MSG is a fairly commonly used cooking ingredient used in a variety of cuisines, ranging from Chinese to fast food to ready-to-eat foods. It is also considered extremely unhealthy by some experts, while others deem it safe for consumption. So what’s the truth when it comes to MSG?
What is MSG?
MSG stand for Mono-Sodium Glutamate, also known as Chinese salt or by the brand name Ajinomoto, is the salt of one of the most naturally occurring non-essential amino acids – glutamic acid. MSG is a flavour enhancer that’s used in a variety of cuisines. According to the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA), USA, MSG is not considered a food additive, but a flavour enhancer.
The origin of MSG can be traced back to Japan. For many years, seaweeds were used as flavour enhancers in food. One of those was kombu. In 1908, a Japanese scientist discovered that the active ingredient in kombu sea weed that was adding flavour to the food was glutamic acid. Henceforth, its sodium salt, monosodium glutamate, was used. During the Second World War American soldiers realized that the Japanese ration tasted much better. After the war, this flavor-enhancing ingredient was introduced in the food industry.
The use of MSG in cooking
The use of MSG is most commonly associated with Chinese, Japanese and fast food cuisine. When consumed by itself, it has a bitter taste. But in combination with numerous sauces, it enhances the flavor of the food. It also finds usage in soups, canned foods, and processed meats. MSG is present in popular sauces like soya sauce and Worcestershire sauce. MSG works by incorporating a unique taste in food called Umami (pronounced as Oo-Maa-Mee). It is marketed as the fifth taste besides salty, sweet, bitter and sour.
Is MSG bad for health?
MSG has long been a controversial item and numerous studies have been conducted to see what affect it has on humans. The reason why MSG gets its bad reputation is because people who are allergic to MSG or in cases where it is used in excessive quantity, it may have one or more of the following reactions:
- Cardiac arrythmias (irregular heartbeat)
- Flushing or excessive sweating
- Tingling in the mouth
- Ringing ears
These symptoms were originally termed as “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”. This was because use of MSG was initially seen in Chinese food preparation and some people complained of these symptoms after eating at Chinese restaurants in the US. However, this terminology and theory have long been debunked.
There are many who believe that MSG is dangerous for health and can potentially damage your heart, and cause learning disorders, Alzhemier’s disease, Parkinson’s disease amongst others. Some studies have even identified MSG as an excitotoxin, a substance that can cause cell damage due to overstimulation of the neurotransmitters.
The final verdict on MSG
The Food and Drug Administration of the United States has given MSG a clean chit and declared it safe for a majority of consumers. However, it is generally not considered safe for infants and therefore should be avoided by children and pregnant women. It should also be avoided by people who are sensitive to it and are prone to adverse reactions after eating it. MSG should not be used in quantities greater than 3gm or half a teaspoon per day.
Written by Misha Sharma, Nutritionist
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