Some nutrition info gets passed around so much that nobody bothers to think about whether it actually makes any sense—or whether it’s accurate. Case in point: Monosodium glutamate (MSG), popularly known as “that stuff in Chinese food that gives you a headache”. But is that even true?
So what is MSG? It’s important to know the backstory. MSG is a seasoning made from sodium and glutamate, an amino acid that’s found naturally in certain foods like tomatoes, soy sauce, and aged cheeses. Glutamate was discovered as a flavor enhancer in 1908 by a Japanese professor, who pinpointed glutamate as the substance that gave their favorite seaweed broth its rich, savory taste. Glutamate is unique because it hits the fabled “fifth taste” called umami (Japanese for “delicious”), a decidedly savory and meaty flavor. The professor filed for a patent to produce MSG, and it became widely used to season food.
But in 1968, a letter appeared in The New England Journal of Medicine from a doctor claiming they experienced heart palpitations and flushing after eating in Chinese restaurants. They chalked it up to MSG in the food, and the editors of the journal dubbed it “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”.
Anecdotal reports started swirling about MSG and the symptoms it supposedly triggered, from headaches and nausea to tightness in the chest. But scientific evidence was thin. So in the 1990s, the FDA asked an independent scientific group to investigate. The group concluded that MSG is safe, though they said some sensitive people might get short-term symptoms (like headache or drowsiness) if they consume 3 grams or more of MSG (a typical serving in food is less than .5 grams).
The FDA classifies MSG as “generally recognized as safe”, the same designation that ingredients like sugar and baking soda have. They say the body metabolizes MSG the same way it does the natural glutamate found in food. Also of note: The International Headache Society no longer includes MSG on their list of headache triggers.
But there’s still a cloud of concern around it, and you’ll spot plenty of brands calling out “no MSG” on their labels. So what should you do?
First, consider the upside to using MSG. The seasoning increases flavor and adds depth but has two-thirds less sodium than regular table salt--and you don’t need very much to boost taste.
Then try it out yourself. You can find it in the seasoning aisle under names like Accent and Aji-no-moto. Sprinkle a little bit into a casserole or batch of soup and see if you like the way it makes your food taste--and the way it makes you feel. Because in my opinion, it’s much better to know the facts (and try it firsthand) than to rely on rumor.