MSG: Is It So Bad?

On April 23, 2014 by Tim Newman

MSG - Monosodium_glutamate - is it dangerous

MSG (Monosodium Glutamate) has been vilified for decades. This tiny molecule was, for a while at least, derided as the most sinister chemical on earth. You might have noticed it’s not mentioned so much now (much like your salt intake) so has it disappeared from usage?

[{Before we broach the subject de jour  I thought I’d let you know that initially I was going to call this post “OMG! It’s MSG!” but I didn’t.}]

What Is MSG?

MSG  is the sodium salt of glutamic acid, one of the most abundant naturally occurring non-essential amino acids. MSG gives the same umami (savoury) taste as free molecules that naturally occur in food. So it kind of accentuates the flavour that’s already there. The more “savoury” a food is, the more natural glutamic acid there is likely to be in it. For instance, the most savoury food in the universe – marmite has 1960 mg/100g, Parmesan cheese has 1200 and salmon a measly 20.

The tongue has receptors for glutamate already, and MSG just activates more of them. So contrary to popular disinformation there’s no slitting or slicing necessary to get that lovely beefed up flavour.

MSG was born in 1908 at the Tokyo Imperial University when glutamic acid was first isolated from seaweed as a new taste substance. The Suzuki brothers started the first commercial production of MSG in 1909 as Aji-no-moto, meaning “essence of taste”.

Safety of MSG

MSG - Monosodium_glutamate - is it dangerous 2

As we all know, the stuff makes pretty much everything taste better, but is it safe? It’s been on the market for more than a century and so there have been plenty of studies carried out on it. MSG has been unanimously declared safe to consume, but I suppose as with everything, you can have too much of a good thing.


Robert Ho Man Kwok started a bit of a storm in a teacup after describing negative symptoms following a Chinese meal – numbness, palpitations and weakness. He himself put it down to wine used in cooking, excessive salt or MSG, but it was the MSG that got the international ribbing. This alleged syndrome was named “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” or “monosodium glutamate symptom complex;” but despite its official sounding names there’s no actual evidence that it’s a real thing at all. No statistical association has been demonstrated between MSG and ill effects.

MSG - Monosodium_glutamate - japan packets

However, it’s not all roses. MSG is absorbed in your gut much faster than its naturally occurring counterpart and as such can cause a spike of glutamate in the blood plasma. Glutamate is excitatory in nature and it can cause brain toxicity if consumed in large doses because it passes through the blood brain barrier (which normally stops naughty molecules from getting into your brain). That sounds nasty, but as it stands the jury is out as to whether in normal circumstances you would actually ever be likely to eat enough to see a difference.

Alternative Names For MSG

MSG - Monosodium_glutamate - japan crisps

I guess if it was really dangerous we would have noticed by now. But whether it’s bad or not, it certainly has a bad name. So when you peruse the labels on your pot noodle or packet of crisps don’t be surprised if you don’t see it mentioned. Marketing gurus aren’t stupid (evil perhaps but not necessarily stupid) so they call it different things. Simple as that. Here’s some of the things that MSG is now called:

These are the names of ingredients that always contain processed free glutamic acid

  • Glutamic acid (E 620)
  • Glutamate (E 620)
  • Monosodium glutamate (E 621)
  • Monopotassium glutamate (E 622)
  • Calcium glutamate (E 623)
  • Monoammonium glutamate (E 624)
  • Magnesium glutamate (E 625)
  • Natrium glutamate
  • Anything “hydrolyzed”
  • Any “hydrolyzed protein”
  • Calcium caseinate,  Sodium caseinate
  • Yeast extract, Torula yeast
  • Yeast food, Yeast nutrient
  • Autolyzed yeast
  • Gelatin
  • Textured protein
  • Whey protein
  • Whey protein concentrate
  • Whey protein isolate
  • Soy protein
  • Soy protein concentrate
  • Soy protein isolate
  • Anything “protein”
  • Anything “protein fortified”
  • Soy sauce
  • Soy sauce extract
  • Anything “enzyme modified”
  • Anything containing “enzymes”
  • Anything “fermented”
  • Anything containing “protease”

Here’s the ingredients that often contain or produce processed free glutamic acid during processing

  • Carrageenan (E 407)
  • Bouillon and broth
  • Stock
  • Any “flavors” or “flavoring”
  • Natural flavor
  • Maltodextrin
  • Oligodextrin
  • Citric acid, Citrate (E 330)
  • Anything “ultra-pasteurized”
  • Barley malt
  • Malted barley
  • Brewer’s yeast
  • Pectin (E 440)
  • Malt extract
  • Seasonings

Funny hey?! So, my advice would be the same as any sane person’s: moderation. Basically, if you don’t spoon it on to your food by the kilo you’ll probably be OK. I mean, you’ve made it this far right? To fully put your mind at rest here’s a quote from the European Food Information Council:

Monosodium glutamate is one of the most extensively studied food ingredients in our food supply. Hundreds of studies and numerous scientific evaluations have concluded that monosodium glutamate provides a safe and useful taste enhancer for foods.

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