Busting The Myth That MSG Is Harmful

MSG, popularly known as Ajinomoto across South Asia (the brand name for the company that has been producing monosodium glutamate since 1909), is a mysterious ingredient. Many people blame it for headaches and nausea after a meal of Chinese food, but whether or not MSG is actually harmful is hotly debated. American food writer Jeffrey Steingarten once said, “If MSG is bad for you, why doesn't everyone in China have a headache?”

In Japan, professor Kidunae Ikeda coined the word ‘umami’ to describe the fifth taste besides salty, sweet, sour and bitter. He made an announcement in the Journal of the Chemical Society of Tokyo, in which he wrote about a chemical with the molecular formula C5H9NO4. The formula and the chemical's other characteristics were found to be the same as those of glutamic acid, an amino acid present in many food products and even the human body. When the protein that contains glutamic acid is broken down by cooking or fermentation, it becomes glutamate.

This study helped professor Ikeda establish that glutamate causes the ‘umami’ taste sensation. Next, he stabilised the chemical by mixing it with table salt and water, which resulted in monosodium glutamate. He then went on to patent MSG.

MSG reached America when mass production of processed food was at a high. It was a cheap ingredient that made canned, frozen and pre-cooked food taste better. Everything from processed meats, salad dressings, tinned soups, soft drinks and even chewing gum used it. It is an important component of low-fat food, in which the extraction of oils depletes the natural flavour.

As MSG’s popularity soared, detractors appeared. The Chinese restaurant syndrome (CRS) was born and academics began to research and publicise the dangers of MSG, labelling it the foreign ingredient that corrupted the American food system. Meanwhile, scientists tested MSG and found no adverse effects of its use.

In an attempt to reach a conclusion, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioned the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology to research all evidence and decide once and for all whether MSG was worthy of the notoriety it was being subjected to. The panel of experts concluded that the term ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’ was derogatory.

More recently, it has become evident that hating on monosodium glutamate has racist connotations. Twitter has seen heavy debate on the matter. Burmese food writer Mimi Aye has been very vocal and expressed dismay at the prejudice surrounding MSG. In her book ‘MANDALAY: Recipes and Tales from a Burmese Kitchen’, she writes, “monosodium glutamate has been unfairly maligned as being some kind of nasty chemical that causes all sorts of side effects. Whilst there’s no denying that some people have experienced unfortunate symptoms after having ingested MSG, there has never been any scientific evidence that MSG itself is the cause of any of them, and so, although these reactions may be real, it is likely they are a result of a negative placebo effect”. Other Twitter users have also expressed that “MSG being bad for you is a racist hoax”. 

Based on scientific studies that have found no dangers related to consuming MSG, it is becoming clear that some of the backlash MSG invites is actually an anti-Asian sentiment. In times of globalisation and more awareness about racist stereotypes, it’s imperative that food enthusiasts are sensitive about the picture they paint of a particular ingredient.