MSG 101: All You Need to Know

MSG is known in the food world as a flavor booster and many, MANY, -if not all- processed foods come with loads of it added in. You may or may not have heard about it but it is widely used by chefs as well as a topper, just like using salt. Many people say it adds an “umami” flavor to meals, making them tastier and enriching flavors around it. We have tried and agree but, what exactly is MSG? Is it safe to consume? What are some foods without msg? Let’s find out!

What is MSG?

MSG stands for monosodium glutamate. It is also referred to as just sodium glutamate. It is a sodium salt that comes from glutamic acid. The latter is a naturally occurring amino acid that is between the most abundant in the world.

Although it does occur naturally in stews and meat soups, MSG is a man-made substance. It was first discovered and prepared by a Japanese biochemist at the turn of the century. He founded his own company and started selling it worldwide. You may have heard of it as Aji No-Moto.

His goal was to recreate the taste of a Japanese seaweed known as kombu. It has a savory taste and it is used in many soups like ramen. After the 60s it was introduced in the USA and it has never left! It was known for a time for its use in Chinese restaurants, but now it is everywhere.

What is “Umami” Flavor?

It is one of the five basic tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami. We respond to it with our tongue’s glutamate receptors, that is why MSG is such an umami trigger. Because it has its own receptors it is recognized by the scientific community as a separate taste.

Fun fact, this word was coined by the scientist that discovered MSG. In Japanese, it translates to “pleasant savory taste”.

Umami flavor is not unique to MSG, though. It can be found in, but not limited to, many foods naturally, such as fish and shellfish, mushrooms, cheeses, yeast and soy sauce.

So, is MSG Bad for your Health?

 According to the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA), it is safe. It was given a generally recognized as safe (GRAS) designation.

The European Union has classified it as a food additive. This means that it is limited as to what foods can contain it and how much they can add-in.

Some people claim that too much MSG can cause headaches and general discomfort, but, is this true?

Ever since it was associated with Chinese food, people have claimed that MSG is the culprit for the allergy-like symptoms every time they enjoyed their favorite ethnic cuisine. There have also been some studies that linked MSG with brain damage.

MSG 101 All You Need to Know

The truth is that this evidence is not scientific. The studies performed are not valid in the sense that they were performed by injecting mice with MSG, which will not render accurate results to answer the question of whether it is detrimental to human health.

There have also been other studies that have debunked this myth, as they could not find any evidence that MSG was linked with any kind of syndrome or disease.

The truth is that although some more recently have found that people were sensitive to the compound, these reactions could not be consistently reproduced. So it is not accurate to say that MSG can cause an allergic reaction or that it is bad for your health.

Anything consumed in excess can be detrimental to our bodies, so we need to watch out for any kind of component in our daily intake that can become too much for us in the long run. 

This does not mean that MSG is a demon additive and should be avoided at all costs, on the contrary. It is a great flavor enhancer and we can eat it safely.

What about the “No MSG” Label?

This label is controversial because even the FDA considers it misleading. For example, it does not allow food with naturally occurring glutamates to have it. 

Even so, many products that claim they are free of MSG or of added MSG still contain naturally occurring glutamates. They also do not solve any issue, as there is no epidemic of MSG allergic reactions happening.


Finally, it feeds on people’s distrust of the product, undermining their perception of it, when in fact there is nothing to be afraid of.

What Food Do not Contain MSG?

You can start by crossing all frozen and prepackaged foods and sauces off the list. It is a very common additive for its flavor-enhancing properties and it is widely used as such in the food industry.

It is also found naturally in meat. So stay clear of cured meats, smoked sausages or anything of the sort. Also, avoid canned food.

You will also have to avoid eating out as many chains and chefs alike use it to make their food taste better. It is even present in infant formula and baby food. 

The only real way to buy prepackaged food that is free of MSG is reading the labels and not relying on an external label. You need to look for its full name “monosodium glutamate” and check if it is in the ingredients list. If the food has it, it must appear on the label.

A great and cost-effective way of getting rid of extra MSG in your diet is including fruits and vegetables in it. If you are missing the umami salty taste to your food, you can opt for using fresh herbs and other seasonings like garlic in your cooking.

You can also ask for your plate to be prepared without sauce in a restaurant. This will help you avoid any added MSG that may be present in that sauce.

All in all, you should know that MSG is not bad for you and that glutamates are present naturally in food. If you think you have a sensitivity for it, try a plant-based diet and see if it helps with your symptoms.

What do you think? Do you like umami taste? Is MSG a part of your diet?