Back in the 1970s monosodium glutamate, better known as MSG, developed a bad reputation. One rumor even had it destroying brain cells. That wasn’t true. But what is the truth about MSG? Is it harmful?
What Is MSG?
It’s a “flavor enhancer.” MSG is a sodium salt of glutamic acid, a non-essential amino acid. It was first marketed in 1909 in Japan by Professor Kikunae Ikeda from the Tokyo Imperial University as a flavoring device. He referred to it as the “essence of taste” (Sano, 2009).
While MSG is commonly associated with Chinese food, it’s found in numerous products currently on the market–Doritos, Fritos, canned soups, KFC chicken and yes, Chinese food.
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Run a quick Google search for “monosodium glutamate” and the results may scare you: “MSG – Slowly Poisoning America;” “MSG: A Neurotoxic Flavor Enhancer;” “MSG: Is This Silent Killer Lurking In Your Kitchen Cabinet?;” “The Dangers of MSG – The Hidden Danger In Your Food.”
Chinese Restaurant Syndrome was first referenced by Robert Ho Man Kwok in a 1968 letter to the New England Journal of Medicine, where he referred to symptoms he experienced after eating at a Chinese restaurant, including “numbness at the back of the neck, gradually radiating to both arms and the back, general weakness and palpitations” (Ho Man Kwok, 1968).
By 1969, other reports of numbness, burning sensations, tingling, chest pain, headache, nausea and rapid heartbeat were included among the symptoms.
However, by 1970, studies began to come out debunking the link between these symptoms and MSG.
In reality, the FDA recognizes the additive as GRAS – generally recognized as safe – along with other safe substances including salt, sugar and spices. In 1987, the United Nationals Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization placed MSG in the safest category for food ingredients. In 1991, the European Community’s Scientific Committee for Foods reaffirmed MSG’s safety. The American Medical Association issued a report in 1992 that said MSG shows no significant health hazard.
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In 2000, several Departments at Harvard University collaborated to review the major studies identifying the aforementioned MSG-related symptoms. The report concluded that the symptom reports were mostly “anecdotal” and were “published after the original observation.” The report continued, “Results of survey and of clinical challenges with MSG in the general population reveal no evidence of untoward effects” (Gesha, et al, 2000).
However, though MSG is “generally recognized as safe,” studies have shown that MSG is linked to obesity. According to a 2008 study from the University of North Carolina, three groups of patients were given prepared, processed foods with varying levels of MSG. Those with the most MSG in their food were nearly three times more likely to be overweight than the other groups. The link between MSG and obesity is thought to be a product of MSG’s ability to eliminate appetite suppression; essentially, it doesn’t allow the brain to recognize that the consumer is full.
The Bottom Line
Though MSG is technically safe, the FDA does not recommend consuming large quantities of the substance, especially on an empty stomach. People with MSG sensitivities and asthma may want to avoid MSG as well.
Frito-Lay North America, Inc. (2012). “Explaining Ingredients.” Frito Lay. Retrieved from http://www.fritolay.com/your-health/explaining-ingredients.html.
Geha, R., Besier, A., Ren, C., Patterson, R., Greenberger, P., Grammer, L., Ditto, A., Harris, K., Shaughnessy, M., Yarnold, P., Corren, J., Saxon, A. (1 April 2000). “Review of Alleged Reaction to Monosodium Glutamate and Outcome of a Multicenter Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Study.” The Journal of Nutrition, vol.130 no. 4, 1058-1062. Retrieved from http://jn.nutrition.org/content/130/4/1058.long.
Ho Man Kwok, Robert. (April 1968). “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.” New England Journal of Medicine, 18 (178): 796.
Kentucky Fried Chicken. (August 2010). “Allergen and Sensitivities Guide.” KFC.com. Retrieved from http://www.kfc.com/nutrition/pdf/kfc_allergens_aug10.pdf.
Sano, Chiaki. (29 July 2009). “History of Glutamate Production.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 90 no. 3, 7285-7325. Doi:10.3945/ajcn.2009.27462F.
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (14 September 2008). “UNC Researchers Find Monosodium Glutamate Use Linked To Obesity.” Medical News Today. Retrieved from
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (April 2010). “Food Ingredients and Colors.” Food Ingredients and Packaging. Retrieved from http://www.fda.gov/food/foodingredientspackaging/ucm094211.htm.