MSG (Mono sodium glutamate) or Ajinomoto(first company to crystallize it) as it is called in food industry has been victim of one of the biggest myths in the food industry, that – MSG is harmful for humans.
But how could it be? Isn’t it a universally accepted fact that MSG is harmful? That it causes headaches or brain damage? Even Chinese restaurants and popular Noodle brands put ‘No MSG’, ‘Zero MSG’ on their packets? So it has to be harmful right? Everybody says so.
Is it though? Is it really? Recall how you came to ‘know’ that MSG is harmful. Did you read a scientific paper on it? Did you speak with experts on Biochemistry or doctors studying effects of food additives? Or an article by a reputed health website? Or did your mother or any other family member or friend told you so?
This myth is so deep rooted into consumers that we have accepted it as ‘universal truth’ and it forms an important component of our core believe system regarding food. We didn’t question, is it really harmful? Why would we? After all it was told to us by our closest of friends or family, and since everybody is saying it, so it must be true right? This is a deep rooted bias in our cognition and it probably has caused you to be uneasy and immediately rush to counter my arguments about MSG. Before you do that, read on. I will be happy to get into a civil debate in the comment section below. Instead of giving references to scientific paper with all the biochem jargon, I will be referencing reputable agencies like US FDA, Mayo-clinic etc. who reference such papers at the end of this article.
Unfortunately, this is one of the biggest alarmist myth which was propagated in the food industry. This started in 1968 when a scientist reported to have ‘symptoms’ after eating at a Chinese restaurant which he called as ‘Chinese restaurant syndrome’ and wrote a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine about it. A myriad of research on MSG followed, with all sorts of studies, blind, double blind etc. adhering to claims of people experiencing Headache, sweating, nausea, palpitations and even cancer.
Even the most intellectual minds in the scientific community believe that MSG is harmful in many ways, reality is far from it. It is easy to be tricked by alarmists and self proclaimed ‘nutritionists’ that MSG is harmful for you.
Lets look at what MSG actually is, Mono sodium Glutamate.
This is the structure of MSG. It has one sodium atom attached to a glutamate molecule. Below is the structure of glutamate molecule.
So essentially, it is glutamate with a sodium atom in it. (Mono Sodium)
You might have assumed that since you don’t eat Chinese, or eat only No MSG labelled food products you are safe from MSG right? Are you really sure about that? What if I tell you that your own body manufactures Glutamate? And every living organism does so?
Yes. Glutamate is an amino acid which is produced in human body… and….almost all living organisms because it is a building block of proteins. (Amino acids make up proteins)
Which means that whenever you have eaten ANYTHING which was living or produced by a living organism (Almost every food substance there is), it HAS glutamate in it, because every organism needs it for making proteins and cooking doesn’t breakdown glutamate. No matter how vegan or meat lover you are, glutamate, is not only getting in your system by eating anything but also by your OWN system manufacturing it by Kerb’s cycle.
So when we talk about Mono sodium glutamate, it is just a glutamate with an additional sodium atom, sodium which is also a universal component in our body. Which means that our body is equipped to handle both and manage their digestion, production, breakdown, excretion and utilization. This means that neither glutamate nor sodium can bio accumulate in our body to cause any toxicity later.
MSG is a flavour enhancer which gives a ‘umami’ or savoury taste to the food. To learn more watch this video of ACS – American Chemists Society.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has given MSG its generally recognized as safe (GRAS) designation. A popular belief in the Anglosphere, known as “Chinese restaurant syndrome”, is that large doses of MSG can cause headaches and other feelings of discomfort, but scientists have been unable to trigger such reactions in controlled studies.
There is a lot of research you can view in these pages and also in the wikipedia about MSG that you can research on your own, but the gist of experiments that were performed to study effects of MSG are that they were conducted in controlled double blind environment since 1960s, yet no scientists were able to produce any results supporting the claims. Now surely, you, personally, might have experienced symptoms of headache etc after eating Chinese food, and you would trust your own perceptions better than say, the FDA, that is normal, even I did it. But we need to consider that placebo effect plays a major role in reporting ‘symptoms’. Then we have our own obvious biases that we have been drilled with ‘universal truth’ that MSG is harmful.
There have been reports of self proclaimed ‘MSG allergic’ people. Fact is, you cannot be allergic to an amino acid because without it, you cannot exist, because it forms a building block of ALL proteins there are. MSG doesn’t not produce any Anti bodies nor does it elicit any immune response, why would it? Our own body produces it. There is no such thing as ‘Glutamate Allergy or MSG allergy’. There is some evidence to support that a set of population may be sensitive to excessively high amounts of MSG on empty stomach but for most people it doesn’t have any effect. One might be sensitive to a plethora of other molecules other than MSG when consumed in excess amounts. (Even oxygen)
It has been suggested that a fear of MSG may reflect anti-Asian racism, with MSG being seen as an ‘Oriental’, alien arrival in Western cooking, likely to be dangerous. Food critic Jeffrey Steingarten argued that fear of MSG should be seen as a Western-centric mindset, lacking awareness of its common use in Far Eastern cooking without apparent problems:
“If MSG is a problem, why doesn’t everyone in China have a headache?”
If MSG is so harmful and causes so many symptoms then why aren’t people in East Asian countries experiencing the same symptoms as we are?
As consumers we should be aware of the dangers of substances that may be pushed by corporate giants but that doesn’t mean we should accept a something to be true just because everybody is saying it. We need to find out information ourselves to know what we consume better, to live a healthier and a flavoured life and not give into myths that just function to mislead us.
Written by – Aditya Karmarkar.
Note – I understand some of you might feel the sources I posted are inadequate or might want to know more about this subject. Please feel free to comment below, I will post more sources if necessary. I also understand, that you might have counter points, and counter sources, please feel free to post those sources. There is nothing wrong in a healthy academic discussions/debate, that is how science advances.