Monosodium glutamate (or MSG as it is more commonly known) has long been slated as a dangerous food additive, having been speculated to cause the famous nausea and headache-inducing ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’ that some individuals suffer after eating Chinese food. But, is MSG really as bad as it’s been made out to be?
Like sodium chloride, monosodium glutamate is a salt, but of the amino acid glutamic acid rather than chlorine. MSG is used in food to give it an ‘umami’, or savoury taste. As an additive, it isn’t used too widely in western cuisine. In Asia, it is far more widespread, so it isn’t uncommon to see it as an ingredient in Chinese restaurants or snacks.
MSG can be found naturally occurring in many foods. It probably isn’t surprising that MSG aids in giving steak its meaty flavour, but it can also be found in tomatoes and cheese. Even if MSG isn’t listed on the labels of food, the natural abundance means that it would be difficult to choose a diet that was free of MSG. In fact, the average person will take in about 13 grams of glutamate each day just from their natural protein intake.
Many studies have been done into the effects of MSG on humans and on animals, but no real conclusive results have been gained. Dr John Olney of Washington University ran tests on both mice and monkeys, with huge doses of MSG causing the development of brain damage in both cases. However, it should be noted that the MSG was injected into the mice, and the results in monkeys have failed to be reproduced by 19 other research studies. Studies in humans showed that taking MSG orally before a meal didn’t cause any difference in the development of ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’ compared to placebo.
Since glutamic acid is naturally present in our bodies, it seems a little ridiculous to think that it would be the root cause of this ‘Chinse Restaurant Syndrome’, much less the more outrageous claims of it causing cancer or brain damage. There doesn’t seem to be any reason why we should strive to cut down our MSG intake, so both steak lovers and Chinese cuisine enthusiasts can rest easy.