You’ve probably heard of MSG. It was a very hot topic a few years ago but that seems to have died down a bit. That being said – people are still confused! What IS MSG? Is it harmful? Should we avoid it?
Never fear – Dua the Dietitian is here! We’re going to dive right into MSG. This is a bit detailed in places but you can skip to summary at the end if you don’t want to read all the mumbjo jumbo science stuff.
First up – what is it?
According to the Food and Drug Administration, MSG is Monosodium Glutamate which “is the sodium salt of the common amino acid glutamic acid. Glutamic acid is naturally present in our bodies, and in many foods and food additives.”
MSG can be naturally present in foods like in tomatoes, cheeses, and seaweed. In 1908, a Japanese professor extracted MSG from seaweed and found out it was what gave seaweed broth it’s rich savory flavor. He patented it and started commercial production. Initially MSG was extracted from seaweed but today it’s produced in a lab by fermenting a starch, sugar beets, sugar cane, or molasses. The process used is similar to that used to make yogurt and vinegar.
So – what’s it found in?
Glutamate rich foods have been a part of many cultures for years. These include many cheeses, seaweed and seaweed broth, green tea, and some vegetables. Nowadays MSG is used as an additive in many foods because of the savory taste it provides.
As mentioned earlier MSG naturally occurs in many foods but it is also used as an additive in many processed foods including canned foods, soups, and broths. To check for added MSG you just need to read the ingredient label. If MSG is used as an additive it must be listed in the ingredients, look for monosodium glutamate. That being said MSG is naturally found in ingredients such as hydrolyzed vegetable protein, autolyzed yeast, hydrolyzed yeast, yeast extract, soy extracts, and protein isolate and if these items are used in place of added MSG the ingredient label will not list monosodium glutamate.
Now let’s get to business – is it harmful?
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Canada Health, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), and Food Standards Australia New Zealand all allow the use of MSG in food products as an additive and explain it in detail on their websites.
The concern with MSG is that there have been reports of individuals complaining of headache, tingling, flushing, numbness, and nausea after consuming MSG. These symptoms are temporary and typically subside after a short time. There are also claims that MSG may cause other negative health consequences like inducing asthma attacks.
Research studies have found some concerns related to high doses of MSG. The FDA identified concerns in doses as high as 3 grams taken without food but also states that the typical serving of a food with added MSG contains less than 0.5 grams of MSG.
Health Canada shares that “in general, the use of MSG is not a health hazard to consumers. The safety of MSG has been reviewed by regulatory authorities and scientists worldwide, including Health Canada.” They also share that the above “reactions have generally been reported to be temporary and not associated with severe adverse health effects. People sensitive enough to be affected are advised to avoid the use of this substance.”
The EFSA has re-evaluated the safety of MSG and other glutamate salts in 2017. Through their assessment they identified a need to decrease the current Acceptable Daily Intake of 32mg MSG/kg of body weight (for someone that is 150 pounds that comes out to 2.18g) based on current data. They recommended that the “European Commission considers revising the maximum permitted levels, in particular, in food categories contributing the most to the overall exposure to glutamic acid and its salts”. Per the EFSA this is particularly important for young children and infants as their acceptable daily intake would be lower. It will be interesting to see if any change in regulation occurs.
In the Food Standards Australia New Zealand MSG Safety Evaluation, they stated that average intake of MSG is 0.590g/day with extreme users consuming up to 2.33g/day and that “in a highly seasoned restaurant meal, however, intakes as high as 5g or more may be possible”. They also maintained that the 3g limit was in adverse effects were seen.
OK that’s a lot of mumbo jumbo science stuff – Can I get a summary?
In conclusion MSG is a naturally occurring component in many foods. It is also used as an additive and can be identified on food labels as monosodium glutamate, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, autolyzed yeast, hydrolyzed yeast, yeast extract, soy extracts, and protein isolate.
It has been reported to have adverse short-term effects in a small amount of the population. The regulating bodies of the US, Canada, European Union, and Australia/New Zealand allow MSG to be used as an additive in food. In 2017, the European Food Safety Authority recommended a reassessment of safe levels of MSG exposure. There is some evidence, particularly animal studies, to show that exposure to high doses of MSG without food can have negative health consequences (more than 3g at a time).
The average individual is not exposed to high enough doses of MSG to cause adverse dangerous effects. If you do find that exposure to MSG gives you a headache or other short-term discomforts it is recommended to avoid foods that contain MSG.