MSG Isn't Bad For You: How A Groovy-Era Myth Started

By | August 15, 2019

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Left: A window filled with roasted ducks at a restaurant in Chinatown, central London. Right: Food packaging bearing the 'No MSG' messge. Sources: David Cliff/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images;

MSG is found inDoritos, Campbell's chicken noodle soup, KFC, Chick-Fil-A's famous chicken sandwich, Pringles, and a lot of sauces commonly used in every household.

The "No MSG" label, indicating that food doesn't have monosodium glutamate, is a common sight on food packaging and restaurant signs and menus. It purports to save us from this mysterious substance -- but hysteria over MSG is based on a misconception from 1968.

Monosodium glutamate, one of the great villains in the food additive industry, is one of the ingredients that people scan lists of ingredients to avoid, concerned about a syndrome that it reportedly causes. It is the sodium salt variant of glutamate. To get the glutamate found in MSG, you must ferment starches. The glutamate found in MSG is chemically the same as that which is found in nature. The major difference is that the glutamate in MSG is not bound in large molecules that the body must break down, so it is easier to absorb.

Glutamate, also called glutamic acid, is one of the most abundant amino acids in nature. It is what is considered a nonessential amino acid, which means that the body can produce it on its own. It plays an important role as a neurotransmitter as well, helping the neurons in the brain to communicate.

The Discovery Of MSG

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Seaweed. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the early 20th century, a Japanese scientist first distilled MSG from seaweed and discovered its potential. He stabilized it by mixing it with salt and water. It is white powdery substance, kind of like sugar. Unlike sugar though, MSG has no taste on its own. Instead, when it is added to food, it enhances the foods umami taste, or savoriness, which is why it was added to Chinese food for years.