What is MSG? Is it safe and does it really give you headaches?

A three-letter word that seems to strike fear in many foodies’ hearts. Some love it, and others avoid it at all costs. But is there a valid reason to avoid MSG in foods? Or has it been given a bad name by fear-mongering media? If you are curious to know more about this scary (yet delicious) compound, read on. You might just change your mind!

By Cookist
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Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a flavor enhancer, known for imparting a savory (or ‘umami’) taste to foods. What makes MSG such a useful flavor enhancer, is the fact that it has no taste and smell on its own. It merely enhances the flavor of the food in which it is used.

What is MSG?

It was discovered more than 100 years ago by Japanese scientist, Professor Kikunae Ikeda. He noticed a delicious ‘meaty’ taste in seaweed broths and was curious as to where it came from. He soon realized it was the glutamate compound inside seaweed, an ingredient often used in Japanese cooking. He named this taste ‘umami’ and years later, it became the fifth basic taste. For a long time, there were only four basic tastes known to humans: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Umami became the fifth taste as it does not seem to fit into any of the other four categories and is described as ‘savory’.

Does MSG cause headaches?

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MSG is the sodium salt of L-glutamic acid (or glutamate), a non-essential amino acid. Glutamate is naturally present in our bodies, as well as in many of the foods we eat (tomatoes, mushrooms, cheese and many more). This explains why vegetarian dishes containing mushrooms, have a meaty taste and is often satisfying to meat-eaters. So how did MSG become the bad guy then?

Type ‘MSG’ into your search bar and you will get tons of negative media on it. It’s called ‘unhealthy or ‘cancer-causing’, and some people are even ‘allergic’ to it. But is there any truth behind these claims?

It was in the late 1960s when the suspicion of MSG started. A researcher noticed he had headaches every time he ate at a Chinese restaurant. He thought the culprit was the MSG flavoring, and soon after that, ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’ became a term to explain headaches and other symptoms thought to be caused by MSG. The studies that looked at these symptoms and found them to be caused by MSG, was mostly flawed. How so? Well, the study participants knew whether the foods they consumed contained MSG or not.

Subsequent studies have since shown that when participants were not informed whether a meal contains MSG, they experienced no unfavorable symptoms. Numerous studies that followed, show MSG to be safe and harmless to humans. In fact, the glutamate in MSG is chemically identical to the glutamate found naturally in foods, and our bodies cannot differentiate between the two. Interestingly, the amount of glutamate you take in from daily protein is more than 20 times the amount you will get from MSG. If you do experience symptoms such as headaches or heart palpitations after eating a meal with MSG, it is more likely from a high amount of salt than it is because of the MSG.

When it comes to our food choices, everyone seems to have an opinion. But why not read what science says and make the decision for yourself!

References
Consensus meeting: monosodium glutamate, European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Questions and Answers on Monosodium glutamate (MSG), FDA

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