There is a lot of misinformation out there when it comes to food and nutrition, and many people can easily be swayed by opinions and false facts that lead them to make misguided choices.
In this Q&A, food, nutrition and media communication consultant Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RDN, LD, discusses what leads people to believe myths about certain foods and how nutrition professionals can use scientific evidence to combat misinformation.
“Dietitians say there is no scientific evidence that MSG is bad for you and is actually found in everything from tomatoes to instant noodles.”
“MSG is most commonly known as a popular food additive that has an extra savory, umami flavor. It is produced by fermenting starch, sugar beets, sugar cane, or molasses.”
“While there have been some studies that hint at possible negative effects, such as obesity or nerve damage, worries about MSG are misplaced. The majority of studies have found that man-made MSG is metabolized identically to its naturally occurring counterpart and poses no health risk. In fact, the FDA even placed the substance on the GRAS list, short for ‘generally recognized as safe.'”
16 October 2020
Eurekalert (press release): "MSG promotes significant sodium reduction and enjoyment of better-for-you foods, according to new study"
“A new study published in the Journal of Food Science suggests monosodium glutamate (MSG) can be used to significantly reduce sodium while also promoting the enjoyment of better-for-you foods like grains and vegetables.”
“Ninety percent of Americans consume too much sodium and often have misperceptions about the taste of nutritious foods creating a barrier to healthy eating. MSG (or umami seasoning) can be one tool to encourage healthier dietary patterns.”
“Just as the substitution of butter with olive oil can help to reduce saturated fat intake, MSG can be used as a partial replacement for salt to reduce sodium intake,” says Dr. Jean-Xavier Guinard, Professor of Sensory Science, Co-Director of the Coffee Center at the University of California, Davis, and a lead investigator in this study. “MSG has two-thirds less sodium than table salt and imparts umami – a savory taste. Taste is a key factor in what people decide to eat. Using MSG as a replacement for some salt in the diet and to increase the appeal of nutritious foods can help make healthy eating easier, likely leading to a positive impact on health.”
11 August 2020
“Merriam-Webster has updated its entry on ‘Chinese restaurant syndrome,’ a term many Asian Americans saw as antiquated and even racist.”
“The phrase was previously defined as a legitimate illness brought on by food seasoned with monosodium glutamate but ‘especially Chinese food.'”
“Now, the definition has a detailed disclaimer noting the term as ‘dated’ and ‘offensive.’ It also states research conducted since the so-called syndrome was reported in the 1960s has not found any link between MSG and those symptoms.”…
“MSG comes from glutamate, a common amino acid or protein building block found in food. The Food and Drug Administration says MSG is generally recognized as a safe addition to food. In previous studies with people identifying as sensitive to MSG, researchers found that neither MSG nor a placebo caused consistent reactions, the agency said.”
22 May 2020
Food reporter Becky Krystal is the lead writer for Voraciously, The Washington Post’s newsletter about cooking with confidence.
“Umami is valuable to cooks for many reasons: it draws out the flavors of other ingredients in a dish, adds a depth and satisfying savory flavor, balances the overall taste of a dish and reduces the need for additional salt.”
“The government has even weighed in. ‘FDA considers the addition of MSG to foods to be ‘generally recognized as safe’ (GRAS). Although many people identify themselves as sensitive to MSG, in studies with such individuals given MSG or a placebo, scientists have not been able to consistently trigger reactions,’ according to the agency. ‘The glutamate in MSG is chemically indistinguishable from glutamate present in food proteins. Our bodies ultimately metabolize both sources of glutamate in the same way.’ ”
“The Umami Information Center, founded by a group of researchers in Japan in the 1980s, notes that umami has three main characteristics: It is experienced across the tongue, lingers in the mouth and promotes saliva, which is why umami is often associated with a particularly noticeable mouthfeel.”
“Umami itself is not an ingredient. It’s not something you find in food. Rather, it’s a reaction to and perception of what we’re eating.”
17 February 2020
FoodNavigator-USA.com: "Study looks at reducing sodium intake through MSG substitution in saltiest food categories"
Mary Ellen Shoup: Senior Correspondent, FoodNavigator-USA
New research suggests that glutamates such as monosodium glutamate (MSG) can be used to reduce sodium in the food supply by 7% to 8%, especially in the saltiest food categories.
