Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is the sodium salt of glutamic acid, one of the most abundant naturally-occurring amino acids
MSG is naturally found in tomatoes, potatoes, mushrooms, and other vegetables and fruits.
MSG was first prepared in 1908 by Japanese biochemist Kikunae Ikeda, who was seeking to isolate and duplicate the savoury taste of kombu, an edible seaweed used as a base for many Japanese soups. MSG has an umami (metallic) taste and is particularly popular in Korean, Japanese and Chinese cuisines.
MSG is used extensively in the food industry as a flavour enhancer. It intensifies the meaty, savoury flavour of foods, as naturally-occurring glutamate does in foods such as stews and meat soups.
An advantage of MSG is that it can be used to reduce the intake of sodium or salt. A high intake of sodium has been associated with high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. With appropriate MSG use, salt can be reduced by 30 to 40 percent without a perceived reduction in saltiness.
Is It Safe?
MSG has been recognised as safe by the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The European Union classifies it as a food additive permitted in certain foods and subject to quantitative limits. MSG has the E number E621.
An MSG symptom complex or ‘Chinese restaurant syndrome’ has been reported in people who may be intolerant to MSG when eaten in large quantities and/or on an empty stomach. People with severe, poorly controlled asthma may also suffer temporary worsening of asthmatic symptoms after consuming MSG, in addition to being prone to MSG symptom complex.
MSG symptom complex is characterised by one or more of the following symptoms:
- burning sensation in the back of the neck, forearms and chest
- numbness in the back of the neck, radiating to the arms and back
- tingling, warmth and weakness in the face, temples, upper back, neck and arms
- facial pressure or tightness
- chest pain
- bronchospasm (difficulty breathing) in MSG-intolerant people with asthma
- drowsiness and weakness
However, scientists have been unable to trigger any of these reactions consistently in controlled studies.
The Bottom Line
Although no definitive evidence of a link between MSG and the symptoms described above has been found, it has been acknowledged that a small percentage of people may have short-term reactions to MSG. Symptoms are usually mild and don't require treatment. The only way to prevent a reaction is to avoid foods containing high amounts of MSG. If you are intolerant to MSG, order Chinese food prepared without MSG and make sure to check food labels. Eating other foods prior to eating MSG may also help.
Written by Victoria Trowse