November 2, 2019

What is MSG and is it really that bad for you?

You may have heard that monosodium glutamate (MSG) is unsafe and can cause allergic reactions. Fake news: these media reports are misleading and not supported by scientific evidence. You’re probably eating more MSG than you realize everyday, even if you never get Chinese takeaways.

But then what’s with the bad press? Let’s look at what MSG actually is and why its used in food.

What is MSG?

MSG is as an additive used to enhance the flavour of savoury foods. It provides the rich savoury flavour known as umami, the 5th basic taste after salty, bitter, sweet and sour. Umami is what makes savoury foods taste delicious. The specific substance or molecule that gives the umami taste is glutamate. MSG, is simply the sodium salt of glutamate and it is a white powder that looks similar to salt.

Glutamate or glutamic acid is an amino acid, one of the building block molecules of proteins. Our bodies make glutamate everyday, and we also get it from eating protein rich foods, like meat, nuts and eggs, and foods which have MSG as an ingredient

Why do we add MSG to food?

MSG used as a food ingredient as seasoning. It’s added to savoury foods  like spice mixes, salad dressings, sauces, canned soup, soy sauce, tomato sauce, and fish sauce to enhance their umami flavour.

MSG has been recognised as one of the best ways to reduce the amount of salt people eat.  Salt can cause high blood pressure if consumed in high quantities. But many people find that food with no salt or little salt added is bland. Thats where MSG comes in. It adds delicious savoury flavour to foods – without the need for extra salt, so it helps you to reduce your overall salt intake.

Is it bad for you?

The body treats glutamate in exactly the same way whether it comes naturally from the food we eat or is added as seasoning in the form of MSG. Because when we eat MSG, it separates into glutamate and sodium in the mouth. After that, when your body digests it, it can’t differentiate between the glutamate you got from umami seasoning and the glutamate in everyday foods.

MSG is one of the most thoroughly studied food ingredients in the food supply. MSG is considered safe by scientists and the most respected regulatory authorities around the world, including the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health Organization, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 

So why does it have such a bad reputation? It got a lot of bad press, especially from people who had reactions to Chinese foods – they blamed it on the MSG as it’s a common ingredient in Chinese cuisine. People who develop an odd reaction after eating a meal from a Chinese restaurant often suspect that MSG is the culprit. Although Chinese food does often contain MSG, studies have found that it’s most likely a reaction from seafood or spices. There are a small, very small, number of people who do have negative reactions that are directly due to glutamate, but the science  shows that is likely to be a rare phenomenon and people overall are highly unlikely to be allergic to MSG.