What Is MSG?
MSG (monosodium glutamate) is a flavor enhancer commonly found in frozen meals, fast food, and soups to provide an umami flavor. It originates from glutamate, an amino acid found in protein foods.
What Is Umami?
We know of the flavors sweet, salty, and sour, but we rarely say “this tastes umami.” That’s because umami is a newly discovered flavor. The savory umami flavor is found in ripened, cured, and matured foods such as Parmesan Cheese, Kimchee, and Miso. The maturing process of these foods helps extract the free glutamate, which provides the somewhat “meaty” flavor. Other foods with glutamate are mushroom, broccoli, green peas, tomatoes, onions, and asparagus. Even breast milk has glutamate!
I’ve Heard MSG Causes Headaches and Is Bad For Me?
In 1968 a physician wrote a paper to the New England Journal of Medicine, documenting the negative symptoms he experienced, after eating Chinese food, symptoms he referred to as Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. The article contained his theories for why these symptoms occurred, one being the MSG content in the food. Somehow the MSG theory stuck, and Americans began to avoid both MSG and Chinese food.
Follow up studies were complete that also showed adverse side effects with consuming MSG. The problem? In these studies, rats were fed EXTREMELY high amounts of MSG, causing neurotoxicity. Keep in mind, anything consumed at extremely high levels can be detrimental to one’s health. The current research shows MSG in moderation is safe. What does moderation look like? Generally, one will not see negative side effects from consuming under 3 g of MSG without food at a time. 3 g may not sound like a lot, but 3 g of MSG would be the equivalent of drinking 10.5 oz of soy sauce in one sitting! Let me put it into context; we usually consume 11 g of glutamate every day from natural food sources, and the average food seasoned with MSG only contains 0.5 g of MSG. While there is no strong medical evidence that MSG causes headaches, you can choose what is best for your health.
Why use MSG?
MSG is not only safe, but it can be a heart-healthy salt substitution. MSG has 2/3 less sodium than table salt, making it a lower-sodium flavor enhancer. Plus, people tend to feel more satisfied when they eat umami foods or foods flavored with MSG. MSG can be a useful tool for reducing sodium in-home cooking, while improving flavor- a win-win.
In addition to improving the taste and health of food, MSG is budget-friendly. Meat is an expensive ingredient, and MSG can provide a “meaty” flavor without adding a large amount of animal protein to a dish. For the carnivores out there, MSG can even make vegetables taste more palatable.
How do I use MSG?
1/2 teaspoon of MSG can enhance the flavor of a pound of meat or 4-6 servings of vegetables, casseroles, or soup. A mixture of one part MSG and two parts table salt is a chef-approved seasoning mix. This ratio would look like a blend of 1 teaspoon MSG and 2 teaspoons table salt.
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Reports of the Scientific Committee for Food, 25th Series: First series of food additives of various technological functions. Brussels, Belgium: Commission of the European Communities; 1991. http://aei.pitt.edu/40834/1/25th_food.pdf3
Federation of American Societies of Experimental Biology. Executive summary from the report: analysis of adverse reactions to monosodium glutamate (MSG).J Nutr. 1995 Nov;125(11):2891S-2906S. https://www.whyusemsg.com/wpcontent/themes/whyusemsg/assets/pdfs/FASEBMS-1995.pdf4
Food Standards Australia New Zealand. Monosodium Glutamate: A Safety Assessment. Canberra, Australia 2003. https://www.foodstandards.gov.au/publications/
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Umami in Foods:What is Umami and how do I Explain It? Chicago, IL:
Evidence Analysis Library; 2013. https://www.andeal.org/files/files/Umami/Umami_in_Foods_White_Paper.pdf
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