Even if you don’t know what MSG is, you’ve probably heard that it’s common in Chinese food and is linked to health problems. While Chinese and other Asian restaurants do often prepare their food with MSG, research doesn’t support the idea that typical amounts of MSG are unsafe or linked to health problems.
What is MSG?
MSG stands for monosodium glutamate. Chemically, it’s the amino acid glutamate attached to a sodium atom. We consume sodium when we sprinkle table salt on our foods, but it’s also naturally present in turkey breast, spinach leaves, and most of our foods. Glutamate is one of the most common amino acids in the diet. We get it in fish, meat, milk, and even vegetables. MSG is merely two common compounds linked together.
In the culinary world, MSG provides umami, which is the fifth taste and distinct from salty, bitter, sour, and sweet. Umami is savory or meaty. It’s what we love about aged Parmesan cheese, a good steak, and dried tomatoes. These foods have naturally-occurring glutamate. When glutamate is combined with sodium, it’s easy to sprinkle on food to boost flavor.
Surprisingly, MSG even has a place in the nutrition world because it can help reduce sodium intake. Even though it contains sodium, MSG has less sodium than table salt. Chefs and home cooks mix two parts table salt with one part MSG. The flavor is bigger, and the sodium is cut by about 25%.
Is MSG Safe?
In a word, yes.
Though anecdotal reports of headaches, body aches, and general malaise linked to MSG spread through the Internet, research studies have not demonstrated that consuming typical amounts of MSG in foods causes these problems or others.
However, consuming large doses of MSG on an empty stomach – a situation that should never occur – may provoke symptoms in a subset of people. Furthermore, the International Headache Society no longer includes MSG as a cause of headaches.
Bottom line: There’s no reason to fear MSG, and you may actually enjoy both the flavor boost and sodium reduction it provides.
By Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDE, CHWC, FAND
- Food Standards Australia New Zealand. (2003). Monosodium Glutamate A Safety Assessment. 20: 1-36. https://www.foodstandards.gov.au/publications/documents/MSG%20Technical%20Report.pdf
- The International Classification of Headache Disorders, 3rd edition. Cephalagia 2018, Vol. 38(1) 1–211. https://www.ichd-3.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/The-International-Classification-of-Headache-Disorders-3rd-Edition-2018.pdf
Stephanie Ronco has been editing for Food and Health Communications since 2011. She graduated from Colorado College magna cum laude with distinction in Comparative Literature. She was elected a member of Phi Beta Kappa in 2008.