The science behind food is not only essential to performing specific cooking processes- it’s also necessary in understanding how food components are “good” or “bad” for you. I placed “good” and “bad” in quotation marks because even those words are too vague in describing how our bodies process food additives like MSG or monosodium glutamate. MSG has gained an infamous reputation among diners and even cooks, with some Chinese restaurants claiming they don’t use MSG in their food. But what exactly is MSG and what is its function in food?
Glutamic acid was made into MSG or the amino acid’s salt form so that people could easily sprinkle it on their food.
Before we get into what MSG does to your body, it’s important to know what MSG is. MSG or monosodium glutamate is the salt version of L-glutamate or glutamic acid. Our bodies actually produce glutamic acid since it is an amino acid and MSG is also naturally found in food such as tomatoes and cheese. MSG became a food additive when Japanese biochemist Kikunae Ikeda extracted glutamic acid from seaweed and discovered MSG’s role in enhancing the umami taste buds on our tongue. Umami stands for savory, and comes from the Japanese word for delicious, “umai.” Glutamic acid was made into MSG or the amino acid’s salt form so that people could easily sprinkle it on their food.
Eventually MSG became widely distributed under Ajinomoto, which also introduced the substance as a way for Japanese housewives to enhance their homemade meals. MSG is meant to be a flavor enhancer, nutritionist Luchi Callanta explains. “When it is used properly, then it’s good. MSG is what you call, self-limiting,” she continues. “If you use too much, then it will end up tasting bitter. A flavor enhancer should improve the food’s flavor and not become the flavor.”
Another major producer of MSG is China’s Henan Lotus Flower Gourmet factory, which produces the MSG from edible starch such as sweet potatoes, beets, and corn. According to the FDA, MSG is no longer produced through extraction from seaweed broth but from a fermentation process of starch.
Chinese restaurant syndrome began being associated to any bad experiences with Chinese food and MSG was immediately blamed for these “symptoms.”
MSG gained its bad reputation in 1968, when Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok coined the term “Chinese restaurant syndrome” in his article for the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM). Among the most prominent syndromes he experienced was “numbness at the back of the neck, gradually radiating to both arms and the back, general weakness and palpitation.” Chinese restaurant syndrome began being associated to any bad experiences with Chinese food and MSG was immediately blamed for these “symptoms.” In 1972, Lorne Greene blamed Chinese restaurant syndrome in his New York Times interview for him fainting and his four-day hospitalization. The doctor told him the cause was “gastric distress with extra heartbeats,” but Greene chose to blame Chinese restaurant syndrome for this. The FDA has also received a number of anecdotal reports that claim bad reactions to foods with MSG, such as sweating, headache, flushing, facial tightness or pressure, nausea, and chest pain.
Luchie Callanta emphasizes that although MSG has many unhealthy effects, they only happen when the person is hypersensitive to the product and when too much of the component is consumed. It should be noted that in Greene’s account, he describes having a “light breakfast that day and practically nothing for lunch.” The dinner they had at the Chinese restaurant was composed of “shrimp, beef, fried and sizzled,” and he even continues to go, “like an idiot, I put some more soy sauce on the rice, and that stuff is filled with monosodium glutamate.”
According to their research, all the subjects experienced effects such as burning, chest pain, and headache, but these symptoms were elicited after consuming between 2 to 12 gms of MSG.
Another study quantified the unhealthy effects of MSG. A 1969 article in Science analyzed won-ton soup from a restaurant that elicited the Chinese restaurant syndrome reaction in two customers. According to their research, all the subjects experienced effects such as burning, chest pain, and headache, but these symptoms were elicited after consuming between 2 to 12 gms of MSG. These quantities are known to really produce stronger symptoms. Like sugar, salt, and any other food additive or chemical, an excessive use of an ingredient will really have amplified effects. The study continued to conclude that MSG could “produce undesirable effects in the amounts used in the preparation of widely consumed foods.”
Chinese food isn’t the only thing we eat that contains MSG. Every day condiments and ingredients such as Maggi and Knorr seasoning, soy sauce, and even basic ingredients such as fish, oysters, broccoli, and mushrooms contain some amount of glutamate. MSG is also included in the FDA’s list of food additives, and is described with the function as “flavor enhancer.” Like other additives in the list, the FDA specifies that the maximum level in fresh meat, frozen vegetables, and frozen fish should be within the GMP or good manufacturing practice.
The Department of Science and Technology’s Food and Nutrition Research Institute conducted its own study of MSG consumption in households from Taguig and Laguna. Majority of the glutamate-containing products consumed included sixteen condiments and seasonings. The results found that liquid seasonings and sauces only contained 0.25 to 2.85 grams per 100 grams of free glutamate, snack foods had a lesser quantity at 0.05 to 1.38 grams per 100 grams, and canned foods contained only about 0.05 to 0.17 grams per 100 grams. If you’re too lazy to do the math, these quantities basically show that the glutamate amount is much smaller than the amounts consumed by those who’ve experienced “Chinese restaurant syndrome.” And if you think about how much soy sauce or snacks you consume daily, then you’re less likely to experience glutamate’s drastic effects.
MSG should be consumed the same way we have sugar, salt, and caffeine: in moderation. As long as restaurants are using the amount needed to enhance the food’s flavor and you know how your body reacts to specific types of food that have MSG, then the unhealthy effects of glutamate can be avoided.