For nearly 50 years, the “infamous” monosodium glutamate, best known as MSG, has received a bad rap although the scientific evidence concludes that it is “general recognised as safe”. MSG is a variant of glutamate, created when sodium and glutamate combine. It is naturally occurs in foods such as tomatoes, parmesan cheese, meat, walnuts, asparagus, mushrooms, clams and sardines.
“Why doesn’t everyone in China have a headache?” Jeffrey Steingarten, a Harvard Law School graduate turned renowned food critic, posed this question in an essay investigating the controversy surrounding monosodium glutamate. The same question could be posed in relation to many other Asian countries, including Thailand. While this question may come across as flippant, it does encapsulate the long-drawn-out debate regarding the safety and potential health effects of monosodium glutamate with many people holding the belief that MSG is a “bad chemical.”
Monosodium glutamate has been eaten since the 20th century when a Japanese scientist extracted it from seaweed. Today, MSG is made from starch, corn sugar or molasses from sugar cane or sugar beets. MSG is produced by a natural fermentation process that has been used for centuries to make such common foods as beer, vinegar and yogurt. On its own, MSG doesn’t have a taste or flavour. However, when added to other foods, it enhances their own flavours, bringing out the savory and umami flavours. MSG was the cook’s best friend in 1953 Over the years, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) FDA received many anecdotal reports of adverse reactions to foods containing MSG.
These reactions; are known as MSG symptom complex or ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”. Certain people seem to suffer after a meal of Chinese food went beyond the usual queasiness and self-loathing at having eaten one too many barbecued pork buns. Symptoms include: headache, flushes, sweating, facial pressure or tightness, Some describe MSG as addictive; a ‘nicotine for food’ and a cause of obesity numbness, tingling or burning in the face, neck and other areas, heart palpitations, chest pain, nausea or weakness Monosodium glutamate’s notoriety took off in 1968 when Dr Ho Man Kwok wrote a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine musing about the possible causes of a syndrome he experienced whenever he ate at Chinese restaurants. His suggestions that MSG was the cause went viral, spawning a huge number of scientific studies, books exposing ‘the truth’ about MSG, anti-MSG cookbooks, and even prompting Chinese restaurants to advertise that they didn’t use MSG in their cooking.
Is MSG safe?
MSG is one of the most extensively researched substances in the food supply. Numerous international scientific evaluations have been undertaken over many years, involving hundreds of studies. The United States and other governments worldwide support the safety of MSG as used in foods.
- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) designated MSG as safe (Generally Recognized as Safe/GRAS), with common ingredients such as salt and baking powder (1958).
- The National Academy of Sciences confirmed the safety of MSG as a food ingredient (1979).
- The Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives of the United Nations World Health and Food and Agricultural Organizations designated MSG as safe and places it in its safest category for food additives (1988).
- The European Community’s Scientific Committee for Food confirmed MSG safety (1991).
- The American Medical Association concluded that MSG is safe, at normal consumption levels in the diet (1992).
- The FDA reaffirmed MSG safety based upon a report from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (1995).
The scientific verdict is that there is no definitive evidence of a link between MSG and these symptoms. The FDA has classified MSG as a food ingredient that’s “generally recognised as safe,” but its use remains controversial. A small percentage of people are recognised to have short-term reactions to MSG. Symptoms are usually mild and don’t require treatment. When MSG is added to food, the FDA requires that it be listed on the label. However the controversy has not subsided. The anti-MSG activists remain dogged in their attempts to reverse the current position on the food additive.
Despite the numerous scientific attempts to separate myth from reality, the body of anecdotal evidence targeting MSG continues to grow, as do the passionate responses from both sides of the debate, making only one thing clear – the controversy surrounding MSG is far from over.
While a restaurant may not add MSG to their dishes, it is still naturally-occurring in fermented soy products. So if you are sure you have an aversion to it, you pretty much have to avoid all foods made or accented with soy sauce. Glutamates are also in mushrooms, tomatoes, nuts, and many other natural foods. It’s important not to self-diagnose.
If you suspect you are having an allergic-type reaction, consult a healthcare professional to get a proper medical diagnosis.