For years, adding MSG to food was about as common, and acceptable, as adding a dash of salt. But as people became more health conscious and gained better access to nutritional information, they began to make the connection between their skull-splitting migraine and the previous night's Chinese takeout. The discovery of MSG's unpleasant side effects such as itchy rash, dizziness, headaches and nausea brought on a major backlash, and MSG was given a serious beatdown. It was taken out of pre-packaged, processed meals, banished from fast food, and menus were reprinted to announce "No MSG."
But the monosodium-glutamate industry has some serious muscle, and in 2003, MSG was given a pass by the FDA. Supporters like Basic Food Flavors, Inc.; Campbell Soup Company, Corn Products Corporation, McCormick & Company, Pet Foods, Pfizer Laboratories, Takeda and anyone else who profits from the sale of hydrolyzed-protein products (which all contain MSG) have lobbied it back into respectability. Negative press has been dialed way down and the FDA put out a flip-floppy disclaimer that basically says MSG is not so bad for you after all.
Not so fast. There are a lot of things people should still know about MSG and how it influences eating habits and our health.
So what exactly is in that white powder?
Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a white, salt-like crystalline substance made from a type of amino acid, which has little if any flavor of its own, yet dramatically improves the taste of food. It has a strong presence in Japanese cooking where it's commonly known as Umami, which refers to the pleasurable and savory taste imparted by glutamate. And in addition to the basic tastes, sweet, sour, salt and bitter, umami is often called a fifth primary taste. But here's where a good amino acid goes bad. Glutamic acid is an amino acid that occurs naturally in foods including meat, fish, vegetables and dairy products. But in the 1960s, a commercial process was discovered to artificially manufacture MSG that involves breaking down and changing naturally occurring glutamate into various free forms that are never found in nature. These modified glutamates can enter the bloodstream 8-10 times faster than natural glutamate, so it's like mainlining the enhanced taste of MSG-laced food.
"Improving Taste Means Improving Nutrition" is a slogan of the glutamate association. Well, that's half true. MSG does have the ability to heighten taste, and it's promoted as a healthy alternative for people who need to limit their fat and sodium intake. The rationale is that people on these types of diets are relegated to eating food with reduced fat and salt, making the dietetic dish about as appetizing as eating a plate of sawdust. MSG adds flavor and richness to lower-fat dishes and a salty flavor, but has only one-third the sodium of table salt. It's also said to be good for people with decreased appetites, like the elderly and chemotherapy patients, and is added to meals in order to boost their food intake.
Enhanced flavor. Okay. Improved nutrition? That's a monumental stretch. For years, animal studies have indicated an association between MSG and serious medical conditions. The Pub Med site, an online service through the National Institutes of Health Library of Medicine, lists over 100 studies on MSG. The predominance of research is on rats and links the consumption of MSG to obesity, diabetes, insulin sensitivity and fertility issues. And in his book, The Slow Poisoning of America, John Erb theorizes that the food additive monosodium glutamate is a direct cause of obesity, diabetes, autism and attention deficit hyperactive disorder. He also proposes that there's an addictive quality to MSG and that people consume higher quantities of MSG-enhanced food than they otherwise would without the additive. Can someone say "Super Size Me"?
Human-research studies seem to validate at least some of Erb's claims. In a 2002 human trial, a high-dietary intake of sodium glutamate as flavoring caused retinal damage and impaired function. And a study published in August 2008 suggests that the consumption of monosodium glutamate may increase weight gain, regardless of activity.
So where is MSG? Sadly, everywhere. In the supermarket, when you buy chips, ketchup, soup, prepared foods, it's in there. And nearly every fast-food chain uses an abundance of MSG in their extra crispy, battered, five herb and spices, secret recipe, special sauce—you get the idea—all of that stuff is loaded with monosodium glutamate.
Even if you try to steer clear of MSG, it will find you. MSG has quite a few aliases: hydrolyzed, autolyzed, natural flavor/flavorings, caseinate (sodium or calcium), carrageenan gelatin, yeast extract or nutrient.
It can be found in many everyday cooking ingredients, including: seasonings, spices, bouillon/broth/stock, commercial soup or sauce base, soy, wheat, whey protein, fish or bean sauces, malted barley flour, malt extract, corn byproducts (corn syrup, dextrose, cornstarch) and citric acid.
Even reading a label might not give you the whole story. Manufacturers can package foods labeled "no added MSG," which sometimes means that instead of being poured in, a product may in fact contain MSG that is created during the food's processing.
So with all the confusing labeling, the FDA's neutrality and conflicting research, you might argue that MSG is just another benign ingredient that makes food taste better. But I'd rather be safe than fat, sick and sorry. Whenever I can, I'm saying no thanks to MSG.
Alicia Villarosa is a regular contributor to The Root.