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Is MSG Bad For You?

Ever heard you should avoid MSG–or spotted it on an ingredient list and put the product back on the store shelf? I used to avoid it too. But as I learned more and dug into the facts, I realized there was a lot more to the story.

MSG (short for monosodium glutamate) is a seasoning made from sodium and glutamate. Glutamate is an amino acid that’s actually present naturally in foods like soy sauce and aged cheese. Its use as a seasoning was discovered more than 100 years ago by a Japanese professor, who realized glutamate was the reason his seaweed broth had a rich, savory flavor.

Since then, it’s been used as a flavor enhancer, giving a meaty, savory quality and hitting that fifth taste known as “umami”. Today, MSG can be found in frozen foods, salty snacks, fast food, and Chinese food. It’s also sold as a seasoning in the spice aisle. 

So how did it get a bad reputation? In 1968, The New England Journal of Medicine published a letter from a doctor who claimed he had heart palpitations and flushing after eating Chinese food. He blamed it on MSG. The journal editors nicknamed this “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” and the bad association stuck.

Since then, MSG has been blamed for headaches, nausea, chest tightness, and other health effects–but that’s largely been based on anecdotal evidence, not scientific studies.

When the FDA called for an investigation of MSG in the 1990s, the conclusion was that MSG was safe, but that some people could be sensitive to it and experience headaches or fatigue, especially if they consumed a very large amount.

An analysis of studies in the Journal of Headache Pain concluded there was no proof of a cause-and-effect relationship between MSG and headaches. And the International Headache Society no longer includes MSG on their list of headache triggers.

So should YOU avoid MSG? If you believe you’re sensitive to MSG, by all means steer clear. An otherwise safe ingredient can still make you feel lousy (for example, I have a bad reaction to coconut oil). 

But if not, there’s no reason you need to avoid it. In fact, the seasoning can help you add depth and flavor to food while using less sodium, since MSG has two-thirds less sodium than table salt. 

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD

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