The Truth About MSG -- Is It Dangerous or Not?
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Several weeks ago, I wrote an in-depth article on MSG for 75ToGo.com. A summarized version is below. For the full content, including tables and additional interviews and sources, go to www.75togo.com/msg-health-nutrition-guide.
To set the record straight about MSG, I've taken a close look at the large body of scientific research and spoken with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to learn what you need to know about MSG -- what it is, why it's used, and whether or not it's safe.
What is MSG?
Like its name suggests, monosodium glutamate (MSG) is the product of two smaller components: sodium (found, for example, in table salt) and glutamate (an amino acid). Glutamate is naturally abundant in our own bodies and in the foods we eat. It is not inherently harmful, and is vital to a wide range of biological functions. 5 The human body even creates its own glutamate as needed. 1
Why is MSG added to food?
MSG is used as a "flavor enhancer," meaning it improves the perception of other flavors in a dish. 3,6 Usage levels are low, usually 0.1-0.8 percent by weight, which is similar to the concentration of free glutamate that naturally occurs in tomatoes or Parmesan cheese. 7
Other glutamate-rich seasonings, such as yeast extract and hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP), can be used to impart umami instead of MSG. Additionally, yeast extracts and HVPs often provide notes of cheese, chicken, or beer. 3 Usually the choice between using MSG and using one of these alternative flavor enhancers is based on:
- flavor profile
- cost (MSG is often the cheapest option, but not always)
- labeling -- pure MSG is unpopular with many consumers
MSG and "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome"
In 1968, a physician named Robert H. M. Kwok wrote a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine describing the numbness, tingling, warmth, and feeling of tightness he suffered 15-60 minutes after eating Chinese food. He called these symptoms "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome." 10,9
Due to growing consumer concern, the FDA and Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) commissioned an independent review of all scientific findings on MSG. That study was performed by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) and was published in 1995 as a supplement to The Journal of Nutrition. 2,9
FDA Spokeswoman Marianna Naum, Ph.D. had this to say about the results:
The FASEB report did identify temporary and generally mild symptoms that may occur in some individuals after consuming 3 grams of MSG without food. However, to-date, scientists have not been able to consistently trigger these temporary reactions in studies where MSG was provided with food. Based on the available evidence, FDA considers MSG to be safe for use as an ingredient at normally-consumed levels for the general population. 4
According to the FDA website, "An average adult['s] ... intake of added MSG ... estimates at around 0.55 grams per day." 2 And of course, that's with food.
The FASEB's findings have been largely confirmed by more recent MSG research, including a large multicenter, double-blind, placebo-controlled, multiple challenge test published in 2000. Researchers on this study concluded that:
... large doses of MSG given without food may elicit more symptoms than a placebo in individuals who believe that they react adversely to MSG. However, neither persistent nor serious effects from MSG ingestion are observed, and the responses were not consistent on retesting. 11
The science continues to support that adverse reactions to MSG consumption are rare, mild, temporary and inconsistent, and generally caused by large doses given without food, even in the most sensitive population. 11 In short, a person would have to consume over five times their typical consumption level and do so without eating any food in order to trigger symptoms. And even then, only sensitive individuals would exhibit a reaction.