Is MSG Bad For You?
Is MSG responsible for headaches, rapid heartbeat and sweating, or are the dangers of this savory and salty ingredient greatly exaggerated?
Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) is the magical—or evil, depending upon your point of view—ingredient that makes processed food so addictive thanks to its savory and salty assault on the taste buds. MSG is the reason why you can’t eat just one Dorito.
For at least half a century, there has been debate whether MSG is harmful for health or if the reports of side effects are overblown and even racist due to its popularity in Chinese and Asian food.
Nobody is saying that MSG is good for any part of your body other than your tongue. But do you need to really worry about consuming it?
What is MSG?
MSG was invented over a century ago. It’s a sodium salt derived from the amino acid, glutamate. It’s made by fermenting glutamate, which is found in almost every food to some degree. After it’s fermented, glutamate turns into a white powdery substance.
Like shirataki noodles (the inspiration for Miracle Noodle), MSG was pioneered in Japan, by a professor who realized that glutamate was responsible for the savory flavor profile in what could very well be the world’s healthiest condiment: seaweed. Glutamate, the professor realized, is what’s responsible for seaweed broth’s “umami” flavor, the fifth taste after sweet, sour, salty and bitter.
But glutamate itself is a non-essential amino acid. Even though it’s prevalent in food, you don’t need to actually get it from the diet because your body makes all the glutamate it needs. (Glutamate is not to be confused with the similar-sounding amino acid glutamine.)
Naturally in the body, glutamate is bound to other amino acids. But the glutamate in MSG is isolated from other amino acids. Glutamate in the body is the most abundant neurotransmitter. It’s like a spark plug that facilitates communication between neurons. That sounds like an important function so why not eat a high-MSG diet? The reason is because, again, the human body does not require that we get glutamate from food.
MSG in Chinese Food
Speaking of high glutamate diets, MSG is arguably most well known for being the “headache chemical” in Chinese food.
But is that reputation well-deserved or is it racist, as a 2020 CNN article described. The historic seeds that led to Chinese culinary xenophobia over MSG began with a letter written in 1968 that was published in The New England Journal of Medicine by a doctor who described how he felt flushed and experienced heart palpitations after eating in Chinese restaurants. The blame was pinned on MSG and the editors of the Journal described the condition as “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.” The unscientific nomenclature stuck.
But as CNN pointed out, the FDA as well as other regulatory agencies and scientific interest groups declared that MSG was not harmful. In fact, the FDA designated MSG as “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS). Nonetheless, the reputation of Chinese restaurants took a big hit, forcing many to prominently display “NO MSG” messaging on their menus and signage despite the lack of scientific evidence on the risk of MSG to human health.
Concerns About MSG
While it’s true that the number of people who experience serious side effects from MSG such as palpitations is probably small, some health experts have raised concerns about it.
David A. Steenblock, D.O., says that consuming “free glutamates” like MSG, meaning glutamate substrates that are unbound to other amino acids, create an excess of what the body needs, and thus become excitotoxic, or a toxic to the brain (a neurotoxin).
The amount of glutamate that is needed by the body is far less than the amount that is consumed in the typical “Western” diet, Steenblock explains. And the danger of consuming free glutamate sources like MSG is that it causes neurons to “fire wildly”, which can damage and even destroy neurons.
Remember, glutamate is the main spark plug for neurotransmitters. Thus, Steenblock’s theory makes sense that if there’s excess consumption of free glutamates, it could lead to an overstimulation of the brain.
Despite the FDA’s GRAS designation, a study in the International Journal of Food Properties says that “MSG acts as a potent neurotoxin by affecting the chemical composition of the hippocampus which activates neurodegenerative pathways.”
In other words, MSG consumption may be associated with brain disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, anti-free-glutamate crusaders such as Steenblock believes.
Other Names For MSG
Perhaps because of the negative connotation associated with MSG, food manufacturers use “aliases” for MSG in their food labels. According to Business Insider, other names for MSG include: hydrolyzed protein, glutamic acid, autolyzed yeast, monosodium salt, monohydrate, sodium glutamate monohydrate, UNII-W81N5U6R6U, L-Glutamic acid, monosodium salt, and monohydrate.
Perhaps the best way to tackle the MSG debate is to view it through the lens of processed food in general. They are best served in moderation. Eating food that has a pinch of MSG here and there will likely not cause any serious side effects. But sprinkling it on your popcorn every night like it’s regular salt and eating lots of processed food may pose a risk.
Are you worried about MSG? Get the conversation started.