So, is MSG really bad for you?
Yes? No? Maybe? Definitely. Debatable.
Depending on what you read, who you talk to, and what search terms you use, leads to a different answer. I thought it best to quickly compile a summary of findings from across the Interweb, to create some sort of consensus to hopefully set your mind at ease for the next time you chow down on a bowl of top-ramen.
But first, let’s answer one important question…
What is MSG?
Well, to answer this question we should first ask; what is glutamate? Glutamate (another way of referring to glutamic acid) is one of the most abundant and naturally occurring, non-essential amino acids. Without glutamic acid, we would die. It’s simply called ‘non-essential’ because our body produces enough of it for us to not die. Many foods are naturally high in glutamate (most everything includes at least ‘some’ glutamate) including cheese, kelp, and soy sauce (surprised?). Typically, fermented foods are higher in glutamate than others, leading to things like cheese and soy sauce (and beer!) to be high in glutamate. There are two different types of glutamic acid, free and bound. Generally, free glutamic acid is what triggers the umami reaction. Bound glutamic acid requires cooking to be ‘un-bound.’
MSG, or, Mono Sodium Glutamate, is a sodium salt of glutamic acid made by binding a single ‘free’ glutamic acid ion to a single sodium ion. Kikunae Ikeda, a Japanese chemist, originally pioneered the process for extracting and isolating glutamic acid from kombu (kelp), and binding it to a sodium ion for stability and use in food in the early 1900s. Ikeda invented the word ‘Umami’ to describe the effect MSG had on food, leading to the discovery of the fifth flavor profile, ‘tastiness.’
Why does MSG make things taste better?
When MSG is consumed, the saliva in our mouth quickly dissolves the sodium ion, which releases the free glutamic acid to run upstairs and tell our brain, “Oh man, whatever you’re eating is really, really tasty and rich in protein!” Which leads to the ‘tastiness’ profile that umami refers to. In fact, human breast milk is naturally high in free glutamic acid, so even from birth we are programmed to love umami, and therefore ‘tasty’ foods.
So, is MSG bad for you?
In my honest opinion? No, MSG is not bad for you. However, the real answer is probably more of a, ‘it depends.’ There have been numerous studies on this topic, and most of the research that caused the ‘harmful’ relationship to be identified with humans was due to injections of concentrated does of MSG into rats, which caused lesions on their brains.
From the research I’ve done, it seems that if MSG is bad for anyone, it’s due to abuse and over consumption (which is bad for you almost universally), or due to a ‘sensitivity.’ Glutamic acid is in a class of ‘excitotoxins.’ Excitotoxins, because they are absorbed so fast, in high doses (and in some cases), animal studies show that it can harm areas of the brain that are unprotected by the blood-brain barrier. Similar studies were performed on primates, and outside of one study (that I’m aware of) that claims to have recreated the lesions in primate brains, others have tried and haven’t been able to reproduce these same effects.
The debate continues, and is wrought with complexity as there are still discussions on whether this applies to primates at all, considering we are fed glutamic acid from birth. Additionally, the doses being applied to these poor creatures that did suffer lesions are about 600x higher than what we’d consume regularly… interesting.
Regardless, certain people do report headaches after eating foods rich in glutamic acid, or high in msg. There have been double-blind studies done that have typically shown these to be misreported self-diagnoses, but it’s still very possible that some people are sensitive to this amino acid and therefore do potentially see some ill side effects. I am not one of these people, so I can neither confirm or deny these symptoms exist, but the fact remains that some adamantly point to glutamic acid / MSG as an unhealthy, potentially harmful food additive.
I honestly think MSG is harmless providing you consume it in normal quantities as you would anything — salt, sugar, alcohol, etc. I simply ask that you look at the research and make your own conclusion. There are many different studies out there, and here is some additional reading on the topic, including an excellent article on Buzzfeed by an ex-Popular Science honcho, that breaks it down in a meaningful way from soup to nuts.
- The Notorious MSG’s Unlikely Formula For Success
- Truth about Ajinomoto (MSG)
- Wikipedia: Glutamic Acid
- Glutamate Rich Foods
- Unlocking Umami