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Debunking the Myths Surrounding MSG

Over the years, MSG has been given a bad rap. But is it actually as bad as it sounds?

You’ve probably heard the claims. Monosodium glutamate (MSG), a common and longstanding food additive in Asian cuisine, causes health problems such as headaches, obesity, fatigue, and even disorientation. It’s a toxin that, when consumed in large quantities, can damage your vision and lead to depression.

Together, these symptoms form a hypothetical condition that has been termed “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.”

You don’t have to look beyond your local supermarket to see food products labeled with “No-MSG” signs. Many Asian restaurants put up similar displays in their windows, hoping to allay customer fears. Like other popular food additives — high-fructose corn syrup, aspartame, and sulfites, to name a few — MSG is a chemical to be avoided.

But what, exactly, do we mean when we say that it’s a chemical? Isn’t everything we eat, natural or otherwise, derived from chemistry?

MSG, which also goes by sodium glutamate, has been used in Chinese cuisine for centuries. It has flavor-enhancing properties which amplify umami — one of the five basic tastes — in meats and savory foods. We’re able to taste umami through specialized glutamate receptors on the tongue.

Glutamate is one of 20 amino acids that make up all proteins, and it occurs naturally in meat, dairy, vegetables, and fermented products. It’s also a by-product of our digestive process. So how different are glutamate and monosodium glutamate? It all comes down to sodium.

As the name “monosodium” suggests, MSG can be distinguished from glutamate because of its lone sodium atom. As many of us know from experience, salts are easy to add to foods. When MSG reacts with glutamate receptors on the tongue, it gives an instant boost to the taste of umami in whatever we happen to be eating.

Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean MSG is safe to eat. So is it?

The United States Food and Drug Administration has labeled MSG as “generally recognized as safe,” a classification based on research that failed to prove any link between the additive and the symptoms of Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.

The American Chemical Society (ACS) has stated that “MSG can temporarily affect a select few when consumed in huge quantities on an empty stomach, but it’s perfectly safe for the vast majority of people.”

Simply put, you wouldn’t eat a large quantity of any single flavor enhancer — say, salt, for example — because it would make you feel sick. Especially on an empty stomach.

Food-governing bodies in other countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, have come to similar conclusions.

So is Chinese Restaurant Syndrome even a real thing? It might simply be a placebo effect, where if you think you’re going to feel symptoms, you may. Others may be sensitive to higher sodium levels in restaurant food, a problem hardly limited to Chinese restaurants.

Another theory? Like turkey on Thanksgiving, Chinese food is so good we’re bound to overeat. And we all know what happens when we eat too much turkey …

[Image via Getty]

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