Scientific Nutrition Update 35: Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)

this is going to be a controversial episode.  I am talking about the science of a spice I have grown to quite like MSG (monosodium glutamate).  It has a beautiful umami flavor, and for the vast majority of people is safe.  

Script (remember I ad-lib a lot):

For today’s episode I am going to talk about MSG (monosodium glutamate).  I know already that this is going to be a controversial episode, especially since many people believe that they are MSG sensitive but there is only limited evidence in the literature for any effect like this.  My own mother has always felt that she was sensitive to the effects of MSG, and the FDA has said that they cannot deny the existence of a sensitive subgroup. So I would just like to begin this by reminding everyone that I am not a doctor, I am not an expert, I am a college student with a laptop.  Do not think that I am giving medical advice.


The initial fear with MSG was based on some studies done in mice that focused on the fact that when large doses were injected into mice some of them would develop lesions and tumors.  Obviously those are things we want to avoid, and so it is important to assess whether there is a risk of that same effect in humans. Even when given 10g doses of MSG in water human levels in the blood never even got close to the levels of these mice.


There have been a couple different studies in humans that meant to look at the role of MSG in Chinese Restaurant Syndrome and none were able to draw a link between MSG and the supposed intolerance symptoms.  I say that, and that is the overall conclusion of the reviews of these studies but there are individual studies that seem to suggest that there are people who do appear to be sensitive to MSG although it does seem to require doses of 2.5 grams which are quite high.  Looking at the best study that I could find which was a multi-center double blinded study that found that large doses when given with water may induce responses, no responses were found when it was given with food. Suggesting that when it is included in a full meal it is unlikely to cause a reaction.  


Due to studies and conclusions like this the World Health Organization, the Scientific Committee for Food, Federation for American Societies of Experimental Biology, and the Food and Drug Administration all agree that MSG is safe.


Now why would we care about MSG in the first place? Well quite simply it is delicious.  There are the four traditional flavor senses, salty, sour, sweet, and bitter, but there is actually a fifth one called unami.  This is the sense that is activated by savory foods, think the flavor that is in comon between a good piece of beef chuck, soy sauce, mushrooms, and parmesan cheese.  Another easy way to activate this? MSG. Monosodium glutamate is an extracted glutamate that mimics that same sense as those other foods. So quite frankly we want to be able to use MSG because it tastes good.  But even more than that it can also help improve food palatability for older populations. This is a surprisingly important thing. As people age there senses of taste tend to diminish and this can actually lead to malnourishment.  Improvement of palatability using things like MSG can improve the nutrition of geriatric populations. So besides it making food taste better for us, it is actually an important health tool for certain populations. So the evidence seems to be that for the vast majority of people MSG is safe, and that it does seem to improve taste for many people.  I recommend it on a steak, over a roast, and on popcorn.

Bibliography (I may not directly address these studies in the episode but I looked at them and thought they might be valuable):

Wanna try some out?

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