“As approximately 90% of Americans struggle with keeping their sodium intake in check, new research suggests that glutamates such as monosodium glutamate (MSG) can be used to reduce sodium in the food supply by 7% to 8%.”…
“Glutamate, such as MSG represent a potential strategy to reduce overall intakes while preserving product palatability.”…
“Researchers used the data set from those enrolled in NHANES (National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey) between 2013-2016, which includes 16,183 subjects aged 1 year and older. They established average sodium consumption and then used a modeling method to estimate sodium reduction using glutamate in food categories containing the most salt (e.g., cured meats, which 18.7% of US adults consume on a given day).”…
“MSG can be used to reduce sodium in these foods [especially in restaurant meals and packaged foods] without a taste trade-off. MSG contains about 12% sodium, which is two-thirds less than that contained in table salt, and data shows a 25-40% reduction in sodium is possible in specific product categories when MSG is substituted for some salt. As Americans begin to understand that MSG is completely safe, I think we’ll see a shift toward using the ingredient as a replacement for some salt to improve health outcomes,” said Dr. Taylor C. Wallace, an adjunct professor in the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at George Mason University, and lead researcher in the study.
8 November 2019
Read full text of published study here.
Better Homes & Gardens magazine: "Yes, MSG Is Safe to Eat, Plus Everything Else to Know About the Flavor Enhancer," by Karla Walsh
Karla Walsh: Associate Digital Food Editor, Better Homes & Gardens
“We turned to health pros and the latest scientific research for answers to the most common MSG mysteries—and to clear up some MSG myths—so you can order and eat wisely.”…
“Based on current evidence, the headaches and palpitations anyone feels after eating food with MSG might be due to the placebo effect (in other words, perhaps a friend mentioned that recipes with MSG make her feel odd then you do too) or due to some other common component in the recipes that just happen to call for MSG or MSG-rich ingredients.”
24 October 2019
“Umami is the most recently identified and accepted of the basic tastes. It’s found in a variety of foods (like asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat), but all umami foods have one thing in common: They contain amino acids called glutamates, which are commonly added to some foods in the form of monosodium glutamate (MSG).”
“Umami’s history is as old as food itself”…
1 August 2019
River Davis: Reporter, The Wall Street Journal (Tokyo)
“The Food and Drug Administration puts MSG in the category of foods “generally recognized as safe” and estimates that the average American consumes around half a gram of added MSG per day.”
“Symptoms involving MSG ‘were being talked about within the context of Chinese food, but not at all talked about within the context of American processed foods,’ says [culinary historian] Ms. Sarah Lohman. ‘So there is not only a sprinkle of MSG in here, but a big dose of xenophobia.'”
“Is it bad for you? Studies have found no conclusive evidence that MSG has any adverse health effects on the vast majority of people when consumed in normal concentrations.”…
27 April 2019
“Some nutrition info gets passed around so much that nobody bothers to think about whether it actually makes any sense—or whether it’s accurate. Case in point: Monosodium glutamate (MSG), popularly known as ‘that stuff in Chinese food that gives you a headache’. But is that even true?”
“It’s important to know the backstory. MSG is a seasoning made from sodium and glutamate, an amino acid that’s found naturally in certain foods like tomatoes, soy sauce, and aged cheeses. Glutamate was discovered as a flavor enhancer in 1908 by a Japanese professor, who pinpointed glutamate as the substance that gave his favorite seaweed broth its rich, savory taste. Glutamate is unique because it hits the fabled “fifth taste” called umami (Japanese for “delicious”), a decidedly savory and meaty flavor. The professor filed for a patent to produce MSG, and it became widely used to season food.”
“Anecdotal reports started swirling about MSG and the symptoms it supposedly triggered, from headaches and nausea to tightness in the chest. But scientific evidence was thin. So in the 1990s, the FDA asked an independent scientific group to investigate. The group concluded that MSG is safe, though they said some sensitive people might get short-term symptoms (like headache or drowsiness) if they consume 3 grams or more of MSG (a typical serving in food is less than .5 grams).”…
19 February 2019
Jill Neimark: Science Journalist, BrainFacts.org
“More than a century ago, as Kikunae Ikeda savored a simple bowl of broth, he pondered the nature of deliciousness. How was it a lightly simmered mixture of water, dried fish flakes, and a little bit of dried seaweed [kombu] could be so mouthwatering?”
