Decoding MSG: What's the Deal With This Additive?

We hear a lot about food additives these days, with one of the major ones being MSG, or monosodium glutamate. It sounds like a mouthful, but in a nutshell it is a flavor enhancer added to a lot of Korean, Japanese and Korean foods, along with processed meats and canned soups and vegetables. The FDA deems it generally safe, but controversy over something called Chinese restaurant syndrome has raised a lot of questions about MSG.


Throughout the decades that MSG has been added to savory foods, many people have complained of reactions that they claim were effects of the added MSG. Many symptoms of the Chinese restaurant syndrome are included below:

  • headaches
  • flushing
  • sweating
  • facial pressure/tightmess
  • numbness/tingling/burning in the face/neck
  • rapid heartbeat
  • chest pain
  • nausea
  • weakness (via Mayo Clinic)

Researchers have been unable to find a definitive link between MSG and the above symptoms, but they do acknowledge that a small percentage of people may experience short-term reactions. The American Chemical Society says that the scientific consensus from that research is that "MSG can temporarily affect a select few when consumed in huge quantities on an empty stomach, but it's perfectly safe for the vast majority of people."

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To fully understand MSG, let's take a step back. It was discovered by a Japanese chemist, Kikunae Ikeda, who wanted to understand how seaweed, which had been used by chefs for centuries, enhanced the flavor of foods. He discovered that the key was a common amino acid called glutamate. Glutamate is produced by out bodies when we process foods, and it's even in tons of foods (like meat, dairy and vegetables). In order to utilize glutamate, he added a sodium atom that turns the glutamate into a salt form, therefore easy to add to food (resulting in MSG).

All in all, MSG is safe for the general population. For those that do report reactions after consuming MSG, it may simply be a placebo effect, or perhaps too much MSG was consumed.

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