Many people still believe that the umami-rich seasoning monosodium glutamate (MSG) is bad for their health. This longstanding myth was born out of anti-Asian racism and has since been disproven by science. Let’s investigate its story.
Salt, salt, salt… who doesn’t love it?
It brings to life the natural flavours of otherwise humble ingredients and satisfies our taste buds in a way that only its opposite – sugar – can compete with.
That said, one form of salt known as monosodium glutamate (MSG), has been villainized for decades by mainstream media and dietary guidelines around the world.
Since MSG is widely used in Asian cuisines, those who claimed to experience negative side effects after eating dishes seasoned with it labelled their plights ‘Chinese restaurant syndrome.’
This discriminatory term was included in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary until the year 2020, and should be the first indication that the demonization of this food additive stemmed from anti-Asian racism.
Ironically, new research has found that MSG naturally occurs in foods such as tomatoes, parmesan cheese, and mushrooms. It is now recognised as safe, FDA-approved, and has a reputation for being a wonderful flavour enhancer amongst well-established chefs.
In 1908, a Japanese professor named Kikunae Ikeda was looking for a way to amplify savoury, umami flavours in his dishes. Umami is famous for being one of the five types of flavours humans can taste, as well as salty, sweet, sour, and bitter.
Ikeda began fermenting seaweed broth (known as dashi) and was able to synthesize the chemical compound MSG from the simmered-down stock. It appeared as a white, salt-like powder and quickly became a popular addition to many Asian recipes as a flavour booster.
This might’ve been fine if it happened today, but the era in which MSG’s discovery was made changed the reputation of the food additive for many years to come.
Around the same time period, the U.S. government was raising restrictions on the number of Chinese immigrants it allowed to enter the country through its 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. The bill has been deemed responsible for fuelling anti-Asian racism and was only repealed in the year 1943.
As xenophobia towards the Asian community in America grew, so did false claims about MSG as an additive — especially in regard to its use in restaurants opened by newly arrived Chinese residents.
In 1968, a letter was penned in the New England Journal of Medicine. Its author described experiencing headaches, numbness, weakness, and a rapid heartbeat after eating dishes containing MSG at Asian food establishments.
He titled the letter ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,’ despite the fact that several American companies had also been adding MSG to various snacks, prepacked meals, and baby food.
The letter quickly prompted an anti-MSG movement. The media joined in accusing MSG of causing a variety of unpleasant symptoms and allergic reactions. It was also blamed for a myriad of health issues ranging from cancer to obesity.
Scientific research set out to learn more about MSG’s effects on our physiology.
However, the experiments utilised unrealistic amounts of MSG – about 5 to 30 times the amount found in Asian dishes. Researchers also pumped these high quantities directly into rats’ stomachs via injections, rather than mixing typical amounts of MSG into food and allowing for natural ingestion and digestion.
Their findings – which stated that MSG induced excitotoxicity and cognitive deficit – were soon made public.
Before long, commercial food products and Chinese restaurants started slapping ‘NO ADDED MSG’ onto their labels and windowfronts in order to keep business booming.
And while the mass hysteria around MSG may have dwindled, a lack of good PR for these updated findings has seen scepticism continue towards what experts now recognise as a harmless, flavour-enhancing seasoning.
Breaking down the science of MSG, Amanda Li, a registered dietitian nutritionist at UW Medical Center said:
‘Scientifically speaking, monosodium glutamate (MSG) is the salt form of the amino acid glutamic acid, also called glutamate. Glutamate is an amino acid that our bodies make.’
She continued, ‘It naturally occurs in many foods and can be made into a pure crystallized powder to use as a seasoning in cooking. The human body treats glutamate in the same way, whether coming from tomatoes or MSG “seasoning.”’
MSG is kinder to your body than salt
You may be surprised to know that MSG is used in many of our cult-favourite junk foods (Doritos, Cheetos, Pringles), fast-food restaurants (KFC) and salad dressings (Ranch).
But Michelin-star chefs around the world are also including it in their dishes to bolster the flavour of soups, stews, vegetables, and dumplings. Some of these chefs have even become advocates for MSG’s majestic ability to make a great dish even better.
It should also be noted that MSG is not a salt substitute. It is meant to be used in combination with salt, in order to enhance a food’s existing flavours.
This is because MSG contains one-third the amount of sodium that salt does. One teaspoon of MSG contains 480mg of sodium while a teaspoon of salt contains 2,300mg – which the American Heart Association warns is the maximum daily recommended amount.
In line with this, anyone looking to decrease their sodium intake can safely combine MSG seasoning with small quantities of salt. This will maximise flavour by highlighting umami elements in the dish, without skyrocketing its sodium content.
Anyways, the point of this story is not to give health advice or tips on how to ‘wow’ your friends the next time you host a dinner party – though those may have been nice touches.
The aim is to highlight how xenophobia towards specific groups, fuelled by political ideologies of a certain era, can demonise something as simple as a foreign-born food ingredient.
Without properly conducted research, we shouldn’t perceive anecdotal evidence as truth. And in the case of MSG, there’s clearly still a lot of work to do.
I’m Jessica (She/Her). Originally from Bermuda, I moved to London to get a Master’s degree in Media & Communications and now write for Thred to spread the word about positive social change, specifically ocean health and marine conservation. You can also find me dipping my toes into other subjects like pop culture, health, wellness, style, and beauty. Follow me on Twitter, LinkedIn and drop me some ideas/feedback via email.
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