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The Truthiness About MSG

Food for Thought - Oct 7, 2009 - Mark R. Vogel - - Mark’s Archive

See also: MSG Flavor Enhancer

Stephen Colbert, the comedian and political satirist, coined the term "truthiness" to describe things that people know "intuitively," without regard for evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or the facts.  In essence, it is the reality we think exists based on emotion.  And as expected, our “emotional beliefs” have a tenacity that even logic can’t penetrate.


     With this conceptualization in mind I present to you MSG, a.k.a., monosodium glutamate.  MSG is one of the most unjustly maligned substances in the culinary world.  People frequently order their Chinese food with the exhortation:  "No MSG." Some restaurants and food products even advertise "No MSG" on their menus or labels.  I'll tell you right off the bat that science has failed to find any solid evidence between MSG and supposed allergic reactions to it. 

     Monosodium glutamate is a sodium salt of glutamic acid.  It is one of a family of related substances called glutamates.  Glutamic acid is one of the amino acids which are the building blocks of protein.  It is a "non-essential" amino acid which means it is naturally produced by our bodies, as opposed to an essential amino acid which must be furnished by our diet.  Nevertheless, glutamic acid is naturally found in all meats, poultry, fish, cheese, eggs, kombu, and vegetables such as soybeans and beets.  Thus, glutamates are already naturally found both in the body and in many of the foods that we (including those with alleged allergies) already consume. 

     MSG's primary use is a flavor enhancer.  MSG was first isolated by Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda back in 1907.  He then uncovered that glutamates were the chemical substrates of the taste sensation known as umami.  Umami is now recognized as the fifth basic taste along with salty, bitter, sour, and sweet.  All of these tastes have specific receptor cells on the tongue.  Umami, somewhat ineffable, has been described as brothy, meaty, and/or savory. 

     MSG was originally synthesized from wheat gluten.  Individuals allergic to gluten (a real allergy caused by celiac disease) needed to eschew it.  Nowadays MSG is usually made by fermenting the carbohydrates in sugar, beets or molasses.  The popular brand Accent® is completely gluten free. 

     MSG is widely used in all kinds of products including canned and frozen goods, condiments, sauces, salad dressings, bouillon cubes, snacks and by many fast food chains.  MSG, and/or glutamic acid, are present in so many foods, natural and processed, that it's unimaginable that anyone's diet doesn’t contain them to some extent.  

     Back in the 1968 anecdotal reports emerged about people having a reaction to MSG, (even though it was already in use for two decades in America at that time).  Due to its use in Asian cuisine, "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” as it came to be monikered encompassed numbness, headache, migraine, palpitations, tightness in the chest, weakness, body aches, feeling faint, flushing, sweating, involuntary muscle contractions, dizziness, shivering, tingling sensations in the skin, tearing, arrhythmias and tachycardia. 

     Interestingly, many professional research studies, e.g., The Journal of Nutrition1, The Journal of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners2, Food and Chemical Toxicology3, and The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology4, have found little or no connection between MSG and these reported symptoms.  An intriguing aspect of some of the research are the “blind” studies, i.e., studies where subjects who “think” they’re sensitive to MSG are given it without their knowledge and don’t have a reaction.

     Because of the literally hundreds of studies on MSG, the FDA and the International Food Information Council5 have deemed MSG safe.  Furthermore, the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology does not recognize MSG as an allergen. 


     Moreover, as stated, glutamic acid is already produced in our bodies and both it and MSG are found in countless foods.  So why aren’t these individual who think they’re allergic to it not in a constant state of illness?

     In all fairness, it’s possible that a few rare individuals exist who have a genuine, biologically-based reaction to MSG.  This number must be small or else they would have shown up on the radar of the countless studies that have been performed.  Of course, everyone who has a reaction to MSG alleges that they are one of these unprecedented individuals.  Virtually everyone would agree that psychosomatic reactions exist, but few would admit that it happens to them.  So as the proverbial adage goes: You do the math.

     So if hundreds of studies can’t support it, how has MSG acquired such a notoriously widespread reputation?  I suspect the scenario goes like this:  Somewhere, somehow a few individuals have a reaction to MSG.  A few, as stated, might be the rare but real McCoys.  Some might have a coincidental reaction but impute the MSG.  Either way, the spark has been lit.  The word spreads as other suggestible, psychosomatic, or food-neurotic individuals are influenced.  Our health-fanatic culture is constantly searching for the next food to demonize.  Then, and this is the crucial part, it's picked up by the media.  Now the "dangers of MSG" becomes the latest sound bite plugging the 11:00 news.  It's then on the cover of health-crazed magazines, dubious TV talk shows and the like.  The latest scare always yields ratings.  Now the effect completely snowballs as more and more gullible individuals jump on the bandwagon.   Restaurants, fearing a loss of revenue, succumb to the furor.  The next thing you know, your beef chow mein doesn’t taste as good. 

     For those of you with no inhibitions to MSG, it is a wonderful flavor enhancer for meat dishes, vegetables, soups, stir-frys, sauces, dressings, etc.  Practically any savory recipe can benefit from it.  Avoid using it in sweet dishes as it does nothing for them.  Moreover, it doesn’t take much.  Use about a half teaspoon for 4-6 servings of whatever dish you are concocting.  MSG also contains 60% less sodium than salt, in case you’ve swallowed all the hype about salt and hypertension.  As stated, a half teaspoon for four servings is sufficient.  That translates into 1/8 teaspoon per person which is only 80 mg. of sodium. 

     I recommend that you go have a big bowl of chow mein and order it with “no truthiness” instead. 

1. Reconsidering the effects of monosodium glutamate: A literature review
2. Monosodium L-glutamate: A double-blind study and review
3. Everything You Need To Know About Glutamate And Monosodium Glutamate

Also Visit Mark’s website: Food for Thought Online


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