conjunction with something, the more we think we should be avoiding it. When I was seeing private nutrition counseling clients and working in my dietetic internship in the hospital, each time a new diet trend emerged telling people to avoid something, or if they were grocery shopping and that trend had made its way to packaging, I was inundated with questions. “All this stuff says ‘no-X’, so I shouldn’t eat X right?”. When brands continue to put ‘no MSG’ on their packaging, they perpetuate the misinformation that consumers should avoid MSG.
But you’re saying umami and MSG can have health benefits?
Yep. I am. Here's why.
In Western and European cuisine, flavor is built by adding fat (butter, heavy cream, cheese etc). In Japan, umami is layered on throughout a recipe, usually starting with dashi (how umami was discovered). While calories certainly don’t tell the whole story, for those struggling with calorie consumption, using umami to season, rather than fat could help with healthy weight management.
Then there’s using umami to boost vegetable consumption. Remember how we talked about how umami helps you salivate and the flavor stays around longer? If we can increase palatability acceptance of vegetables, it would make a huge difference by increasing fiber and nutrient consumption.
This same concept extends to packaged foods as well. Many packaged foods are high in sodium, which increases heart related issues, but MSG can be a major tool in helping with sodium reduction.
Lastly, studies also indicate that umami can help with digestion. Not only are those umami receptors on the tongue, but they’re also in the stomach and intestines. So umami might be helpful in protein digestion too!
Am I saying MSG is a super food or will fix everything? No. But it could be a vitally important tool for the way the general population eats day to day.
How can MSG be used for salt reduction / sodium reduction?
Umami allows for less salt without compromising palatability. Specifically for MSG, it has 1/3 the sodium of table salt. That means, sodium levels can be reduced while maintaining or improving taste of a product. This is MAJOR. In the US sodium reduction has been a focus for health guidelines for several years now and it’s a big hurdle to jump. For many people it’s hard to follow, in part because they often use pre-prepared foods and restaurant foods as their primary sources of nourishment. And to be frank, those foods are often way too high in sodium. Low salt versions of products typically fail in the marketplace (low salt soup- try it- it’s terrible).
We have a major opportunity to use umami seasoning as a tool in our food production system. That can only start when consumers update their perceptions of MSG and get rid of the outdated, incorrect information they have.
The bottom line:
The information floating around on MSG is based on bad studies and bad press with major legs that has been wrongly perpetuated for decades. I have no problem with MSG as a food lover and health professional. I use it as an ingredient in my kitchen. Umami is a totally magical taste we are lucky to experience, and using naturally occurring glutamate in the form of aged cheese or ripe tomatoes, or in a shaker as umami salt (MSG) as you would with table salt is safe.
Dietitian Nutritionist. My husband Chris and I create food and beverage photos, videos, stopmotions and recipes. And they're really cool.