Why Are You Still Afraid of MSG?

published Oct 17, 2018
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“No MSG added!” reads almost every package of quick ramen in grocery aisles in the United States. The trepidation associated with the chemical called MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is ingrained in Americans’ consciousness — a fear that the flavor enhancer is the cause of health issues like headaches (maybe), breathing issues (only, maybe, in those allergic to it), obesity in giant doses (in rats). The truth is that scientific studies (even those I just mentioned) haven’t yielded conclusive findings that suggests MSG is bad for you. So, why are we still scared of it?

In an article recently published in US News & World Report, reporter Toby Amidor claims that scientists have known for decades that MSG is safe to consume. Turns out, MSG has likely been misunderstood by Americans and it’s probably not actually a flavor danger.

Why does MSG have such a bad rap?

Toby Amidor writes that our country-wide fear “began with a letter to the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine in 1968 in which the author described what happened to him after eating Chinese food, including generalized weakness, palpitations and numbness in his arms.” The man went on to say that his symptoms could have been from a number of foods he ate, “including sodium, alcohol from the cooking wine, or MSG.”

Even he wasn’t sold on the cause, but it was still enough to sprout fear of MSG in readers and spread wide until the urban legend was thought of as conventional knowledge. The condition (if you happen to have the same symptoms as the letter writer) is called “Chinese restaurant syndrome,” which is as cringeworthy as it is incorrect.

If you’re not eating MSG, you’re missing out.

So why do Americans have such negative associations with monosodium glutamate? (Other than the kind of scientifically unappealing name we associate with processed and unhealthy food, there are no conclusive scientific studies to point to. For every “it’s bad,” there’s an “it’s good” study right behind it.)

It’s also been rebranded, sort of. The umami movement, or the trend of chefs highlighting the umami taste sense, has certainly helped MSG’s reputation, as umami is the very taste MSG enhances. If you aren’t familiar with what the term umami is, it’s one of the five main kinds of taste in the human senses, along with sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. Umami in Japanese translates to “pleasant savory taste.”

Think of the taste of melted Parmesan on crushed tomato, or a bit of soy sauce swirled in a bowl of fresh ramen, or a plate of sizzling fried bacon. Those are naturally chock-full of umami flavor. Foods containing MSG are popular in China, but it’s also part of Lawry’s Seasoned Salt, and also added to Kentucky Fried Chicken.

MSG is a billion-dollar industry.

The person who first isolated the flavor enhancer was Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda, in 1908. After he packaged MSG for the home cook as “Ajinomoto,” it became an enormous success in Japan.

By the 1950s, Ajinomoto quickly spread to shelves in Taiwan, China, and elsewhere, and to this day, rakes in around ¥1 Trillion (Japanese Yen) a year. (You read that right.) That’s about $8.9 billion bucks in the States. Furthermore, points out The Guardian, writer Jeffrey Steingarten once asked in Vogue, “Why doesn’t everyone in China have a headache?”

Silly generalizations aside, a large part of foods we eat in America contain umami — either naturally, in the case of mushrooms or salmon, or unnaturally, in the case of MSG added to a bag of chips in the snack aisle. Like everything else in life, eat MSG in moderation and chances are you should be just fine.