What Is MSG? A Deep Dive Into What It Is, How to Use It and Misconceptions

As its flavor sits on your tongue, it grows and blossoms. It looks like snowflakes. Learn more about this magical ingredient from an expert in Chinese cuisine.

January 19, 2023

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Close up Monosodium glutamate, MSG on black background.

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Close up Monosodium glutamate, MSG on black background.

Photo by: Gam1983/Getty Images

Gam1983/Getty Images

By Layla Khoury-Hanold for Food Network Kitchen

Layla Khoury-Hanold is a contributor at Food Network.

MSG is a go-to flavor enhancer for many chefs, and it’s also an often misunderstood ingredient. For more info, we consulted Nadia Liu Spellman, an expert in Chinese cuisine and the author of Dumpling Daughter Heirloom Recipes: From Our Restaurants And Home Kitchens.

What Is MSG?

MSG, which stands for monosodium glutamate, is the sodium salt of glutamic acid, a common amino acid. MSG occurs naturally in many umami-rich foods, such as tomatoes, mushroom and Parmesan. Manufactured MSG is used to enhance flavors in many savory dishes. “MSG is a man-made sodium invented by the Japanese to emulate the flavor of seaweed, which is naturally savory and rich in salt flavor,” Liu Spellman says. Manufactured MSG looks kind of like salt or sugar, but instead of a granular, sand-like appearance, Liu Spellman describes MSG as resembling mini snowflakes. MSG is typically sold in glass or plastic shakers, or in bags in larger quantities.

“MSG was originally made popular as Chinese immigrants opened restaurants in the United States and began to tweak their dishes to please American palates,” Liu Spellman says. “Believing that Americans preferred heavy flavors and food with high sodium, sugar and oil content, they often cooked with MSG to bring forward the flavors and add a certain punch to each dish.”

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) in wooden bowl and spoon on white background. Top view. Flat lay.

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Monosodium glutamate (MSG) in wooden bowl and spoon on white background. Top view. Flat lay.

Photo by: Everyday better to do everything you love/Getty Images

Everyday better to do everything you love/Getty Images

What Does MSG Taste Like?

MSG tastes like salt, but as a flavor enhancer, it does not have a distinct taste of its own. “As the flavor sits on your tongue it grows and blossoms to a more in-depth savory flavor, whereas salt is just salty.” Liu Spellman says. Because of its deep savory flavor, a little bit of MSG goes a long way.

Is MSG Bad for You?

The concerns surrounding whether MSG is bad for you are unfounded and only serve to perpetuate harmful stereotypes and xenophobia. “In the late 1960’s, following reports that people had bad reactions to food in Chinese restaurants, MSG was suggested to be the culprit,” Liu Spellman says. “MSG became a vilified ingredient in America, creating a cultural fear and backlash against American Chinese food that still persists to some degree to this day.”

Despite lingering stigma, scientists have been arguing the safety of MSG for decades and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers MSG safe to eat. “MSG is used regularly all over the world. The mixture of sodium and glutamate can be used in recipes to enhance flavor while cutting back on salt, which many Americans need to do,” says registered dietitian nutritionist Dana Angelo White, MS, RD, ATC. “Glutamate is an amino acid that provides the savory, umami flavor so using MSG can boost flavor and reduce salt. Using a combo of 1 part MSG and 2 parts salt can reduce sodium in a recipe by 25 percent, compared to just using salt in a recipe," Dana Angelo White says.

Shrimp, Celery, and Cashew Stir Fry

Shrimp, Celery, and Cashew Stir Fry

Photo by: Teri Lyn Fisher

Teri Lyn Fisher

What Is MSG Used For?

MSG is used in cuisines around the world to elevate savory flavors and add umami to dishes. MSG works well in dishes such as braised meats, tomato sauce, soup, eggs and vegetables. “Chefs commonly like to use it at the end of the cooking process, whether they're finishing a stir fry or rounding out a slow cooked braise or sauce,” Liu Spellman says. “A pinch of MSG goes a long way. Essentially it does exactly what it's supposed to; it's a flavor enhancer that brings out the best flavors in any dish.” Liu Spellman adds that MSG works particularly well to elevate the flavors in seafood dishes; try it in this Spicy Shrimp, Celery, and Cashew Stir-fry (pictured above).

These Loud and Proud Shakers Are Putting MSG Back on the American Dinner Table

Omsom wants monosodium glutamate to be ‘as ubiquitous as salt and pepper.’

MSG / Monosodium glutamate on wooden spoon with dark background

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MSG / Monosodium glutamate on wooden spoon with dark background

Photo by: panida wijitpanya/Getty Images

panida wijitpanya/Getty Images

MSG vs Salt

MSG and salt both add a savory quality to foods, but there are a few differences.

  • Appearance: At first glance, MSG seems to resemble sugar and salt, but it is flakier and less granular. “MSG seems to have more facets and shine to it than salt,” Liu Spellman says.

  • Texture: MSG has a smooth texture, whereas salt has a coarse, grainy texture.

  • Taste: MSG has a deeper and more nuanced savory depth than salt. “When you eat salt, you have a limit because the flavor is unpleasant if you have too much. With MSG, it's almost as if you can't get enough of it,” Liu Spellman says.

  • Cooking applications: Whereas salt is added at the beginning, during and end of the cooking process, MSG is used at the end of the cooking process. MSG is also used in much smaller quantities than salt; a pinch is all you need to elevate a dish’s flavors.

  • Sodium levels: MSG contains less sodium than salt.

instant noodles on bowl with seasonings monosodium glutamate / Noodle thai junk food or fast food diet unhealthy eat msg concept , selective focus

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instant noodles on bowl with seasonings monosodium glutamate / Noodle thai junk food or fast food diet unhealthy eat msg concept , selective focus

Photo by: panida wijitpanya/Getty Images

panida wijitpanya/Getty Images

Common Foods that Contain MSG

MSG is often found in cured foods such as ham, anchovies and other tinned fish. Many processed and packaged foods also contain MSG, including instant ramen, deli meats, frozen meals, condiments, potato chips and cookies.

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