WTF is MSG? Monosodium glutamate, for a start.
You’ve probably wondered whether MSG is A-OK while listening to your friends ramble on about the controversial food additive. Some say it’s fine, and others say MSG is a literal poison put in our food as a method of population control.
It’s definitely not, FYI. Food manufacturers use it because it makes food delicious, not because “they” are giving you brain damage on purpose (as many conspiracy theorists falsely claim). Still, “MSG” sounds very chemical-ish. And chemicals are usually bad, aren’t they?
There’s a lot of false MSG info floating around. If you’re confused about what MSG is and why it’s causing such a fuss and you want to separate MSG myth from MSG fact, you’ve come to the right MSG place.
“MSG” is short for monosodium glutamate, a common additive food producers put in all sorts of nosh. In the right amounts, it makes stuff taste better.
The supersimple explanation for how this works is that MSG reacts with savory taste-active compounds in food. How does it do this? Chemistry, that’s how.
What foods contain MSG?
A lot of them, actually.
Some common foodstuffs that get the MSG treatment:
- fast food, particularly Chinese takeout
- chips and snack foods
- seasoning blends
- frozen meals
- processed meats
- instant noodles
Fun fact: it’s not just processed foods, either.
That’s right, folks: MSG occurs naturally. Get ready to sh*t your collective pants (as a side effect of astonishing info, not MSG).
The common myth is that MSG is a synthetic chemical that Big Flavor™ laces into our food to get us hooked on Big Macs and Twinkies. That’s why anti-MSG fundamentalists get so pissy about it.
This is all kinds of nonsense. Plenty of foods naturally contain MSG, including seaweed, tomatoes, corn, squid, scallops, and various cheeses. However, the Big Flavor™ paranoia does have some foundation in truth. We do put a lot of MSG into our processed foods. Why? Because it makes them tasty, that’s why.
MSG research is inconclusive, but most scientists agree that the amounts of MSG we ingest through food are safe.
A 2010 review of MSG use in food concluded that there’s no evidence glutamate causes asthma, migraine, or other symptoms often associated with it. There’s also no conclusive evidence that people can have a specific sensitivity to MSG.
Does MSG cause headaches?
This research spiraled into a whole thing. To summarize, a scientist in the ’60s forgot that baby mice aren’t human people but pumped them full of MSG to see what would happen anyway.
A small 2010 study suggested that large MSG doses can raise blood glutamate levels significantly. But don’t go throwing out all your ramen, because the pro-MSG scientists have played a reverse card: Due to what we know about the blood-brain barrier, it’s a pretty safe bet that large amounts of MSG can’t get to the brain through the bloodstream.
A 2016 review of six MSG food studies concluded that when it came to dietary MSG, none of the studies suggested that it made a significant difference in how often people got headaches.
Other studies in the review used high-as-heck concentrations of more than 2 percent MSG. These were linked to an increased rate of headaches. However, the review’s authors concluded that further research was needed and findings were inconsistent.
TL;DR: MSG might cause headaches, but we need to do way more research, because it might also not cause headaches at all.
Does MSG cause weight gain or obesity?
J.W. Olney isn’t the only scientist who liked putting MSG in mice. Two separate groups of scientists spent 2014 injecting MSG into the brains of mice to see what would happen. Among other things, like type 2 diabetes and liver problems, the MSG led to obesity in the mice.
As we’ve pointed out, mice aren’t people (seriously, MSG scientists, just leave mice alone), so the fact that MSG seems to make mice fat doesn’t mean much for us humans.
Do you know what does? Studies that link MSG to obesity in humans. There have been a few, but like most MSG studies, they’re steeped in poor methodology, disputed results, and further studies contradicting their findings.
Chinese studies in 2008 and 2011 linked daily MSG consumption of 0.33 to 2.2 grams per day to increased weight gain. But in 2012, Vietnamese scientists said “LOL bro” and found that a daily 2.2-gram MSG habit had no link to being overweight. So either Vietnamese people have an uber-high tolerance for MSG (unlikely) or more research is needed.
A big reason for this false belief that MSG is linked to weight gain is the foods that contain it. As a flavor additive, MSG is used in lots of fast foods, snacks, frozen meals, and other post-breakup comfort noms.
Consuming lots of processed foods like these can increase the risk of obesity. Many of these foods contain large amounts of calories, fat, and sugar, which can lead to weight gain if consumed in excess.
Does MSG have health benefits?
While MSG clearly isn’t the dietary demon many believe it to be, it’s not exactly a superfood. But it may have some benefits.
MSG touches a very specific flavor base: umami.
Some folks refer to umami as “the fifth taste” that hits the savory parts of your taste buds. A bit of umami can be a good substitute for sodium and fat in foods, so it might make it easier to eat healthfully without sacrificing flavor.
Tasty Stuff Experts confirmed that umami is a bona fide basic taste only relatively recently (as compared with sour, sweet, bitter, and salty, which are old news).
It has a range of possible benefits, especially for older adults who may be eating less. It may help improve appetite and oral health in older people who salivate less as a result of illness or medication side effects.
TL;DR: Research suggests older adults who retain umami taste buds eat more on average, which can mean their bodies are better equipped to handle old age. However, as the research itself admits, it’s still early days for the science of umami benefits.
What does the FDA say?
The FDA has made its stance on MSG pretty darn clear: MSG is generally recognized as safe (GRAS). And even in studies on peeps who self-identify as “MSG-sensitive,” subjects who received MSG or a placebo didn’t experience consistent reactions.
