Is MSG as Bad as You Think?

Is MSG as Bad as You Think?

The truth about the “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”


Every month on Kitchen Stories, we’ll be putting our food knowledge under the microscope to find out if what we think we know is really true. Have a food-related case that you want cracked open?  Leave a comment underneath the article!

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You’ve been taught that MSG (monosodium glutamate) should be avoided like the plague—that the chemical does nothing but mask real flavor and leave in its wake a nasty headache. 

But where did this information come from? And is it true? (Have you ever had an MSG-induced headache?)

Today, we’re getting to the bottom of the chemical’s notorious reputation to find out—what exactly is MSG?

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A Little History

1n 1968, a Chinese-American physician sent a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine, asking: Why, after eating in Chinese restaurants, did he experience numbness, palpitations, and weakness? Could it be from MSG, an additive often used as a flavor enhancer at Chinese restaurants? 

The question alone was enough to implicate that the chemical has inherently negative health consequences—and that the Chinese restaurant industry was the perpetrator. Thus, the “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” was born. 

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The conclusion, however, was unfounded. In fact, research has shown no definitive link between MSG and headaches and other symptoms. And though a very small percentage of people do seem to have a short-term reaction to the chemical, it is usually mild and rarely requires treatment. 

A Touch of Science

What is MSG? It’s a synthetic form of the naturally occurring chemical, glutamate, which is derived from glutamic acid (the most common non-essential amino acid in the human body) from cooking, fermentation, aging, and ripening. 

Glutamate lends the addictive, savory oomph to the foods that you crave most—this taste is known as umami. You experience it in soy sauce, in stock, broth, and fish sauce, and in cheese (most notably, Parmesan) and tomato paste.  

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It’s also exists in high levels in unprocessed food, such as mushrooms, seaweed, tomatoes, anchovies, and broccoli. 

In short, glutamate is the answer to: Why is this so good?

The Verdict

The fact that glutamate exists naturally and can be derived organically through cooking is enough reason to avoid its synthetic counterpart. The store-bought chemical acts as a shortcut to big flavor in place of time, experience, and talent.    

But in terms of health, there is no need to avoid MSG—it’s not inherently harmful—unless you’re one of the very few people with an allergy. 

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Now, the next time your friend goes on a rant about the additive’s harmful consequences, you’ll be at the ready to defend its notorious reputation. 

Have you ever experienced MSG-related symptoms? Or do you think it’s a total farce? We want to hear from you in the comments!