MSG, alright by me

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Virgil Evetts

I was raised to shun MSG. It’s a poison after all, Hitler in powder form really. It causes headaches, flue-like symptoms, stomach cramps, rectal bleeding… Oh the things it does! Actually, says who?

MSG (or monosodium glutamate), is undoubtedly one of the great pariahs of western nutrition, ranked equal to saturated fats and the many horrors known as ‘chemicals’ (never mind that every tangible thing in the universe is made of chemicals); but it would seem that it has earned this status largely because of hysteria, misinformation, and probably a smidgeon of institutionalised racism.

MSG (of a sort)  exists naturally in foods most of us eat practically every day – tomatoes and yeast extracts for example are loaded with the stuff. Kombu kelp, a potent natural source of glutamate, has been used liberally by Chinese and Japanese cooks for over 1200 years, and the apparent modern evil of refined MSG has been a standard in the Asian pantry since  the early 1900s. A diet rich in MSG doesn’t seem to have detrimentally affected the health, prosperity or proliferation, of the peoples of China, Korea and Japan, now does it?

So what is MSG? Basically it’s a crystalline form of glutamic acid. To explain what this actually means would require a lengthy and rather dull crash course in chemistry, so for more info click here (be warned though, its bloody boring). Not only does glutamic acid exists  in many foods (see above) , it is also naturally present in our bodies all times. In other words, it’s neither new to our diets nor foreign to our bodies.   Despite its very bad name, MSG has never been conclusively linked to any health problems by a reliable source.  Now I’m sure you have all read very compelling evidence to the contrary- so have I; but it’s important to understand the difference between an essay written by a dietician or nutritionist (a title which in publishing terms can mean anything from an MD to well-meaning hippy), and an unbiased scientific study. An unbiased study is one commissioned by a government or non-partisan research organisation – not one commissioned by a drug company or a food manufacturer. As it stands right now there is no conclusive scientific proof  to suggest that MSG is inherently bad or dangerous. By comparison, common table salt has been proven, beyond the shadow of a doubt to be damaging to human health in certain stuations.  However, it is logical to assume that excessive consumption of MSG could cause problems. For example, glutamic acid helps sharpen nerve responses in the brain. It is therefore plausible that it could indeed be associated with migraines in some people. But let me just repeat the important points here: COULD be; SOME people.

The function of MSG as a food additive is to improve or enhance  flavours, by bringing out the tangy, savoury quality known as umami. Think of the slightly meaty flavour of sun-dried tomatoes or dried yeast flakes – that’s umami. MSG, does not have a flavour of its own as such. Although many Chinese chefs are very heavy handed in their use of MSG, only a very small amount is needed to dramatically improve a dish. One of my favourite MSG laden off-the-shelf products is Japanese Kewpie brand mayonnaise. The trouble is, this  mass produced but undeniably luscious stuff is made with eggs laid by battery farmed hens. Nuff said.  But I have found that a frankly superior approximate can be produced by adding MSG powder to homemade mayo.  Use sunflower oil in place of E.V.O, rice vinegar in place of lemon juice and ¾ teaspoon of MSG per cup of mayo. Et voila! Home-made Kewpie. Shudder and recoil if you must, but take it from one who gets around a bit, this is some seriously good stuff.

Just becuase there is no hard evidence to suggest that MSG (aka flavour enhancer 621 or Seasoning Salt)  is dangerous to human health doesn’t mean that its entirely harmless; it just means that it’s not outright deadly or a common  allergen. Sure it’s possible you’re allergic to MSG, but you’re probably not. What I can tell you with some confidence is that I have ingested MSG thousands of times over the course of my life, and most of you have too. Maybe it’s building up in our livers or brains, waiting to strike in later years. But probably not.

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11 thoughts on “MSG, alright by me

  1. Like any other product, if it upsets you, stay away from it! We have plenty or hard evidence that alcohol and tobacco are not only bad for you but can, in certain instances, kill. In my case I have a pretty bad reaction to wheat – but none of this means these things are inherently bad when used correctly by people who do not react negatively to them.

  2. I normally never comment on blog posts but I had to… First of all, Virgil isn’t saying that MSG is *good* or that no-one will be affected by MSG. People with an allergy to MSG are perfectly entitled to raise objections about this post, and this would be similar to a person with a peanut allergy commenting about a post about how eating peanuts is healthy. However just because a certain ingredient makes a few unfortunate consumers ill, doesn’t mean it’s bad for the rest of the population, but somehow this is how it’s been extrapolated. And I agree that while we haven’t got a proof that it’s not harmful to our healths, we can, *if we wish*, tread with caution. But I find that having an ad about potato chips that have *none of that nasty MSG* either portrays ignorance, or preys on consumers who are misinformed.

  3. Yes, glutamic acid is naturally occuring but my experience with MSG is that it is alot like purines (also naturally occuring in food, but causes gout in some people), some people can handle amounts far larger than others, and those people that do have bodies that have trouble processing it have to seriously avoid it or pay the consequences.

    Also it is possible that there is a difference between naturally occuring gultamic acid and MSG. Alot of things that are the same but different and a slight difference can make a big difference to how our body handles things, like with gout the purines in meat are supposed to be worse than the purines in vegetables and the iron from meat is more easily absorded than the iron in vegetables.

