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No MSG. Really? Why Not?

Back in the 1970s, when Chinese food was the go-to cheap ethnic cuisine that everyone seemed to adore, there existed one particular cautionary aspect of gorging yourself on Mu Shu Pork and that was something called “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.” This syndrome, with the horrendous name that was largely the product of rumor and speculation, struck fear into the heart of overeaters possessing sufficient chopstick skills. The list of symptoms was long and far reaching and consisted of everything from a mild headache to rectal bleeding and the culprit was monosodium glutamate (aka MSG). By the early 1980s diners would routinely ask their servers at their favorite Chinese restaurant whether MSG was included with their meal and restaurant owners soon learned that posting signs in windows (and on menus) stating “No MSG” was a sure-fire way to insure a reliable stream of customers.

Now a few decades on, with the compound MSG still quietly doing its thing on a few select menus, people are asking the question, “Is MSG really all that bad?” According to reputable food scientist Harold McGee, “In the case of MSG, the record is about as clear as it can be: there is no connection between consuming MSG in any form and the symptoms that are often called Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.” Seemingly, while some people have very real reactions/allergies to MSG, the majority of diners seem to be unnecessarily cautious about the glutamate. Some think the reactions of many people claiming to suffer from “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” were largely psychosomatic. While the MSG frequently used in Chinese restaurants came largely in the processed form (does anyone remember Accent?) the fact is that MSG is naturally occurring in several everyday foods, both of the processed and whole food varieties. MSG is found in packaged potato chips like Doritos, as well as chicken broth (sometimes labeled as natural flavoring) and soy sauce, but is also naturally found in seaweed, mushrooms, tomatoes, Parmesan cheese and basically anything fermented (including cheese, vinegar, and pickles).

Listen to an audio program on the subject of MSG here:

MSG is the sodium salt of glutamic acid, one of the most abundant amino acids in our diet. It has been used for more than a hundred years to enhance and balance the savory taste of food. It is most notable for enhancing the savory “umami” taste in food – also referred to as the “fifth taste.” Other than the rumor about MSG’s ill effects that started in the late 1960s, there has been no hard evidence that MSG (whether naturally occurring or as an additive) is a danger or an irritant to anyone. Still there are those who remain sensitive to glutamic acid of any sort and spend a great deal of time and energy avoiding it.

Consumers are slowly starting to open up to the idea of consuming MSG-rich foods, but I think we are likely a ways away from having a shaker of MSG on our dining tables alongside the salt and pepper.

What is your feeling about consuming MSG in any form? Have you ever had an adverse reaction? Do you believe in “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” or do you think it is all way overblown? After reading this, are you any more likely to introduce MSG into your diet?

Read more: Allergies, Appetizers & Snacks, Blogs, Diet & Nutrition, Eating for Health, Following Food, Food, , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

144 comments

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8:17AM PDT on Aug 4, 2012

msg as compared to salt to make it seem like it is just absolutely nothing really seems irresponsible to me. Salt has been recognized by ancient civilizations as necessary to life and for those of us who are Christians we might note that it is a word used throughout the Bible as something good. MSG is not the same thing as salt and it is not necessary to life.

Likewise the powdered form of it used in our "processed foods" and sometimes by chefs is not something that was used by ancient civilizations and can and should be characterized as highly processed. This guy has a right to say what he wants and this website can put it up and it is all legal. I have no problem with free speech. But that doesn't make what he is saying true or worthwhile. His entire characterization of MSG is something that I strongly disagree with on several different levels.

Consider he mentioned sour and sweet as two of the basic perceptible taste sensations in order to link them to the concept of umami. Well, with sweet, do we consider anything and everything that is sweet to be good for us? I avoid saccharine and I don't think that is something to sweep under the rug just because this guy wants it all to seem perfectly natural and can sound like he is the cool cat who has no need to rock the boat. What about a nice natural vinegar or a healthy natural yogurt that tastes sour vs. a food that now tastes sour because it has spoiled? We could include bitter although I don't remember if he mentioned

8:34AM PDT on Jun 25, 2012

i found about it in a reportage and ever since i stopped eating Chinese from fast food or restaurants

10:15PM PDT on May 23, 2012

wow! MSG is found in Doritos? and soy sauce? and in seaweed, mushrooms, tomatoes, Parmesan cheese and basically anything fermented (including cheese, vinegar, and pickles)? i had no idea! this is news to me!

2:10AM PDT on May 14, 2012

I am Singaporean Chinese, and here (our country has a 74% Chinese population), I can guarantee you that ALL Chinese restaurants add MSG to their food. Some years ago, I used to have to eat in Chinese restaurants because I had no time to cook, and everytime I ordered something, I would ask if MSG was added. The response: I'd get a "are you from another planet" kind of look from the waitress. It's impossible to NOT have MSG added to your food because everything is already prepared. And I can tell you that MSG is in a good 90% (if not more) of all the stuff served on the menu. It's added to everything from porridge to meat to stir-fried veggies.

I never felt well after any meal at a Chinese restaurant. And I have eaten at more than 80 different Chinese restaurants in my life. Sometimes I would feel very thirsty, or develop headaches, after the meal. But the most common reaction was a feeling that "something was not right".

In the end, I stopped eating out altogether. If I did, I ate non-Chinese cuisine. (I assume eateries serving non-Chinese food don't add MSG to their food.) Now, I cook my own Chinese food at home. Haven't had ANY headaches since then!!!

4:43AM PDT on May 7, 2012

I try to stay away from MSG. I agree that something that naturally occurs in a food is a lot different than adding a synthetic version to snack foods to get people to buy more. When I was in university I would often eat instant noodles (cheap, tasty emergency food!) that had MSG in the flavouring packets. I never got seriously ill, but I would often feel kind of unwell afterwards (like the day before you come down with a cold). MSG was the only link I could find so I decided to avoid it. Sure, it never landed me in the hospital, but I prefer food that is actively good for me.

12:48AM PDT on May 7, 2012

interesting!

11:04AM PDT on May 3, 2012

Very interesting!

4:16PM PDT on Apr 22, 2012

Marianne, No, I don't trust what comes out of the NIH, it is an agency of the US Dept of Health and Human Services. I trust them as much as the USDA, the FDA and any other gov't run institution. The very agency that brought us toxic fluoride touted as cavity prevention and countless vaccinations laced with thimerosol, aluminum, chicken embryos, monkey fetus's and HPV vaccines that will prove to cause sterility. www.naturalnews.com or www.mercola.com. This agency is supposed to prevent, detect, diagnose and treat diseases and so far all they have accomplished is to treat diseases. Absolutely nothing is spent to prevent disease, so no the NIH is not a source of sound information to me.

3:00PM PDT on Apr 22, 2012

avoid it because it triggers migraines

4:50AM PDT on Apr 21, 2012

Thanks. MSG isn't harmful, or all the celery-stick munchers would have keeled over. I don't use pure MSG in cooking, but I don't use a lot of salt, either. Too often it's used as a cover-up for rubbish, tasteless cooking - but it's good to have the option for emergencies! :)

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