“Plenty of food tastes good, but some, like this broth, reach nearly indescribable levels of lusciousness. In essence, Ikeda was asking: is there a flavor for yummy?”
“Over the course of a year, he boiled kombu down into a tarry resin and stripped out salts and other organic compounds one by one. In the end, Ikeda harvested a single ounce of crystals redolent of the flavor of his bowl of dashi — a flavor that he called umami, which means savory. The crystals producing that umami turned out to be the amino acid glutamate, one of the basic building blocks of protein. Hoping to provide cooks easy access to umami, Ikeda coaxed glutamate into a form that could be sprinkled on foods and patented it, giving the world the ubiquitous flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG).”
“If you want to know what umami tastes like, chew a tomato thoroughly. You will taste the sweet and tangy flavor, and as you keep chewing, another subtle flavor will become apparent. That is umami, which also reveals itself when you do the same thing with parmesan cheese.”
“Umami is truly the taste of “yummy” itself.”…
23 January 2019
U.S. News & World Report magazine: "Scientists Have Known MSG Is Safe for Decades. Why Don't Most Americans?," by Toby Amidor, MS, RD
Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN: Contributor, U.S. News & World Report
MSG: You may think of it as “that terrible-for-you substance in Chinese and packaged foods that many products proudly proclaim they’re made without. But the truth is, MSG’s bad reputation isn’t deserved. In fact, studies show that the ingredient actually has nutritional benefits and adds an umami flavor to dishes.”
“MSG, which stands for monosodium glutamate, is simply a combination of sodium and glutamate, an amino acid that is abundant in nature and naturally present in many everyday foods like tomatoes, Parmesan cheese, mushrooms and even breast milk. The body digests the MSG seasoning and glutamates in foods the same way and cannot tell the difference between the two. So why is our understanding of the substance all off?”…
10 October 2018
Joanna Rothkopf: Deputy Editor, Esquire.com
“Forget everything you thought you knew about the needlessly-controversial ingredient.”
“After decades of junk science, and then good science disproving the junk science, and chefs and food writers promoting the good science, plus the reality that most of the world uses MSG every day without incident, most of us still can’t get over the idea that even a taste of the additive will somehow blind you, or make you tingle, or faint, or get super cranky.”
One presenter at the World Umami Forum “explained the chemistry behind how glutamate occurs naturally in high levels in umami-rich foods like tomatoes and parmesan cheese, and then even higher in things that have been fermented or aged.”…
5 October 2018
Yvette d’Entremont: Contributor, Self magazine
“Thanks to the internet, we have the ability to both debunk old wives’ tales and make up new ones. But no matter how many efforts are made by science writers, there is always someone who says MSG gives them headaches. Or it gives them intestinal problems. Or the MSG ate their homework. (It’s worth noting that some people may have sensitivity to MSG when ingesting it in large amounts, but the chances of something like this happening is so small that MSG sensitivity isn’t widespread)…
“We now know that the data says, over and over again, that MSG is safe (and the FDA categorizes it as “generally safe to eat”. A meta analysis published in the Journal of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners in 2006 showed that there had been no consistent ability to show any causal relationship between MSG and “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.” In 2000, researchers set out to analyze the responses to MSG in people who had reported symptoms from ingesting it, and found that they could not reproduce these effects. Finally, a 2016 review concluded that a causal relationship between MSG and CRS has not been proven.
“According to the FDA, some people may experience mild symptoms when they eat three or more grams of MSG on an empty stomach. Keep in mind, though, that a typical serving of food has less than 0.5 g of MSG, so consuming three grams without food is unlikely, which is why this doesn’t give a lot of useful information about the actual safety of ingesting MSG. (Hey, if you ate three grams of salt on an empty stomach, that could give you some symptoms, too.) And if you’re worried about MSG versus the glutamate naturally occurring in foods, you probably don’t have to be. The FDA’s website says that the “glutamate in MSG is chemically indistinguishable from glutamate present in food proteins. Our bodies ultimately metabolize both sources of glutamate in the same way. An average adult consumes approximately 13 grams of glutamate each day from the protein in food, while intake of added MSG is estimated at around 0.55 grams per day.”…
20 June 2018
Liz Highleyman: Contributing Writer, MedPage Today
“In the study 385 individuals (52.6%) suspected MSG as a triggering factor, while 347 (47.4%) did not. Among the 227 people with analyzable data, MSG was found to be associated with increased risk for seven people (3.1%), decreased risk for two people (0.9%), and no association for 218 people (96.0%).”
