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Why I Assumed MSG was Evil, and Why I was Wrong

Rice doesn’t normally cause me to have silent freak-outs, but it did on one occasion. I’d just complemented my friend on a particularly tasty batch she’d cooked up, whereupon she casually replied “Yeah, I threw in a bit of MSG. Really makes a difference, doesn’t it?”

I knew, or thought I knew, this much about MSG: it was bad and had something to do with Asian food. That’s it. As soon as I was old enough to buy my own food, I’d see products display friendly ticks with “no added MSG” on the label. I don’t believe I ever actually made a food purchase decision based on the presence or absence of that tick, but clearly the “MSG = bad” connection had sunk deep into my subconscious.

I only learned this four days ago, but it turns out my nebulous distrust of MSG is a hangover of a needless but widespread health panic which began with a letter in 1968. A Chinese American called Dr Robert Kwok wrote into the New England Journal of Medicine, anecdotally mentioning how he got feelings of numbness and fatigue soon after consuming Chinese food in America. He speculated (with no evidence to hand) that it could be caused by the use of an additive widely used in Asian cuisine called MSG.

This letter triggered many other people to find their bodies behaving oddly after eating Chinese food and within a few years “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” had become a household phrase. People claimed to be struck down with headaches, vomiting, depression, hyperactivity, fainting and/or almost any other ailment from eating Chinese food. This is despite the fact that MSG was being used by almost every major food producer and many Western culinary outlets in comparable amounts to Chinese chefs.

This widespread panic has made MSG one of the best-studied additives out there. Below are some quotes from scientific review papers from the last decade (search methodology at end of post). What do they have to say on the safety of this frightening substance? TL;DR: MSG is fine

Human studies failed to confirm an involvement of MSG in “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” or other idiosyncratic intolerance” (link freely available and very interesting summary of MSG studies)

 “Despite concerns raised by early reports, decades of research have failed to demonstrate a clear and consistent relationship between MSG ingestion and the development of these conditions.” [i.e. Chinese Restaurant Syndrome] (link)

Since the first report of the so-called Chinese restaurant syndrome 40 years ago, clinical trials have failed to identify a consistent relationship between the consumption of MSG and the constellation of symptoms that comprise the syndrome” (link)

How could this make you feel anything but full and amazing?


The evidence appears to be strongly in favour of MSG being a perfectly safe additive and “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” being impressionable individuals finding patterns where there were none when encouraged by media hype. Yet it’s so much harder to regain reputation than it is to lose it, and concerns over MSG linger.

MSG isn’t helped by the fact it’s called MSG. The three letter acronym and its full name “monosodium glutamate” feeds the fears of chemophobic individuals who live by the mantra: “don’t eat it if you can’t pronounce it”.  

There are a great many factors which ought to determine whether you choose to eat a food item or additive, but your ability to wrap your tongue around its name really shouldn’t be one of them. By this mentality, the three syllables of “arsenic” would be less cause for concern than “pomegranate”, but the presence of “dihydrogen monoxide” in our homes and schools is a reason for panic, protest and petitions.

Shakespeare had it right: “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” and (2R,3R,4S,5S,6R)-2-[(2S,3S,4S,5R)-3,4-dihydroxy-2,5-bis(hydroxymethyl)oxolan-2-yl]oxy-6-(hydroxymethyl)oxane-3,4,5-triol by any other name would taste as sweet… because it’s common table sugar.

Glutamate rich starter
Raided the fridge for a glutamate-rich starter…

Let’s look past the acronym and study MSG for what is really is: monosodium glutamate. Glutamate is one of the twenty amino acids which make up all the proteins in your cells. Some foods rich in glutamate include tomatoes, walnuts and mushrooms. Parmesan cheese is especially high in it… those white crystals you sometimes see in it? Pure glutamate.

The only difference between glutamate and MSG is the sodium which allows it to be transported and stored. As soon as you add water, the sodium dissociates from the glutamate and from this point on, your body simply cannot tell the difference because they are chemically identical.  

Glutamate is important enough in our diet that we have taste receptors specifically for it. Glutamate and MSG are considered the “purest” form of the fifth taste called umami. From the Japanese for “delicious”, umami is the lesser-known fifth taste alongside sweet, salt, sour and bitter. By the way, that taste map you may have learned about in school (sweet at the front, bitter at the back etc.) is a total myth. There is no universal pattern.

The story of MSG and Chinese restaurant syndrome is fascinating but certainly not unique. Unfounded panics around food and health crop up all the time, inflamed by media outlets that choose dramatic individual anecdotes and single studies over full bodies of scientific evidence. Personally I think there’s no substitute for a high quality whole food diet that minimises the need for artificial additives. That said, MSG really didn’t deserve its vilification and next time my MSG-savvy friend cooks up some rice, I might even ask for seconds.

————

This post was inspired by my time volunteering with Dr Peter Barham at the Bristol Food Connections festival last week, where my misconceptions became apparent. Peter has an assuredly unique CV which involves being a physicist, penguin-scientist, molecular gastronomist and all-round lovely man.

Search method: Web of Knowledge search “Monosodium glutamate” by Title, filter for Review papers from 2000-2014, view by “most cited”, quote from top three sources which referenced the safety of MSG in the general population in the Abstract. 

Additional reading:
Revisiting the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome
Why it’s so easy to believe our food is toxic
Consensus meeting: monosodium glutamate – an update

Header image from www.freefoto.com.

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One thought on “Why I Assumed MSG was Evil, and Why I was Wrong

  1. Beautiful post! I think one can find more than a few food scares that have traveled a similar arc. Artificial sweeteners come to mind, and quite possibly artificial food coloring agents. And – IMO – the ability for a “No MSG” label to unconsciously demonize it is a major reason to oppose calls to label food containing genetically modified products. Labeling for agents with known harmful effects is fine – even if the harm is only to limited populations (e.g., contains gluten for celiac sufferers, or contains phenylalanine for phenylketonurics). But labeling on the basis of shaky anecdotes or unwarranted fears of the unknown? No!

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