I don’t know if it’s just me, but there seems to be a buzz around MSG lately because of some viral video that claims that it is safe. We are totally aware of the fact that this taste enhancer has been receiving swift and heavy jabs for decades now. But suddenly, someone has decided in a heartbeat to burst the bubble of some of our deeply held beliefs and claim that this unnatural grain from hell is in fact, innocent all along! How dare she?
Since a lot of people are still using MSG albeit its alleged health effects, this noticeable fuss definitely warrants discussion at this point… again.
So let’s breakdown the issue to pieces: Is MSG safe?
Yes. The rumour against a rumour is true.
Here are the reasons why.
Myth: The Chinese Restaurant Syndrome
This refers to a claim that sometime during the 60’s, people were reported to have experienced various symptoms such as headaches, chest pain, numbness, and flushing. All of these discomforts were blamed on the consumption of the food in Chinese restaurants, which are known to be liberal with the use of MSG in their dishes. Thus, the blame on the additive and its succeeding notorious reputation was born. However, this particular phenomenon was eventually debunked, and MSG was not even proven to be the cause1. While it’s true that a handful of people may experience allergic reactions to MSG, as same with each of our own food sensitivity, it was generally proven to be safe for consumption to most of the population without experiencing any adverse effect under reasonable amount2.
Myth: MSG is not natural, so it’s not safe.
Let’s address this fallacy known as the appeal to nature. Not all things that are natural are good (cue in typhoons, volcanic eruptions, salmonella, other viruses), and not all unnatural or synthetic things are bad (such as clothes, cars, the Internet, and medicine) so let’s discard that argument. Glutamate is a substance that is abundant in nature and in your body as well3. And to make a salt-texture like form that we use in our dishes, we use sodium. Thus, monosodium glutamate, MSG, or vetsin4. Other sources of glutamate are tomatoes, cheeses, yeast, soy, seaweed, etc., which apparently, we consume on a regular basis. So we can say MSG is natural5. But even if it weren’t, it doesn’t really matter. What matters most is that it’s safe6.
Myth: MSG causes cancer, Alzheimer’s, allergies, and obesity.
MSG is not proven to be a cause or at least a contributor to the spread of cancer7, Alzheimer’s disease8, obesity9, or allergy10.
Myth: MSG is high in sodium.
Though it’s true that it has sodium content, which you can obviously surmise through its name, the sodium content in MSG is much lower than that of our traditional sodium source, which is table salt. This additive is in fact, a viable solution to reduce your sodium intake by complementing it to your salt use and of course, it adds that umami taste we all love. In fact, salt has about 40% sodium, while MSG only got around 12%10.
But let’s be fair. Though MSG is considered to be a Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) additive by most scientific, and government regulatory bodies, it’s still a substance that we should watch to avoid overconsumption (because it still has sodium). Also, too much of it in food can make your dish quite off-putting. At the end of the day, we can always rely on the cliché that “too much of a good thing is a bad thing”.