MSG: Is it actually harmful?
MSG: It's the stuff that they put into your noodles. The essence of umami. The flavouring that’s always getting criticised online. But where does it come from, and is it as bad as say?
What is MSG?
MSG is an acronym for the compound Monosodium glutamate and is also known as Sodium Glutamate. It is the sodium salt of Glutamic Acid and can be found in many natural foods such as tomatoes and seaweed. MSG produces an umami taste that amplifies the savoury and meaty flavour of foods. Because of this, it is commonly found in soups and other foods that have a savoury (salty or spicy) flavour. This flavour enhancer was first produced by chemist Karl Heinrich Rittausen in 1866, however, the biochemist Kikunea Ikeda was the first one to extract and use it as a flavouring. This happened in 1908 when he was trying to extract the savoury taste of kombu, a type of edible seaweed used as a base in many Japanese soups. Contrary to popular belief, MSG on its own actually tastes quite bad and only tastes good when it is combined with a pleasant smell - this is because it mainly enhances existing flavours instead of making new ones. The amount of MSG that is considered the ‘optimal’ amount varies from food to food, but generally, not much is needed to make your food taste better. Contrarily, adding too much actually makes food taste worse. This means that those videos of people pouring entire bags of it into soup actually will result in soup that just tastes bad. In relation to this, most foods that you might think contain large amounts of MSG actually just contain tonnes of salt and other flavourings (which might be even worse for you).
How is MSG produced?
Throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, 3 different methods of MSG production have been devised. Since with its discovery in 1908 until 1962, the main method used to produce it was by using hydrochloric acid to disrupt certain bonds in vegetable proteins through a process called hydrolysis. However, the amount of MSG produced by this process became insufficient as demand increased, so other methods were developed. The next method devised to make MSG was by reacting the chemical Acrylonitrile with other chemicals so that MSG would be produced as the end result (the proper term for this is a direct chemical synthesis). This method was quite effective, but in the mid-1970s, a far easier and more efficient method was discovered - bacterial fermentation: a similar method to how vinegar or yoghurt would be made. With this method, Corynebacterium bacteria are fed vegetables such as sugar beets and tapioca. They then excrete amino acids from which MSG can be extracted. The first ones to develop this method of industrial fermentation were the Kyowa Hakko Kogyo Company.
Okay, so is it actually bad for you?
Contrary to popular belief, MSG is generally recognized as safe to eat by many organisations such as the FDA. This means that as long as you eat it in moderation, MSG will have absolutely no effect on your health. The human body can absorb and break down rather large amounts of glutamates such as MSG with no side effects; it doesn't even affect brain function or cause discomfort like people might tell you. Additionally, the amount of MSG that was recorded to be lethal to rats and mice was 5 times greater than the amount of salt needed to kill them (15g/kg of body weight compared to 3g/kg). Although the lethal amount to humans has not been recorded, it can be assumed that the ratio would be around the same - meaning that eating salt is actually many times more dangerous than eating MSG (reflected by its FDA rating). Any adverse effects that you might develop after eating MSG are likely just a placebo (meaning that it's just in your head). This is proven by the many studies that have (unsuccessfully) tried to show the harmful effects caused by MSG. Other separate studies have also investigated whether consumption of MSG was linked to asthma. As you may have expected, these studies found that there was also no conclusive evidence that the two were linked.
If it isn't actually bad for you then why do people say it is?
In 1968, Dr Robert Ho Man Kwok wrote a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine about an affliction called “Chinese restaurant syndrome”. This “Chinese restaurant syndrome” was an affliction that was linked to headaches and discomfort after eating food from Asian restaurants. His letter concluded that the use of MSG in the food of these restaurants was the cause of this syndrome. Because of how ridiculous the original letter sounded, many insiders in the medical community thought this was meant to be a joke and used race as a prop for satirical effect. As an unfortunate result of this, some media outlets picked up the information and the racial remarks as facts, which eventually led to the formation of a stigma around MSG. Unfortunately, Some of these misconceptions about MSG still exist decades later after the existence of “Chinese restaurant syndrome” was debunked.
Anik Ratta, Grad 26.
Liana Claudia Satanta (2004), Chemical glutamic acid synthesis process from acrylonitrile [online] Available at:
Brierley Horton (March 9th 2020), The MSG Myth: Are There Really Side Effects?
[online] Available at: https://www.eatingwell.com/article/283965/the-msg-myth-are-there-really-side-effects/
FDA (November 2012), Questions and Answers on Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
[online] Available at:
Government of Canada (June 2008), Monosodium glutamate (MSG) - Questions and Answers [online] Available at: https://tinyurl.com/yekz5omd
Yoko Obayashi and Yoichi Nagamura (May 2016), Does monosodium glutamate really cause headache? : a systematic review of human studies [online] Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4870486/
Anna Maria Barry-Jester (January 2016), How MSG Got A Bad Rap: Flawed Science And Xenophobia [online] Available at: https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/how-msg-got-a-bad-rap-flawed-science-and-xenophobia/