Does MSG deserve the villain status it has received? Let's explore the history of MSG to help understand why it was recently named a banned ingredient at the natural products expo hosted by Delicious Living's parent company, New Hope Network.
The first time I heard someone say “MSG” I was 13 years old, standing in line at the counter of a Chinese takeout restaurant in northeast Iowa. My midsize Midwestern hometown had twelve Chinese restaurants at that time (there are even more now). The woman in front of me quietly asked the person taking her order if the restaurant used MSG in their food. Overhearing her question from the kitchen, one of the cooks yelled out “No! No MSG!” His tone was noticeably irritated. The woman was satisfied. And I was confused.
What is MSG?
So, what is MSG? Why did this woman ask about it? And why was the cook annoyed?
MSG, an acronym for monosodium glutamate, is the sodium salt of glutamic acid, a common non-essential amino acid. Basically—in the science lab and in our own bodies—an MSG molecule contains one (mono) sodium atom attached to the amino acid glutamate. MSG is found naturally in the proteins of such foods as Parmesan cheese, mushrooms, tomatoes and soy sauce. It’s also used as a flavor-enhancing food additive in commercial broths and bouillon, seasonings, canned soups, dressings, fast food, deli meats and processed snacks, such as chips and cheese puffs.
According to U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the glutamate in MSG is chemically indistinguishable from the glutamate that is naturally present in food proteins. The FDA’s Department of Health and Human Services notes on its website: “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.”
Despite this—plus the fact that scientists have never been able to consistently trigger reactions in studies with individuals given MSG or a placebo—there are many who believe MSG (when added to food) is a worrisome ingredient. Years of anecdotal reports of adverse reactions to eating foods containing MSG cite headaches, sweating, flush skin, tingling on the face or neck, heart palpitations and even chest pain (a set of symptoms that came to be known as “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”). There are websites, forums and books dedicated to unveiling the hidden sources and dangers of MSG. Well-known alternative medicine proponent Dr. Joseph Mercola even goes so far as to call MSG the “widespread and silent killer that’s worse for your health than alcohol, nicotine and many drugs.” Whole Foods Markets lists MSG as an unacceptable ingredient for food, along with high fructose corn syrup and foie gras.
And for the first time, MSG was a banned ingredient at the Natural Products Expo East in 2016. That wasn't a sweeping change, however, since MSG isn’t a common ingredient in the products that are displayed at New Hope’s Natural Product Expos anyway. Between 2013 and 2015, only 24 products (or a fraction of 1 percent) exhibiting at the expos listed MSG in their ingredients. In that same time period, however, there were 1,625 products that made a “No MSG” claim in their marketing and/or packaging.
When people thought MSG was good
But MSG wasn’t always a banned ingredient and labeled as a silent killer lurking in your cabinets—or at your local Chinese restaurant. In fact, when it was first introduced as a food flavoring in 1908, MSG was embraced and praised as an inexpensive seasoning that could make bland, nutritious foods taste good. Japanese chemist, Ikeda Kikunae, was the first to isolate an ingredient in sea kelp that had a distinctive, almost meat-like taste. The invention coming out of Kikunae’s lab was a white powdered substance called MSG. When announcements of this new product spread, Kikunae proposed describing the flavor as umami—a term derived from the Japanese word for “tasty.”
But, when Japanese restaurateurs and soy sauce producers weren’t quick to embrace MSG—which was being sold as a product called Ajinomoto by the Suzuki Company—the company turned its attention toward Japanese housewives. Their timing was right, as Japan was embracing a new level of domesticity at the turn of the century and it became a symbol of elite class to have housewives (instead of their servants) displaying control over their family’s food preparation. By the 1930s, tall and slender glass shakers of Ajinomoto were commonly placed on the dinner table so each member of the family could use it to season his or her own food, just like salt or hot sauce. But restaurants and chefs were still reluctant to use (or admit using) the common product that any amateur could employ to make a decent-tasting dashi. In a 1939 interview, however, a prominent Japanese chef admitted that Ajinomoto was a necessity at his restaurant; people had become so accustomed to the seasoning that his customers didn’t enjoy dishes without it.
MSG comes to America
Wherever MSG was introduced—first in Japan, then Taiwan, China and the U.S.—adoption of the new seasoning powder was initially slow, but would soon take off upon discovering that it truly did make foods more palatable, savory and delicious. In Taiwan, where the cuisine is based on complex-tasting broths and soups that take many ingredients and a lot of time to achieve, MSG was revered as a cheap and quick alternative to that process. Taiwan restaurants, street vendors and noodle shops made MSG a commonplace part of the diet. Today, the country remains first in worldwide consumption of MSG—and demand is growing.
In China, sales of Ajinomoto failed to thrive, mostly because it was seen as a symbol of Japanese imperialism. But instead of rejecting the import completely, China developed its own MSG product. There, too, it was used as a low-cost ingredient to make flavorful soup stocks, but it was also accepted as a product that was vegetarian. Though the virtue of the vegetarian diets of Buddhist temples was employed in the marketing of Ajinomoto in Japan, perhaps this fact resonated more with the Chinese because of their cultural consistency of periodically abstaining from eating meat. Thus, MSG entered Chinese cuisine as a flavor enhancer for vegetarian foods and was seen as a way to make vegetables and meat alternatives, such as tofu and bean curd, more enjoyable and umami-tasting—essentially a boon to healthful eating, not a hindrance.
