Is MSG Safe?

by Monica Reinagel, MS, LDN
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Is MSG Safe?

Even before the clean eating movement took hold, the flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate (aka MSG) was widely seen as a dietary villain, accused of causing everything from headaches and skin flushing to diabetes and obesity. But does MSG really deserve its bad reputation?

A study looking into the notorious Chinese restaurant syndrome failed to find any link between MSG and the symptoms it was believed to cause. Even those who were convinced that they were sensitive to MSG were no more likely to have a headache after ingesting MSG than they were after taking a placebo. That’s not to say that the headaches these folks experience aren’t real, just that MSG may not be the culprit. Other fears about MSG don’t hold up well under scrutiny.

Despite its chemistry lab moniker, MSG is actually nothing more than an amino acid (glutamate) plus sodium. Glutamate occurs naturally in foods like cheese, grape juice, mushrooms, soy sauce, tomato sauce and nutritional yeast. In fact, it’s the glutamate that gives these foods their special “umami” or savory quality.

Glutamate heightens our perception of other flavors stimulating special receptors on our tongues. Long before MSG was a food additive, chefs took advantage of the flavor-enhancing properties of glutamate-rich foods to boost the taste of their dishes.

Maybe one of the reasons that MSG has a bad reputation is that it’s often used in foods that aren’t terribly nutritious — like highly processed snack foods. But MSG can also be used to make healthy foods more appealing to people with a diminished or altered sense of taste or smell, such as senior citizens and cancer patients. Food manufacturers are also experimenting with glutamate and MSG as a way to reduce the sodium in foods like soups and salad dressings without sacrificing flavor.

What’s more, a study published earlier this year in the British Journal of Nutrition found that MSG may even act as an appetite suppressant! When overweight women began their meal with a bowl of soup containing MSG, they ate fewer calories during the rest of the meal than women who had the same soup minus the MSG. In particular, they seemed less interested in high-fat foods like potato chips.

Although it may or may not fit into your definition of “clean eating,” all available evidence shows that for MSG is generally safe and may even have some beneficial applications. The same cannot necessarily be said of every food containing MSG, however! Even if MSG is not the demon it’s sometimes made out to be, you’re still well-advised to limit your intake of highly processed snacks and fast food.

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  • Em

    Thank you so much for not appealing to the fake woo about how it’s bad for you. I love you guys. Glutamate is in tomatoes and it’s great. Awesome.

  • Vanessa Orth

    Yeah…. Definitely calling this article ‘inaccurate’. If someone is intolerant/allergic to MSG, how can you discredit that? Allergy testing isn’t ‘black magic science’. And MSG an appetite suppressant? What the? Come and see me after a soup concoction of MSG and tell me my migraine/loss of vision and vomiting isn’t caused by MSG! Corn chips, rice crackers, ANYTHING containing MSG. Also, I’m sensitive to cheese, grape juice and mushrooms which contain your mentioned glutamine containing foods….. I’m actually angered by this article

  • Vanessa Orth

    Yeah…. Definitely calling this article ‘inaccurate’. If someone is intolerant/allergic to MSG, how can you discredit that? Allergy testing isn’t ‘black magic science’. And MSG an appetite suppressant? What the? Come and see me after a soup concoction of MSG and tell me my migraine/loss of vision and vomiting isn’t caused by MSG! Corn chips, rice crackers, ANYTHING containing MSG. Also, I’m sensitive to cheese, grape juice and mushrooms which contain your mentioned glutamine containing foods….. Sorry, but this article angered me!

    • wackawacka

      Tomatoes?

      Potatoes?

      Meat?

      Soy sauce?

      Peas?

      Walnuts?

    • I think you missed the point of the article. Just because you have an allergy to msg doesn’t make it dangerous to other people. :/

    • Joshua

      Allergies weren’t addressed at all in this article.

  • ilana

    Seriously, I have a lot of reservations about this article…And how can one compare a naturally occurring substance to a lab derivative?!

    • wackawacka

      You do know they are the same thing yes?

      Do they even teach chemistry in Amurica anymore?

      • Joshua

        I suppose not. All these comments are driving me up the wall (biology and chemistry background).

  • Glen Scott

    MSG is a MASSIVE part of the food industry now more than ever and the food industry is worth many millions of pounds, so I’m not surprised to have read studies that show the exact same positive things which was mentioned in this article! As someone who reads a lot of clinical studies in search of actual truth, I have to see what actual trial the info was derived from (a reference) and then find out who commissioned the trial.

    If you read enough clinical trials on something you know about you’ll see that like statistics, they can be manipulated to show different things, either intentionally or by a genuine mistake.

    I’m still not buying into the MSG is safe thing solely on the overwhelming anecdotal evidence and that goes for its partner in crime Disodium 5 Ribonucleotide too, (as scrummy as that sounds!)

    I’ll stick with real pepper, herbs and spices for my flavour enhancing thank you very much! Things that have been both proven over time and in trials to have beneficial properties without any doubts at all.

    • Joshua

      I’d like to see these scientific journal entries about MSG and their manipulated statistics.

