Should you avoid MSG? Verdict is still out

Ever wondered why MSG is getting such a bad rap?

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) can not improve bad-tasting food or make up for bad grilling. It does not allow a cook to substitute low-quality for high-quality ingredients in a recipe, and will not tenderize meat. It just makes good food taste better, allegedly.

MSG has been used as a food additive for decades.

Clams have naturally occurring MSG.
Clams have naturally occurring glutamates that hold umami properties.

MSG is a flavor enhancer that, despite what you may have heard, is widely accepted in the scientific community as a safe additive. In fact, MSG or other “free glutamates” occur naturally in many of the most flavorful foods, some of which have been used to enhance flavor in cooking for ages.

According to researches worldwide, glutamate occurs naturally and the body reacts to natural glutamate and the glutamate in MSG the same, so if using glutamate in MSG is the earmark of a bad cook then so is using cheese, tomatoes, mushrooms and many other foods. It is simply one more tool that can be used to make great tasting food.

What makes MSG and other free glutamates so potent, researchers believe, is that they trigger special glutamate receptors in your mouth, unlocking the savory taste known in the culinary world as umami.

Free glutamates

One can get free glutamates in foods naturally. Here are some of the foods with the most, according to studies by the Australia/New Zealand food board and a Japanese non-government organization devoted to umami:

  • Seaweed: 550–1350 mg
  • Marmite (British sticky, dark brown salty food paste.)1960 mg
  • Vegemite: 1431 mg
  • Fish sauce: 727–1383 mg
  • Soy sauce: 400–1700 mg
  • Parmesan cheese: 1200–1680 mg
  • Roquefort cheese: 1280 mg
  • Dried shiitake mushrooms: 1060 mg
  • Oyster sauce: 900 mg
  • Green tea: 220–670 mg
  • Anchovies: 630 mg
  • Cured ham: 340 mg
  • Sardines: 10–280 mg
  • Grape juice: 258 mg
  • Cheddar cheese: 180 mg
  • Tomatoes: 140–250 mg
  • Clams: 210 mg
  • Peas: 200 mg
  • Potatoes: 30–180 mg
  • Scallops: 140–159 mg
  • Squid: 20–146 mg
  • Oysters: 40–150 mg
  • Corn: 70–130 mg

So it’s logical that a bit of kelp, seaweed, soy sauce, or any other of these ingredients, when added the right way, could kick up the flavor of an existing recipe. Much lot of this stuff comes from East Asia (including artificial MSG, invented in Japan).

If you want a shortcut to umami heaven, you can, of course, use artificial MSG. An “ideal mixture” of 9 parts salt to 1 part MSG could be the secret to your next great dish. These premixed blends can be found at most Asian food outlets.

Federal guidelines

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has classified MSG as a food ingredient that’s “generally recognized as safe,” but its use remains controversial. For this reason, when MSG is added to food, the FDA requires that it be listed on the label.

Over the years, the FDA has received many anecdotal reports of adverse reactions to foods containing MSG. These reactions — known as MSG symptom complex — include:

  • Headache
  • Flushing
  • Sweating
  • Facial pressure or tightness
  • Numbness, tingling or burning in the face, neck and other areas
  • Rapid, fluttering heartbeats (heart palpitations)
  • Chest pain
  • Nausea
  • Weakness

MSG research ongoing

However, researchers have found no definitive evidence of a link between MSG and these symptoms. Researchers acknowledge, though, that a small percentage of people may have short-term reactions to MSG. Symptoms are usually mild and don’t require treatment. The only way to prevent a reaction is to avoid foods containing MSG.

MSG Infographic

Mayo Clinic / Business Insider

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Born in Mississippi, raised in Southeast Louisiana, I've been around good food my whole life. I’m enjoy sharing my love for the grill and the Grillax Lifestyle with my two boys.

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Born in Mississippi, raised in Southeast Louisiana, I've been around good food my whole life. I’m enjoy sharing my love for the grill and the Grillax Lifestyle with my two boys.

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