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.