“Contrary to the widespread expectations of our study subjects, the data reveals that foods containing chocolate, MSG, and nitrates are rarely associated with migraine attacks and surprisingly, for a minority of individuals, they may be associated with a lower risk of attack,” N1-Headache founder and CEO Alec Mian, PhD, said…
3 July 2018
Helen Rosner: Contributor, The New Yorker magazine
“A few years ago, this affinity for MSG might have made me seem edgy or cool. Monosodium glutamate has been widespread in the American food supply since at least the nineteen-twenties, imported from China and Japan by major food-production companies like Heinz and Campbell’s, according to research done by Catherine Piccoli, a curator at New York’s Museum of Food and Drink. But a 1968 letter published in The New England Journal of Medicine raised the spectre of “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” an illness allegedly brought on by the consumption of MSG, which was commonly used in American Chinese restaurants.
“Ever since, the chemical compound has been vilified—despite dozens of rigorous studies concluding that the ingredient is innocuous and the “syndrome” nonexistent. Certain scientists and culinarians have long agitated for MSG’s rehabilitation. In a 1999 essay for Vogue titled “Why Doesn’t Everyone in China Have a Headache?,” the legendary food writer Jeffrey Steingarten gleefully ripped to shreds the standard litany of complaints and protests. But only in the past decade has MSG’s reputation truly turned a corner. The Times, Epicurious, and Bon Appétit have risen to its defense. The near-infallible food-science writer Harold McGee has regularly championed its use.
“Monosodium glutamate is a compound molecule: in it, glutamate, the amino acid responsible for the mysterious deepening of flavor, is stabilized by sodium, becoming something flaky and sprinkleable, like a fine, pearlescent salt. Glutamate is produced naturally by the human body, and it is an essential building block of protein found in muscle tissue, the brain, and other organs. (It is present in remarkable quantities in human breast milk, though it hardly appears at all in milk from cows.) Glutamate also occurs naturally in all the foods that we associate with umami: aged hard cheeses, tomatoes, mushrooms, dried and fermented fish and fish sauces, and savory condiments like Marmite and Worcestershire sauce.
“Like any mindful cook, I keep a wedge of two-year-aged parmesan in my cheese drawer and a tube of tomato paste curled up in the corner of the butter shelf, knowing that pasta will always taste better under a glutamate-rich snowfall of parmesan, and that a squiggle of tomato paste can deepen any sauce or stew. But, sometimes, you don’t want a dish to be cheesy or tomatoey; sometimes you just want something to taste like itself, only transcendently better. For that, nothing but pure MSG will do. It is to savory flavor what refined sugar is to sweet.”…
27 April 2018
The Washington Post: "Why Some Americans Avoid MSG Even Though Its 'Health Effects' Have Been Debunked," by Caitlin Dewey
Caitlin Dewey: Reporter, The Washington Post
“When it comes to MSG, there’s a great deal of evidence that consumer fears have been misplaced.”
“A chemical variant of glutamate — a substance that occurs naturally in high-umami foods, such as Parmesan cheese, walnuts, soy sauce and tomatoes — monosodium glutamate has been widely eaten since the early 20th century, when a Japanese scientist first distilled it from seaweed.”
“Numerous high-quality studies of MSG have failed to demonstrate significant symptoms, even in people who claim to suffer from MSG reactions. In the 1990s, the FDA commissioned an independent review that found MSG only caused adverse effects in a small minority of “sensitive individuals” who ate large amounts on an empty stomach.”