So yeah. Big Daddy Food Government is all for U.S. citizens getting their umami on.
MSG gets a bad rap. There are many reasons MSG is so controversial, and they all start with J.W. frickin’ Olney.
Olney’s 1969 research on mice kick-started MSG paranoia. He claimed MSG was a one-way ticket to brain lesions and obesity — or at least that was the message the media chose to run with at the time.
That’s part of the reason we’re a little sour about Olney. His crusade against MSG evolved into a nationwide fear of Chinese restaurant food, leading to increased racial discrimination against Asian Americans.
He’s also pretty suspect — a bit of an Alex Jones in the 1960s and ’70s dietary research scene. One critic went on record describing Olney to the FDA as “misusing scientific design of toxicological experiments to cause millions of mothers to worry about brain damage to their children from MSG.” That’s pretty darn damning, dang it.
Since then, scientists have done a metric f*ckton of research that debunks Olney’s findings. But unfortunately, once the MSG fear became entrenched, it proved tough to reverse. Books like Russell Blaylock’s Exotoxins: The Taste That Kills, which peddle medically discredited information (read: lies) to try to turn a profit, haven’t helped.
Some people may have an allergy or sensitivity to MSG. But the research suggesting it’s harmful to everybody has been repeatedly contradicted and debunked. So, no, you’re not going to have a stroke from eating too much ramen.
Food manufacturers legally have to declare MSG as an ingredient. But it’s not always listed on packaging as straight-up MSG or monosodium glutamate. If you’re sensitive to MSG, avoid foods with the following on the label:
- E621 (flavor enhancer)
- glutamic acid
- yeast extract (or autolyzed yeast, yeast food, yeast nutrient… it’s in yeast, OK?)
- hydrolyzed protein
- food ingredients listed as protein-fortified, ultra-pasteurized, fermented, or enzyme-modified (these usually contain MSG)
- soy protein isolate or concentrate
- whey protein (concentrate, isolate, or classic)
- autolyzed plant protein
- hydrolyzed oat flour
- textured protein
- natural flavors (think packaged foods with terms like “natural beef flavor” or “pure chicken flavor extract” on them)
For MSG to be controversial, it first had to be popular. It was and still is — with good reason too: It makes stuff taste delicious. All praise the almighty umami.
Using MSG at home is easy. There are whole websites dedicated to taking your cooking from monosodium gluta-hate to monosodium gluta-great. You can cook with naturally MSG-rich foods, but if you want to get that pure sh*t, your local grocery store may stock brand name products like Ajinomoto or Ac’cent in the Asian foods section.
MSG has been an ingredient in Asian cooking for years. This is why J.W. Olney and the hype-machine media peddled BS about Chinese restaurants. A Japanese food OG named Professor Ikeda discovered powdered MSG seasoning in 1908, and Ajinomoto MSG seasoning hit Japanese shelves a year later.
In case you’re wondering, Ikeda extracted it from crystallizing seaweed broth (as we said, it’s legit natural). It was introduced to the United States in the 1930s and ’40s by Japanese and Chinese immigrants. Because it was seen as an Asian foodstuff, anti-Asian bigotry in the U.S. has always leaned into MSG myths and falsehoods.
MSG is sold as a white powder. Feel free sprinkle that baby onto your food and taste the umami magic.
Some recipes you can make MS-Great with a little umami
Plenty of dishes may benefit from a sprinkle of MSG. Umami is a savory flavor, so it may not work in desserts, but you can use MSG to bring out the inner umami in almost any savory dish.
Here are a few suggestions if you’re in the mood to get your MS-Groove on in the kitchen:
Don’t forget to give Asian cuisine its roses
If you type “MSG recipe for *insert your favorite dish*” into Google, you’ll get pages of results. Whether it’s a burger or brisket, someone, somewhere has likely umami-fied it with MSG. (There’s literally a burger chain called Umami Burger, FFS.)
Keep in mind, though, that American cuisine has culturally appropriated the heck out of MSG. This is a bit sh*tty when you consider that MSG was used as one of many excuses to make the lives of Asians in America miserable.
Whether you’re sprinkling MSG into your mother’s famous beet stew or whipping up your own umami-licious egg fried rice, always remember that your taste buds wouldn’t be enjoying the wonder of MSG without the contributions of Asian culture and Asians in the United States.
So, what do we know about MSG now that we’ve gone on our umami journey together?
Because of J.W.
Flavor Killer Olney, a lot of bullsh*t about MSG has been flying around since the late 1960s. There’s a false belief that MSG can cause anything from headaches to stroke, depending on who you ask. Some people may be sensitive to MSG, but research has concluded that the amounts we get from food aren’t enough to cause harm.
Professor Ikeda, the God of Flavor Town, invented MSG seasoning in 1908 by crystallizing seaweed broth. It became a staple of Asian cooking over the next 5 to 10 years.
A lot of the MSG paranoia is tied into anti-Asian sentiment, which is why some people became suspicious that Chinese restaurant food could cause certain symptoms. But the existence of any health condition connected to Chinese food has been thoroughly debunked.
MSG is naturally occurring but is often used in processed foods, which has led to another misconception that it’s a lab-produced, unnatural chemical. MSG stimulates umami, and having a keen sense of umami taste is possibly linked to a number of dietary health benefits, especially in older adults.
You can add MSG to pretty much any savory dish to give it that umami flavor boost. But always remember that you wouldn’t be enjoying its tasty goodness without the contributions of Asian culture and the Asian immigrants who popularized it in the West.