The “Know MSG” Campaign Wants You to Stop Fearing the Ingredient Once and for All
Scientists have been arguing the safety of MSG for decades. It’s time we finally listen.
In 1968, the New England Journal of Medicine published a letter to the editor in which the writer described the weakness, heart palpitations and arm numbness that he felt after every meal in a Chinese restaurant. He wrote that it could have been caused by a number of things, but one of the ingredients he singled out was monosodium glutamate a.k.a. MSG. And so began our cultural skepticism about MSG and the so-called “Chinese restaurant syndrome” that supposedly came with eating it.
Of course, it’s obvious now that this conclusion was incredibly xenophobic. And while early research in rodents suggested there might be some association between MSG and certain side-effects, that research has been thoroughly debunked. Still, that racist and fearmonger-y letter to the editor in the ’60s was enough to create lasting panic about the safety of MSG.
The “No MSG” label on restaurant windows and packaged foods not-so-subtly implies that MSG is something worth avoiding.
In an attempt to finally set the record straight, the Japanese food manufacturer and biotech company Ajinomoto — which makes MSG and MSG-containing products — has launched the “Know MSG” campaign. In partnership with Pepper Thai (Chrissy Teigen’s mom), Asian starter sauce brand Omsom and several health experts and celebrities, Ajinimoto commissioned graphic designer Zipeng Zhu to redesign the “No MSG” label to a “Know MSG” label, in hopes of changing public perception once and for all. The label is public domain and available for any business to download and use.
If you’re still confused about what MSG is, what it does and why it’s safe, here’s what you need to know.
MSG is a flavorful seasoning with less sodium than salt.
“Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a seasoning that combines sodium (like that in table salt) with glutamate, the most abundant amino acid in nature and one that provides umami, a savory taste,” says Cara Harbstreet, MS, RD, a dietitian and a partner on the Ajinomoto campaign. “In simple terms, MSG is a seasoning that enhances the flavor of foods by adding umami.” What’s more, she says, it actually has less sodium than salt, so it can help people lower their sodium consumption. (Quick refresher: Eating too much sodium is associated with high blood pressure and an increased risk of heart disease.)
It adds umami, that ephemeral fifth taste that chefs and foodies are always going on about.
Most of us in Western culture grew up thinking that the four tastes were sweet, bitter, sour and salty. Now, Western food scientists finally recognize umami, a prominent flavor in Eastern cuisines, as a fifth taste.
“MSG is known for giving an umami flavor,” says Destini Moody, RDN, CSSD, a registered dietitian. ”The awesome thing about umami is that, unlike the other tastes, it can be detected by most of the surface of the tongue, rather than around the edges, giving foods seasoned with MSG a more full, game-changing flavor.”
Another way to think of umami is as the savory flavor. “I personally use [MSG] for meats and creating a savory essence to a dish,” says Shana Minei Spence, MS, RDN, a registered dietitian. As well as being a meat seasoning, it’s also used in soups, sauces, noodle dishes and packaged foods to create that savory flavor.
Unless you’re consuming MSG in impossibly huge quantities, it’s safe.
Look, even drinking water can be dangerous (even fatal!) if you consume way, way too much. That initial 1969 research that found an association between MSG and negative health effects in mice? First off, it was done in mice, not humans. Second, the researchers injected huge amounts of MSG into the mice’s abdomens — that’s not the same thing as a human consuming MSG by mouth as a seasoning.
And sure, there’s some old human research that associates MSG with certain symptoms (particularly headaches and muscle weakness). “But it's important to note that many of these studies, though, used excessive amounts, which wouldn't necessarily translate into how you would use this enhancer in ‘real life’ or your day to day cooking,” Spence says.
If you’re still skeptical, consider this: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) explains that MSG is not only safe, but also occurs naturally in foods like tomatoes, cheese and yeast. Its two main components, sodium and glutamate, are also abundant on their own in other foods. As you probably know, we get sodium primarily from salt but also from countless other foods. Glutamate is even more abundant — the average adult consumes about 13 grams of glutamate each day from protein, and only about 0.55 grams of glutamate from added MSG. The FDA also points out that while some people might have symptoms after consuming at least 3 grams of MSG (about half a teaspoon) without any other food, that’s a very unlikely scenario.
Bottom line: There’s no reason to fear MSG as an ingredient.
Harbstreet says she signed on to the Know MSG campaign because as a dietitian, she appreciates MSG for its flavor, many uses in the kitchen and believes that using MSG might actually reduce our total sodium consumption. But for her and many others, it’s about more than just safety and nutrition. “As an Asian American, I felt compelled to challenge the xenophobic myths that have surrounded MSG for far too long,” Harbstreet said. “MSG is naturally found in foods such as mushrooms, tomatoes, and parmesan cheese, for example, yet we have never vilified or feared those foods the way we have with MSG.”
That’s the underlying message of the Know MSG campaign. It’s not fair to villainize an ingredient that has been a part of Asian cuisine for a century without any proven negative effects, just because one American claimed that Chinese food gave him a headache. It’s about time we changed the conversation around MSG, and Ajinomoto hopes this campaign will do just that.