Chinese food is delicious, but many of us put it under “guilty pleasure” thanks in no small part to the food additive monosodium glutamate (MSG) that is typically associated with the tasty dishes. But you can consider the myth that MSG is bad for you to be busted!
Ever since the ’60s, people have been complaining that MSG gives them body aches, numbness, hot flashes and headaches. So many Chinese food restaurants have even put up signs advertising “No added MSG” to reassure customers. But now scientists are saying the stigma against MSG is as misguided as it is incorrect.
Glutamic acid, from which glutamates come, is a naturally occurring amino acid. Our bodies rely on glutamate to help make our neurons fire and our brains work properly. But L-glutamate also has another function in our bodies: It amps up umami. Just in case your kindergarten teacher didn’t cover this (mine sure didn’t!), in addition to sweet, bitter, sour and salt, our tongues have a fifth sense: umami, or savory flavors.
Umami, which is Japanese for “delicious,” is found naturally in meat, dairy, fruits and vegetables. So not only do our bodies have a ton of glutamate inside them and it’s in a ton of common foods, but our bodies are hardwired to crave it. But while it’s all fine and good to eat natural glutamates, people are often (rightly) skeptical of food additives. As explained in a video put out by the American Chemical Society (a nonprofit with no ties to the food industry), MSG is the simple addition of sodium (salt) to glutamate to make it granular so it can be sprinkled more easily onto food.
In addition to being fairly benign — both the FDA and the World Health Organization have declared it safe — the average person eats about 0.5 grams of MSG a day to no ill effect. Research done on animals found that humans would need to eat upward of 3 grams a day before some of us would start feeling it. Despite anecdotal reports, double-blind research studies (the gold standard in science) have found no connection between eating a moderate amount of MSG and negative health symptoms.
And not only is MSG unlikely to make you sick, but it might help your waistline too. A study from earlier this year found that people who consumed something strong in umami flavors before eating ended up eating fewer calories overall. The researchers think it’s because including umami helps us feel sated sooner.
“There’s one fundamental lesson in this food myth that everyone should take away: If someone tells you that something is bad for you and you can’t get a definitive answer as to why, it’s your job to dig in and find out yourself,” the ACS says.
Oh, and that MSG-free Chinese food you ordered? Once you douse it in soy sauce, you’ve added about 1,000 milligrams of glutamate, as soy sauce is one of the most concentrated sources we have. So if you really want to worry about the healthiness of your orange chicken, then you might want to focus on all the fat and sugar instead. Or just enjoy it.