MSG stands for monosodium glutamate. It’s a flavor enhancer with a bad reputation for causing health issues. It’s been around for approximately 100 years and occurs naturally in some foods. Japanese professor Kikunae Ikeda discovered it in 1908. He found it in kombu seaweed. He then extracted the amino acid, dissolved and neutralized it to get MSG. More recent research shows it may not be bad for you in smaller doses, but still may affect people sensitive to it.
What exactly is MSG?
MSG comes from an amino acid that your body can make, L-glutamic acid. It occurs naturally in many foods. It’s an odorless crystal-like powder. Once dissolved in water, it separates into free glutamate and sodium. The manufacturing of L-glutamic acid starts by fermenting sugar beet, molasses, or sugar cane. MSG is chemically the same as the glutamic acid found in food and digested similarly. It flavors food with its umami taste, which is meaty. It’s called the fifth basic taste in addition to sweet, sour, bitter, or salty.
Even though most believe MSG is safe, there’s still a debate about safety.
People still report symptoms from consuming food containing MSG. They are part of the MSG symptom complex and include flushing, sweating, chest pain, face pressure, a numb or tingling feeling, nausea, headache, and weakness. Though the FDA—Food and Drug Administration—classified MSG as generally safe but must be listed on the label when it’s added to food.
There are some myths surrounding MSG that can be debunked.
Some people believe MSG is high in sodium, which can cause high blood pressure and heart disease if there’s too much in the diet. Salt contains 40% sodium, while MSG only contains 12%. However, many people use both. Another myth is that MSG also contains gluten. The problem comes from the similar names for the proteins in each. Approximately 30% of gluten is glutamine. However, MSG contains glutamate. Finally, there’s a myth that the body can’t process MSG. The body processes naturally occurring glutamate, and the glutamate in MSG is added to foods the same.
- Some animal research shows links MSG to obesity, blood sugar fluctuations, liver damage, an increased risk of heart disease, nerve damage, increased inflammation, and behavioral problems.
- MSG may sabotage your diet by increasing your appetite and promoting weight gain. It may increase the risk of metabolic syndrome that can cause diabetes and heart disease.
- Most people don’t consume more than 3 grams of MSG daily, but even that amount can cause symptoms in people sensitive to it. Just as most people can tolerate gluten or lactose, some can’t.
- Food high in MSG includes soups, fast food, processed meat, condiments, chips and snack food, frozen meals, seasoning blends, and instant noodles. The problem may not be MSG, but the foods that contain it.
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