Could MSG Help You Eat More Healthy Food?

Could MSG Help You Eat More Healthy Food?

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Susmita Baral
Feb 7, 2017
(Image credit: Creative Commons)

You probably associate MSG, or Monosodium glutamate, with canned vegetables and soups, condiments, processed meats, and restaurant Chinese food. But what about fresh salads? Or whole-wheat pizza? This one food scientist wants to convince you that MSG might actually help you eat more healthfully.

What Is MSG?

The food additive is the sodium salt from the amino acid glutamic acid, which is also found naturally in our bodies. The salt, which gives food an "umami" taste, started gaining notoriety in 1968 after Dr. Ho Man Kwok wrote a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine about an observation he made: He would feel numbness at the back of his neck whenever he ate at U.S. Chinese restaurants.

Since then, MSG has been anecdotally linked to an array of health symptoms, cumulatively called "MSG symptom complex," that include headache; flushing; sweating; chest pain; nausea; weakness; heart palpitations; sweating; and numbness in face, neck, or other areas.

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Could MSG Help You Eat More Healthfully?

Well, now Business Insider reports that a food scientist suggests everyone should be cooking with MSG at home. According to Steve Witherly, he uses a "supersalt" mix to enhance flavor. The mix includes nine parts salt, one part MSG, and 0.1 parts of disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate.

That's not a ton of MSG, sure, but Witherly says he uses the mixture a lot.

"I like to encourage my kids to eat a little more healthfully, so I'll sprinkle a little supersalt in there. That stuff is really powerful. For example, I had a whole-wheat pizza — and my kids hate whole wheat — so I put a little supersalt in the tomato sauce, and they sucked that whole thing down."

Witherly hypothesizes that MSG's flavor-enhancing abilities can motivate consumers to eat more healthy foods by making it taste better and requiring less salt for flavoring.

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Okay, but Is MSG Really Safe?

Thus far, there is no scientific correlation between MSG and the reported symptoms. BBC News reports that Washington University researcher Dr. John W. Olney injected large doses of MSG under the skin of newborn mice to find they developed patches of dead tissue in the brain and grew up to be stunted, obese, and sometimes sterile. He observed similar findings in infant rhesus monkeys after administering MSG orally. But other researchers — 19 other studies, to be exact — were unable to deliver similar results.

Human studies have also failed to confirm anything. A small-scaled Australian study served 71 healthy subjects with increasing doses of MSG or a placebo in a capsule. The research team found the "MSG symptom complex" to be present at the same rate regardless of which capsule was given. The rate stayed the same when they swapped capsules for the participants.

In 1995, the FDA commissioned an investigation looking at all available information. They found MSG to be safe, but noted a subset of healthy individuals suffer unpleasant side effects when they consume more than three grams of the ingredient on an empty stomach, within an hour after consumption. The FDA estimates the average person ingests 0.55 grams of added MSG in their diet.

Currently, the FDA designates MSG to be "generally recognized as safe." And according to the American Chemical Society, "MSG can temporarily affect a select few when consumed in huge quantities on an empty stomach, but it's perfectly safe for the vast majority of people."

Read more: Food Myth Debunked: MSG Isn't Actually Bad for You

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How to Know When MSG Has Been Added

Still not convinced that MSG isn't bad for you? It's an easy thing to avoid. The FDA requires foods that add MSG to list it in the ingredient panel on the packaging. This is not required, however, of foods where MSG is found naturally, like tomatoes, Parmesan cheese, seaweed, dried mushrooms, and soy sauce. Foods that naturally contain MSG cannot market themselves as having "no MSG" or "no added MSG" on the packaging and the product cannot be listed as "spices and flavoring."

Read more: Everyone Should Cook with MSG, Says Food Scientist from Business Insider

What do you think? Would you consider adding some "supersalt" to your next meal? Let us know in the comments.

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