The Notorious M.S.G.

The Chinatown boy with the bad rep

I have met many people who won’t eat Chinese food because they believe they will get headaches, shakes and a host of maladies due to their alleged allergy to monosodium glutamate. Many of these same people will go out and dip their sushi in soy sauce, or grate Parmesan cheese over their pasta, not realizing that those foods also contain large amounts of glutamic acid, the primary compound in MSG.

Glutamic acid is one of 20 basic amino acids that are the building blocks for all the proteins in our bodies, and is found in many commonly eaten foods. Its presence in the body is critical to maintaining a healthy metabolism and acting as a neurotransmitter agent. In fact, many of us have been exposed to it since we were young — human breast milk contains more than 10 times the glutamic acid of the same amount of cow’s milk, which may partially explain why we are so drawn to it in our diets.

When you hear chefs at the restaurant or on TV go on about umami or glutamates in a dish, they are actually saying it contains lots of glutamic acid, which creates the thick, meaty-savoury, flavour enhancing sensation people crave. Monosodium glutamate is just glutamic acid with bonded salt, which helps it dissolve in liquid and create those tasty ions that are responsible for creating umami.

While one can use artificially created MSG to augment the flavours of their dishes, it is actually easier to draw out the naturally occurring glutamates present in many day-to-day foods — eggs, beef, potatoes and tomatoes — through cooking, curing or fermenting.

Many cultures around the world, most notably in Japan where the term umami first developed in the early 1900s, have refined techniques to create glutamate-rich foods. A mix of konbu and various kelps are used to create dashi, the basic broth that comprises the foundation for many Japanese dishes. Regions in Italy and Spain create prosciutto, culatello and Iberico ham by carefully controlling the temperature and humidity during the curing process, which breaks down proteins to form glutamic acid within the meat.

We regularly consume many of these foodstuffs as part of our basic diets, so it seems odd that there are so many claimed MSG allergies when medical studies identify only one per cent of the population as actively exhibiting food additive intolerances. It has been argued that the symptoms are psychosomatic or used as a generic excuse to avoid food which a person may not be accustomed to, as opposed to those who manifest serious physical discomfort.

Food naturalists may claim that adding artificial MSG is unhealthy, and that naturally extracting glutamates is better for you. In reality, the human body processes both artificial and natural glutamates in the same manner. However, it is true that naturally prepared glutamates like konbu dashi may taste better, due to the fact that it has been fortified with sake, mirin, soy and other ingredients to create more robust flavour profiles. Additionally, some brands of artificial MSG are actually made from natural ingredients and enhanced with minerals.

Even though many go out of their way to eschew foods which are unrightfully branded as MSG laden, many don’t realize they consume it from other sources without ill effect. Grilled sardines, which are a popular Mediterranean dish, are rich in glutamic acid, and a cup of green tea from the coffee shop contains glutamate ions, while a bag of Doritos contains MSG sprinkled over each chip.

Common misconceptions can drastically skew perceptions of healthy and tasty meals and can limit variety. Taking a little time to understand the food that we prepare can help us make informed choices to aid our health and also prepare tastier meals, be it using artificial or natural ingredients.

Comments: 7

el Gordo wrote:

Actually, konbu is kelp (sun dried). The other essential ingredient for dashi is katsuobushi (dried, fermented, smoked and then shaved skipjack tuna).

on Oct 4th, 2012 at 1:31pm Report Abuse

le Voyage Gourmand wrote:


Dashi can be made with konbu or a mixture of different kelps depending on the region and the flavour profile you want. Konbu has the highest glutamate concentration of all the kelps however.

You can also fortify the dashi with dried mushrooms, sardines, etc. to control the glutamate/inosinate balance. I somtimes like to use fried bacon when making mine, a trick from Dave Chang at Momofuku.

on Oct 4th, 2012 at 6:23pm Report Abuse

KatyK wrote:

I don't avoid MSG in particular, but I have yet to come across a healthy food product that contains it. Yes, people tend to be overly dramatic about the effects of MSG, but it doesn't follow that MSG-laden foods are otherwise healthy to eat. I understand the point you are trying to make about naturally occuring glutomates, but this article is still very misleading.

on Oct 5th, 2012 at 2:58am Report Abuse

le Voyage Gourmand wrote:

I understand your point of view but it goes back to the idea of, "everything in moderation". I'm not saying that you should pour a bottle of MSG into everything you do, but that the compounds exist in nature, even in organic and healthy foods.

on Oct 5th, 2012 at 10:45am Report Abuse

Agent666 wrote:

There are other, far worse things to worry about, in restaurants:

on Oct 7th, 2012 at 4:59pm Report Abuse

SadieGott wrote:

Some of the information in this article is misleading. The kind of MSG that the food industry has widely adopted (and profited from) is different from the kind found in nature. Artificial MSG (the artificial kind added for flavour) is produced primarily by GMO sugar beets from food giant Monsanto (they control 90% of the sugar beet industry), and which contains genes that produce the pesticide Roundup.

The headaches caused by MSG are not psychosomatic, but rather have a scientific basis. Consuming these high levels of MSG (much higher than found naturally, and processed)causes a spike in glutamic acid, which is used in the body as a neurotransmitter, so migraines can be accompanied by photo-sensitivity and phono-sensitivity. MSG has always been knows as a migraine trigger according to the Journal of the American Medical Association. Further, glutamates trigger a recently discovered "migrane gene".

MSG also compromises the way the liver & gall bladder use bile to break up fats for digestion, so many people experience diarrhea or gall bladder attacks. Others will vomit or experience Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

More troublesome, MSG can cross the blood brain barrier and damage brain cells, especially in infants. Research has also shown that MSG can cause sterility in female animals.

Since there are no regulations on the potency of MSG, you as a consumer have no way of knowing how much or how little you are getting. It is commonly accepted in the scientific community that MSG also causes obesity.

Currently, there is a huge investment by the food giants in MSG medical research to convince consumers of its safety. Just wanted Fast Forward readers not to be drawn into this false sense of security when eating MSG. Consumers should also know that some forms of added MSG have recently been recalled for salmonella contamination.

You can check out to give you unbiased information based on science, not profit.

on Oct 10th, 2012 at 4:41pm Report Abuse

SadieGott wrote:

Another great article for those who are interested in learning more about MSG and why it is not safe:

on Oct 10th, 2012 at 4:46pm Report Abuse

Post comment: (Login or Register)

Content © Fast Forward Weekly | Great West Newspapers LP | Glacier Community Media

About Us Contact Us Careers Privacy Policy Terms of Use