“Instead, historians and researchers have blamed the initial symptoms that Kwok [in 1968] and others attributed to MSG on a variety of other sources: excess sodium or alcohol consumed with restaurant meals, a version of the placebo effect, growing skepticism of corporations, and deep-seated, anti-Asian prejudice.”…
20 March 2018
Aaron E. Carroll: NYT writer and professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine
“Many people still wrongly believe that MSG is poison. We certainly don’t need MSG in our diet, but we also don’t need to waste effort avoiding it. Our aversion to it shows how susceptible we are to misinterpreting scientific research and how slow we are to update our thinking when better research becomes available. There’s no evidence that people suffer disproportionately from the afflictions — now ranging from headaches to asthma — that MSG-averse cultures commonly associate with this ingredient. In studies all over the world, the case against MSG just doesn’t hold up.”…
4 November 2017
Photo reprinted from the International Food Information Council Foundation, 2017
“These days, there are too many food myths to count. Even with so much noise out there, some common myths continue to capture our attention. Some of these common misperceptions center on monosodium glutamate, or MSG. It’s about time we expose a few of the common myths you may have heard”…
24 August 2017
Food Director Carla Lalli Music
“Eventually, while working in a restaurant, I learned what umami was—a.k.a., the “fifth taste,” a.k.a. the reason why we say “mmmmmm.” When we eat umami-rich foods, we experience it as a savory/rich/delicious taste sensation, and it’s human nature to want more. Fact is, monosodium glutamate is a naturally-occurring substance in lots of foods, including mushrooms, tomatoes, dry-aged meat, soy sauce, and Parmesan. Store-bought MSG is a synthetic version of a naturally occurring thing, and it has the same effect on our taste buds. Which is why those Doritos were so incredibly satisfying and addictive!”…
23 August 2017
Dr Michael Mosley:
Journalist and presenter
The BBC’s new series “The Secrets of Your Food” features lots of interesting material. In this BBC Health blog about the program, Dr Michael Moseley talks about trying to extract umami from tomatoes…
3 March 2017
Australian Financial Review Editor
There are doubtless many things in the world that human beings have long known about but didn’t have a name for, and umami is one of them. The fifth taste, after sweetness, sourness, bitterness and saltiness, was identified and named only a little over a century ago, and defined as a taste in its own right much more recently. It is often described as savory or meaty or brothy, or as having a full or rounded flavor.
Greg Foot: Brit Lab
Dare Devil Science Communicator Greg Foot has posted a great explanation of MSG on the Brit Lab YouTube channel – click the ‘More’ button and let Greg tell you all about it.
PictureFit: Health & Fitness made simple.
The PictureFit YouTube Channel, which provides videos on “health and fitness made simple,” hits the nail on the head with this video questioning misleading and inaccurate claims about “No MSG” and “No Added MSG” by some food companies and restaurants.
Food & Nutrition magazine: "Make low-salt cooking taste amazing with an umami boost" by Michele Redmond
Michele Redmond, MS, RDN:
Dietitian / Nutritionist / Chef
According to the article, “Foods containing glutamates naturally yield MSG, and neither the body nor the taste buds distinguish between glutamate naturally present in food proteins or MSG. While impacts on sodium-reduction efforts can be significant… amplifying umami also can serve as a technique for home cooks looking to create meals that deliver the same savory satisfaction” [with much less sodium].
Thrillist blogger Erin Kelly has been investigating where some of those horror stories about MSG originate…she’s found some good sources of information, and done a great job, except for Ms. Palisnski-Wade’s hypothesis about “MSG allergy” (there’s no such thing as MSG allergy). Anyway, here’s what Erin has to say.
Scientific American Video Journalist
Popular media has blamed monosodium glutamate (MSG) for all sorts of maladies, from asthma to migraines to autism; however, scientific evidence has found it isn’t something to be concerned about.
Science Friday Story Producer
Order from any number of Chinese takeout restaurants these days, and you might notice that many menus boast “No Added MSG.” The label can also be found in supermarket aisles on snack foods or on packaged seasonings.
The labels are meant to ease consumers’ worries, because MSG, which is used as a flavor enhancer, has for decades been popularly linked to various health problems, such as headaches and allergic reactions. It’s even been considered a factor in infantile obesity.
Long before wheat and sugar, a popular craze against salt swept America. The salt in this case was the popular flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG), common in Chinese food, soups and meats. Glutamic acid is also naturally present in our bodies.
It was used as an additive starting in 1908, it gives food its savory umami flavor, but once it got public attention, anecdotes began to pour in about lots of non-specific symptoms that were supposedly caused by it, despite the fact that hundreds of millions of Chinese people did not report headaches.
Writer for the magazine Time
More Dialogue about Umami and MSG
- All About MSG – Is MSG Bad for You?
Food52 blog on Huffington Post Food for Thought
- You say Umami, I say MSG: How the two are one and the same
Kelsey Lindsey on FoodDive
- Umami: Why the Fifth Taste is So Important
Amy Fleming, Word of Mouth in The Guardian