Hi Alice,

What's the deal with monosodium glutamate (MSG)? What exactly is it, and how bad is it for you really?

Dear Reader,

The debate about the pros and cons of MSG (or monosodium glutamate, if you want to practice saying polysyllabic words with a mouth full of take-out) is no ancient Chinese secret. Cooks in the 1950s and 1960s used this food additive mainly as a meat tenderizer under the brand name of Accent. MSG has since become more commonly associated with Chinese fast food (unless you ask for it to be omitted, which people often do). This flavor enhancer, used for almost a century, is made by fermenting starch, corn, sugar beets, molasses, or sugar cane to free naturally occurring glutamate; sodium salts of glutamate are then created that can be used to make certain foods (mostly meat dishes) more intensely flavorful. Glutamate itself is a naturally occurring amino acid found in many protein-rich foods, including cheese, milk, meat, walnuts, and mushrooms. This amino acid is also produced by the body and used in metabolism.

MSG first came under criticism and study in the late 1960s, after people reported experiencing a variety of physical symptoms collectively known as the MSG symptom complex that includes severe headaches, a sensation of flushed burning skin in the neck and chest areas, nausea, rapid heartbeat, and difficulty breathing. MSG is now the most exhaustively studied of all food additives. Based on research studies, both the American Medical Association and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have declared MSG to be safe for general consumption.

Although MSG has been shown to be a safe food additive, some people have a sensitivity to products containing MSG. Because these folks experience headaches or difficulty breathing (most often, they have severe and poorly regulated asthma) after eating foods that contain MSG, the FDA requires the labeling of food products that have MSG added. Other sources of free glutamates that may also cause sensitivity reactions in people who experience trouble with MSG include:

  • hydrolyzed protein
  • sodium caseinate
  • calcium caseinate
  • autolyzed yeast
  • yeast extract

If you regularly experience severe symptoms after eating any food, you might want to consider a follow-up with an allergist to make sure that what you're eating isn't eating you.


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