  • Kelly

    So wrong! MSG and all the names that the food industry uses to hide MSG in our processed food is horrible for your health!! I’m a 40 y.o physically fit person that developed 2 years of gastrointestinal pain and daily diarrhea. After extensive upper and lower GI biopsies and tests and going on FODMOP diet, diary-free diet, and gluten -free diets, nothing worked!!! It wasn’t until I had terrible GI illness to a Caesar salad at a restaurant and later on, Chinese food that I started putting 2&2 together! My GI is perfect now that I’ve eliminated MSG and all the “alias” substitutes!

    • Joshua

      Don’t get me wrong as I am glad you found out what it was you were suffering from, but just because it applies to you does not mean it applies to all. Your information is anecdotal. I wear size 14 shoes, so does that mean you should too?

  • Joshua

    A lot of tin foil hat people in here. If it’s been scientifically shown that there is no link between headaches and ingestion of MSG, then there isn’t one. That doesn’t mean that your headaches aren’t real, but they’re probably caused by something else. The placebo effect is ridiculously strong, even when one is aware that it is placebo.

    Your anecdotes about your personal life are not scientific data. They are unique to you and apply to you only. If I wear size 14 shoes and they fit me perfectly, would I go around insisting everyone wear size 14 shoes only?

    And if you want to get all conspiracy theory about how “corporations” are making these scientific entries cast MSG in a positive light (even though multiple companies, universities, independent labs in different countries verify this, implying a massive conspiracy and cooperation between tens of thousands of people and scientists), then who exactly would you believe? A passionate mom blogger? Or perhaps a “nutritionist” who got their education from Pheonix university? Or a “certified” naturopath, where credentials take only days to achieve? A Facebook post by an edgy teenager, perhaps?

    Nah, peer-reviewed science can’t be trusted, right?

    • birchwoods

      While anecdotes are not *usually* data (case studies…), they do represent phenomena that are real to people and therefore worthy of being studied. Ironically, you’re arguing against anecdotes by claiming that because someone experiences something you don’t, it isn’t valid. The first article cited in this post is SIXTEEN years old and was funded by the International Glutamate Technical Committee, so not only is it very out of date, but there is a serious ethical conflict of interests. It also doesn’t accurately report data, it’s more of a review with some data thrown in at the end, but even that data is not quantified or even explained–they just say that some people had ‘symptoms’ and others did not. It may be peer-reviewed, but that doesn’t automatically make it good science, and it’s naive to take these black-and-white views about science. There have, in fact, been massive conspiracies between government funded health and science organizations that have seriously hurt people, especially marginalized populations, in the past, so it’s also naive to blindly trust these large organizations’ word without understanding where their priorities (and funding) lie. And if you read the article, you would find that the cited multi-center studies mostly did show greater effects from actual MSG consumption than from placebo, or were inconclusive. So the evidence is there, but you have to read past the biased language of the article.

      • Joshua

        First of all, I want to congratulate you on your well written and critically thought out response (first I’ve seen here). While case studies are valuable, they’re scientifically investigated – we can’t say that any of that is happening here with people’s personal stories of how they perceived they are affected by MSG or otherwise.

        Never said someone’s experiences are invalid. In fact, I implied everyone’s experiences are valid by pretty much literally arguing against a “one size fits all” approach, which was the point of me writing my response in the first place. If it works for you, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll work for someone else. Everyone’s biology is different. I don’t know how you got that I’m arguing against people’s individual experiences.

        And yes, you’re absolutely right that scientific literature shouldn’t be thought of as black and white. Never said that either. My language in my original post may be polarizing, but that’s because of the apparent lack of scientific approach and logic on here.

        If a journal is peer reviewed, yes it isn’t bullet proof, and no it’s not absent to bias or even conflict of interest, but please tell me – if you’re not going to believe something as concrete as multiple reviews or studies from multiple labs, then what will convince you? It doesn’t have to swing you most definitively in one direction or another but instead to absolutely shed doubt on the side of one argument. That and the very really fact that I’m yet to see any significant scientific and peer reviewed data on the linkage between headaches and MSG. If you do know of one, I’d love to read it.

        “Greater effects” means nothing without statistical significance. I’ll have to look at the study more closely to see what you mean, but I hope you understand the concept of p-values and the like, and why understanding those concepts of statistics are important. Things can be “greater” purely due to chance.

  • Erin

    MSG causes me to have debilitating, excruciating migraine headaches. Proven by an elimination diet under care of a neurologist. Any time I added it back (in the added form, so not a small amount of soy sauce where it is a natural occurrence from the fermentation, but certainly Doritos, Ramen, and the like), you can bet I was right back where I started. Not to mention that this junk is hidden by other names as well… I don’t believe this article for one second. Maybe it doesn’t affect everyone, but it makes me and several other sufferers I know VERY ill.

    • Joshua

      Was this done as a double blind test? Just asking out of curiosity.

  • Rocky

    There are always 2 sides to every story. This is only one. While there are those much more sensitive to msg than others I’ve always believed you can have to much of just about everything. Just because it occurs naturally truly isn’t a leg to stand on either. Many natural things that we must have can be fatal. For example, water. We can not live without it but is lethal in large quanities.
    Many are deathly allergic to nuts. Should nuts get a bad reputation? They too are natural. It all depends on the individual.