Truth, Lies & MSG: How The Seasoning Staged Its Comeback
Image Credit: Monosodium Glutamate (or MSG). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

MONOSODIUM GLUTAMATE, commonly known as MSG, has witnessed a rollercoaster ride in terms of public perception and acceptance. It is a potent flavour enhancer widely utilized in processed foods and celebrated in Asian cuisine, has long been shrouded in controversy. 

The extra tanginess and oh-so-delectable flavour at your local Chinese eatery? That is the taste enhancer MSG. The same reason why your mum cannot reproduce the same flavours in homemade Chinese food -- the absence of MSG which is deemed unhealthy by most Indian households perpetrated by Boomers and proudly carried down by some Millenials.

It is not entirely their fault. The tale began in the 1960s when numerous individuals reported a cluster of symptoms after consuming MSG-laden dishes. Termed "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome," this enigmatic condition encompassed headaches, flushing, sweating, and palpitations. However, subsequent scientific investigations failed to establish a definitive link between MSG and these reported symptoms, with many studies struggling to reproduce the alleged reactions.

Some people also believe that MSG has more salt content than regular salt. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that adults consume no more than 5 grams of sodium per day. However, the average adult in India consumes about 10 grams of sodium per day. 

Now here are the figures for MSG and table salt, side by side: For MSG, the amount of sodium is 12.28 g/100 g, and this is 1/3 of the sodium when compared to NaCl (39.34 g/100 g).

Table salt and MSG play different roles in the culinary world. Table salt provides a basic salty taste, while MSG enhances savoury flavours, adding depth and complexity to dishes. Considering sodium content, individuals seeking to reduce their sodium intake may find MSG to be a beneficial alternative.

Fast forward to 1987, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) bestowed MSG with the "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS) classification, signifying its safety for consumption based on extensive historical usage or scientific research. Consequently, food manufacturers were mandated to disclose MSG as an ingredient on product labels, empowering consumers to make informed choices.

In the years that followed, a multitude of scientific studies embarked on a quest to ascertain the safety of MSG. Esteemed health organizations and regulatory bodies such as the FDA, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), and the World Health Organization (WHO) diligently evaluated the evidence. Their resounding consensus? MSG, when consumed in normal quantities, poses no substantial risk to the general population, including vulnerable groups like children and pregnant women. Notably, these authoritative bodies found no compelling evidence linking MSG to the reported symptoms or any long-term health ramifications.

But wait, there's more to the story. Food aficionados and experts assert that the adverse reactions attributed to MSG might be primarily driven by the "nocebo effect" rather than a direct physiological response. The intriguing nocebo effect illuminates a phenomenon where the mere anticipation of negative symptoms leads to their actual manifestation, even without any actual harm being present.

It's worth noting that recent studies have shed light on potential benefits associated with this flavour enhancer. Beyond its ability to elevate taste profiles, MSG has been found to enhance satiety and promote a more satisfying eating experience. Research suggests that incorporating MSG into meals can contribute to a greater sense of fullness, potentially aiding in portion control and weight management efforts.

By adding a dash of MSG to dishes prepared with fresh vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains, chefs and home cooks can elevate the flavours and create a more satisfying meal. The umami-rich taste of MSG can bring out the natural savoury notes in these ingredients, making them more appealing and enjoyable.

Moreover, the use of MSG in healthier cooking can also aid in reducing the reliance on unhealthy additives such as excessive salt, sugars, or unhealthy fats. By relying on MSG's flavour-enhancing capabilities, chefs can reduce the need for excessive seasoning, leading to a more balanced and nutritious final product.

So, whether you're preparing a vibrant salad, a wholesome stir-fry, or a nourishing soup, consider incorporating a touch of MSG to enhance the taste profile of your healthier creations. Embrace the potential of MSG as a tool to elevate the flavours of nutritious ingredients, and embark on a culinary journey where health and taste go hand in hand.

However, it's crucial to acknowledge that while MSG is generally considered safe, a subset of individuals may exhibit sensitivity or intolerance to this flavour enhancer, much like with any other food component. For these individuals, consuming foods containing MSG may trigger mild symptoms such as headaches or flushing. Thus, avoiding or limiting MSG intake becomes a personal choice.

The perception surrounding MSG has dramatically evolved over time. Although it weathered a storm of controversy, current scientific evidence robustly supports the safety of MSG as a food additive when consumed in moderate quantities. Nevertheless, individuals with specific sensitivities or intolerances may opt to steer clear of MSG. As always, maintaining a balanced diet and being attuned to personal dietary needs remain paramount for optimal well-being.