The Verdict on MSG: Is It Really Safe to Eat and Where Is It Lurking?

MSG, a gluten-free food additive, is often found in salty processed foods and restaurant meals.
Image Credit: OksanaKiian/iStock/GettyImages

Monosodium glutamate, otherwise known as MSG, is a flavor enhancer found in many packaged snacks, frozen TV dinners, cold cuts and even store-bought salad dressings.

While many of the rumblings on MSG have been around its so-called "adverse reactions," researchers haven't been able to find a reliable link between MSG and an allergy, according to the Mayo Clinic.

"MSG had a negative connotation in the past, but because the younger generation is using more of it in cooking and research has shown that its negative effects are rare, the hype around it has calmed down," Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, creator of BetterThanDieting.com and author of Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You From Label to Table, tells LIVESTRONG.com.

"MSG has been around for centuries. It's really important to know that it is safe to consume and it is used to augment the flavor of foods," she says.

Is MSG Safe to Eat?

As an additive, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers MSG to be “generally recognized as safe” or GRAS, which means that experts have found MSG to be safe for consumption when used for its intended purpose.

What Is MSG?

MSG first came into the food scene in 1908 when Japanese professor Kikunae Ikeda extracted glutamate from a glutamate-rich seaweed broth and discovered that it was the key to savory flavor in the soup.

Since Ikeda's discovery, MSG has been commercially produced. But instead of extracting it from seaweed broth, the MSG produced today is made through natural fermentation, according to the International Food Information Council Foundation (IFICF). Yep, that's the same process that's used to produce beer, yogurt and sourdough bread.

MSG is simply made out of sodium and glutamate, the latter being an amino acid, aka a building block of protein. Glutamate is found naturally in many plant and animal proteins, per the International Food Information Council Foundation. Adding MSG to your food imparts it with an umami flavor that gives it a savory, meaty flavor.

Does MSG Contain Less Sodium Than Salt?

Yes, MSG actually has less sodium than regular table salt. MSG has 12 percent sodium while sodium chloride has 39 percent, per a November 2019 study in Nutrients. "It can be a good way to reduce your sodium intake while also enhancing the flavor of your food," Taub-Dix says, so long as you don't have a sensitivity to it.

FYI, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting your daily sodium intake to no more than 2,300 milligrams, with an ideal limit of 1,500 milligrams. Reducing your sodium intake can help improve your blood pressure and overall heart health.

So, when reading ingredient labels on food, be sure to look out for monosodium glutamate, sodium, soda, sodium nitrate, sodium citrate and sodium benzoate.

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Foods With MSG

MSG is primarily found in processed foods. Some of the most common MSG food sources, according to the Women's & Children's Hospital, include:

  • Soup, broth, bouillon cubes
  • Soy sauce, fish sauce, oyster sauce
  • Packaged snacks, like potato chips and crackers
  • Frozen TV dinners
  • Store-bought salad dressings
  • Miso, tempeh, soy protein
  • Processed meats and fish, including ham
  • Tomato and vegetable sauces
  • Hydrolyzed vegetable protein
  • Autolyzed yeast
  • Hydrolyzed yeast
  • Soy extracts
  • Protein isolate
  • Yeast extracts (Vegemite)

The FDA requires manufacturers to list MSG on the food label, so you can easily identify an MSG food. If you're trying to avoid or limit MSG, it's important to read the ingredient list carefully. In addition to monosodium glutamate, MSG may also be listed as:

  • Glutamate
  • Glutamic acid
  • Calcium glutamate
  • Magnesium glutamate
  • Disodium guanylate
  • Disodium inosinate
  • Disodium 5-ribonucleotide
  • Magnesium glutamate
Packaged instant noodles are often flavored with MSG.
Image Credit: fotofermer/iStock/GettyImages

MSG vs. Glutamate

Despite its GRAS status, you may still have some reservations about MSG. To be clear, MSG and glutamate are indistinguishable by your body. This means that whether you're eating MSG or glutamate-containing foods (such as cheese or meat), your body metabolizes it in the same manner.

Despite its similar spelling, glutamate is not the same thing as gluten — the protein found in wheat, barley and rye products.

Glutamate, also referred to as glutamic acid, is essential for your body's metabolic function and is found in abundant amounts in its free form in your brain, where it serves as a neurotransmitter to aid in the communication between your brain cells, according to a March 2014 article in the Journal of Neural Transmission.

Tip

MSG is a source of sodium but it contains about a third less than table salt. Too much sodium in the diet increases your risk of high blood pressure and heart disease, according to the AHA. MSG may add flavor to your food without the need for extra table salt and help to reduce your overall sodium intake.

Sensitivity to MSG

While allergic reactions have been reported, MSG isn't recognized as an allergen by the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. If you're experiencing reactions when you eat a food with MSG, it's more likely a sensitivity to the MSG.

For the record, an allergy occurs when your immune system overreacts to a substance it considers harmful, even though for most people it's not, per the Mayo Clinic. If you have an allergy to a food, it's recommended that you avoid it altogether to reduce your risk of anaphylaxis, which is a life-threatening condition.

The difference is that with a sensitivity you don't experience an adverse, life-threatening bodily reaction. Only your doctor can diagnose an allergy.

So if you suspect you have a sensitivity to MSG or some other food or additive, talk to your doctor. Here are some of the common symptoms associated with an MSG sensitivity, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine:

  • Headaches
  • Chest pain
  • Flushing
  • Sweating
  • Heart palpitations
  • Nausea
  • Numbness or tingling in the face or neck

The Bottom Line

Researchers haven't been unable to find a definitive link between these symptoms and MSG. In the rare instances when they have occurred, the symptoms have been mild and resolved on their own without the need for medical care.

MSG's Effects on Appetite and Fullness

You may be fearful of eating anything with MSG due to concerns about having a sensitivity or developing symptoms, but there's some evidence that MSG may stimulate the appetite and increase feelings of fullness.

MSG may potentially help increase appetite in older adults by improving taste sensations, per an April 2016 report in Natural Product Communications. As you get older, taste and smell sensations decrease, which may affect your desire to eat. A poor intake and dwindling appetite increase the risk of malnutrition and health complications.

"MSG gives a feeling of satiation. Our senses of taste include sweet, sour, bitter and umami. MSG gives the umami flavor, and the salt in it enhances the perception of sweetness and diminishes bitterness," Taub-Dix says.

When MSG was added to carrot soup, it helped improve appetite and also had a satiating effect, a January 2018 study in Appetite found. This small study (28 participants) found that when MSG was added to soup it didn't affect food intake, but it did increase feelings of fullness and decrease the desire to eat. The researchers concluded that MSG may affect the hormones in your gut that control appetite.

Moreover, a June 2014 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that the umami flavor that MSG added to foods may increase immediate appetite but also satiety.

While there are some benefits to using MSG, including the fact that it has less sodium than table salt, the evidence is limited.

As with any food additive, you still need to limit your MSG intake and keep in mind when you're using it.

Tip

Taub-Dix recommends adding some of it to your dish at the end of your cooking instead of during your cooking process so you don't overuse it.

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