By the mid-1930s, MSG and Ajinomoto made its way to America. But it wasn’t introduced to American palates via the expansion of Chinese food restaurants, as commonly believed. And it wasn’t packaged in the form of a table-ready spice, as it was in Japan; nor was it sent in seasoning shakers to be embraced and employed by street vendors, as it was in Taiwan. Instead, MSG was shipped to the United States in crates of ten-pound tins of the white powder where it found an audience with industrial customers, such as the Campbell’s Soup Company. The canned soup company recognized MSG’s capability to make bland food taste better. Between the 1930s and 1941, the United States bough more Ajinomoto than any other country outside of Japan and Taiwan.
MSG: A racial issue?
Counter as it is to today’s growing clean-eating, ingredient-sleuthing food culture, in midcentury America, consumers actually entrusted the use of food additives to restaurants and the manufacturers of canned and frozen foods; thus, the use of MSG became commonplace wherever umami taste was desired. During this same time, Asian discrimination in the U.S. (which grew in monumental proportions after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor) was beginning to recede. Many non-Asian-Americans started exploring Chinese neighborhoods and experienced Asian-inspired food and flavors for the first time. So, even though Americans weren’t regularly or knowingly bringing MSG into their homes, they were consuming a growing amount of MSG (and other food additives) in packaged products and restaurants.
But trust in the conventional food system didn’t last. America in the 1960s was the birthplace of environmental, health and product-safety movements with a focused attention around the risks of chemicals in food and pesticides on our land and their potential carcinogenic effects. The FDA banned the use of cyclamate, an artificial sweetener, in 1969 when an animal study showed that a cyclamate-saccharin mixture increased the incidence of bladder cancer in rats. Americans became leery of any strange-sounding ingredients and health repercussions of consuming the chemical-sounding MSG was called into question. Just one of the many food additives under scrutiny at the time, MSG received the FDA’s GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) designation in 1958 and still holds that label with the FDA today. GRAS status is a designation given to a chemical or food additive if the product is considered safe by a panel of experts based on published studies and a substantial history of consumption by a significant number of consumers.
The letter to the editor
Just because the FDA or a panel of experts says a consumable product is safe, however, doesn’t mean that people believe them. Skepticism of MSG’s safety grew to new heights in the spring of 1968 when the New England Journal of Medicine published a letter to the editor from Robert Ho Man Kwok, a Chinese-American doctor. In the letter—published under the headline “Chinese-Restaurant Syndrome”—Kwok wrote:
For several year since I have been in this country, I have experience a strange syndrome whenever I have eaten out in a Chinese restaurant, especially one that served Northern Chinese food. The syndrome, which usually begins 15 to 20 minute after I have eaten the first dish, last for about two hours, without any hangover effect. The most prominent symptoms are numbness at the back of the neck, gradually radiating to both arms and the back, general weakness and palpitation. The symptoms simulate those that I have had from hypersensitivity to acetylsalicylic acid, but are milder. I had not heard of the syndrome until I received complaints of the same symptoms from Chinese friends of mine, both medical and nonmedical people, but all well educated.
Kwok goes on to write that the cause is obscure. He hypothesizes that the reason for his symptoms could be the soy sauce since some people are allergic to that, it could be the cooking wine since the symptoms resemble the effects of alcohol, it could be the monosodium glutamate used to great extent in Chinese restaurants, or it could be the high sodium content of the food. Kwok, who was a senior research investigator at the National Biomedical Research Foundation in Maryland, admitted that he lacked personnel for doing research in this area, but wondered if his friends in the medical field might be interested in seeking more information about this peculiar syndrome.
But, as far as many were concerned, Kwok’s letter to the editor sufficed as research on the topic—and MSG, for whatever reason, stood out as the most likely culprit—thus beginning a several decades-long epidemic of “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” which was most commonly a self-diagnosed condition. In the years that followed, “No MSG” signs appeared at Chinese restaurants and menus across the United States. Reports of symptoms consistent with Kwok’s (plus migraines and facial flushes) soon after eating Chinese food sprung up in conversations and clinics worldwide and studies continued to speculate about the science underlying the cause.
A syndrome is born
In an article titled “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome in an Infant” printed in the October 1980 medical journal Clinical Pediatrics, Dr. Russell S. Asnes’ study is preceded by an editorial note that reads:
The evidence that this infant had the Chinese Restaurant syndrome may be only circumstantial. However, the description of the symptom is accurate as attested to by the Editor’s wife who suffers from the same malady. Incidentally, she remains a devotee of Chinese cuisine.
In the decades since Kwok’s letter to the editor, single- and double-blind studies administering oral doses of MSG in human volunteers failed to turn up indication of a clinical condition. But despite the lack of scientific evidence of Chinese Restaurant Syndrome or the harms of eating MSG, a surprisingly large number of people—especially those who lived during the height of the MSG outcry in the 60s, 70s and 80s—still insist they’re sensitive to the flavor enhancer. Interestingly, the condition remains closely linked to eating Chinese food despite the fact that Chinese restaurant owners advertised (and sometimes yelled from the back kitchen) their rebuttal of MSG. Meanwhile, packaged food makers continued to use it widely. It wasn’t until last July—47 years after the New England Journal of Medicine coined the term Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, thus advancing the plight of MSG—that the Campbell’s Soup Company voluntarily removed the ingredient from its condensed soups for children. The company pledges to remove all artificial flavors and artificial colors from its North American products by 2018.