    Finally just because we don’t have scientific proof that MSG is bad doesn’t make it safe either.

  4. Dear Virgil, MSG – I have to comment on MSG. I have suffered for years and years with stroke/seizure/heart like symptoms. I have collapsed when standing or walking and been carted off to hospitals in several countries (by ambulance) – been checked by all manner of Specialists/Heart Surgeons etc. Given a clean bill of health with no explanation as to the serious symptoms I experienced and still do whenever I consume products containing MSG. Naturally produced MSG – I can sometimes get away with, but added MSG causes severe and debilitating reactions. I cannot buy so many products as this insidious powder is now used universally
    – in sauces, mixes etc. Believe me I am not the only person who has a problem with 621 either and I have just given you hard evidence – in fact email me your phone number and we can talk about this some more. Most people don’t have a problem with it but for those of us who do – MSG – 621 is DEADLY! Any product that says “no added MSG” doesn’t make it into my shopping trolley – it has to be completely free of any MSG – 621. As a consequence my husband and I cook just about everything from scratch i.e. curry pastes – sauces etc. It’s a lot of work as you can imagine but the alternative is terrifying. Anyway, I hope you will be in touch and we can discuss the cons of 621 at least.
    Regards – Jo PS I hope you do post this on the website.

    • Hi Jo
      Those certainly sound like very extreme reactions. As I say- true MSG allergies are rare, but it is assumed that they do exist. I would place your reactions as being quite distinct from the usual headaches and stomach complaints associated with self diagnosed intolerance. As with any genuine allergy this is something you should (and obviously do) take very seriously. Have you had an allergy test done? It’s possible you could carry an epipen just in case.
      You poor thing, that must make travel very difficult.

  5. Good question Maree
    That very issue has been well examined scientifically. There is no significant difference in the rate of side effects reported by test subjects who claimed to be allergic to m.s.g than those in the control groups. Furthermore many subjects still reported side effects when given placebos. Interestingly the rate of MSG related side effects increases dramatically if people know, or are told they are ingesting the substance.
    This could mean several things- that the power of suggestion has a part to play, that some other common allergy is involved (associated with soy, for example), or that MSG can react with other substances found in food to cause allergic reactions. Basically the results are seen as inconclusive, but a percentage of people do have psychosomatic reactions to MSG. That is not to say that genuine MSG allergies do not exists, just that they are probably very rare.
    Most people do not realise that MSG present is in many, many common foods. Almost all flavoured potato chips contain it, as do flavoured nuts, japanese rice crakers, soy sauces, chilli sauces, some processed meats, instant soups, stocks, noodles… It’s everwhere and in many cases in far higher doses than the average plate of fried rice would contain.

  6. I really do love your blog and am a regular reader. But this entry is making my blood pressure going up a bit.

    First of all I am disappointed that you use the old “My grand dad was 91 when he died and he was smoking cigarettes all his live” approach. This doesn’t proof anything except that there are individuals who are not susceptible to some of the issues other people have.

    Then you pull out the next argument people always bring up when it is about food ingredients. “It is natural occurring so it can’t be bad” So are arsenic, strychnine, nicotine, mustard gas etc. Do we want to consume those as well? They are natural, aren’t they?

    If MSG is naturally occurring in some food then it is probably supposed to be there. Scientists still do not understand how a combination of food ingredients work. And by the way, you say that glutamic acid naturally occurs in yeast extract? I wouldn’t see yeast extract as a naturally occurring food. Do you? The point is, is MSG as harmless as it is when naturally occurring if we add it to food where it isn’t naturally occurring?

    It is not as much the question whether or not MSG is causing health issues. The issue is that it is used to make crap food taste better e.g. chicken nuggets.

    And this is what disappoints me most, that a blog called foodlovers is promoting to artificially enhance the flavor of food using a chemical. What’s next? Use Natural Strawberry Flavor (which isn’t natural at all but chemicals extracted from natural sources) and pimp it up with food color?

    I have some recommended reading for you: Erik Schlosser – “Fast Food Nation”, Carlo Petrini – “Slow Food Nation”, Michael Pollan – “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food”



    • Hi Peter
      First of all thanks for your well thought out response
      I wouldn’t say that I am promoting the use of MSG as such more that I object to the blind assumption that it is bad. It may well be, but we simply don’t know. Yes, in most industrial applications it is used to make crap food taste good, but so are fat and sugar. On their own and in appropriate places these substances can improve good food too.
      Unless you live on unadulterated leaves, seeds and raw meat, everything you eat has been artificially enhanced with any number of substances. Consider plum jam for example- heavily adulterated with a known dangerous food additive- sugar.
      The mayo recipe is an example of something that actually uses M.S.G to set it apart from French mayo- not to make it better, just different.
      This article from The Gaurdian is very interesting reading
      I do appreciate your thoughts

  7. MSG has also been called the “chinese food sickness” because of the nausea, migraines and papitations suffered by people after eating out at Chinese restaurants and eating food with flavour enhancer 621. Proponants claim it is not MSG that does this, howver if MSG is not to blame what other common denominator is there? If you are alergic to MSG it WILL affect you. Otherwise explain how symptoms do not occur unless you eat something with MSG?

  8. Couldn’t agree more. I suspect one of the reasons MSG has had such bad press is because of the unfriendly name. We’d probably feel the same about salt if it were only known as sodium chloride.