MSG must be one of the most maligned and misunderstood food components of the modern world. Superstition and fears about it are ubiquitous in the west, and yet, as Jeffery Steingarten, the great American food critic once put it,

“If MSG is bad for you, then why doesn’t everyone in China have a headache?”

Or perhaps a better question would be, “How is it that the inventors of it, the Japanese, outlive everyone else on the planet?”

The truth isn’t all that complicated, but it is a difficult to accept for many westerners who have grown up in fear of the stuff. I’ve been telling my friends for years that it’s nearly impossible to eat more MSG than is safe, but they’ve always assumed I was joking. I wasn’t. Let’s start with a few facts about MSG.

  • It was invented by the Japanese. Even though that bottle of Ac’cent in your Louisiana cupboard says Kellogs, it was Ajinomoto corp that invented it, brought to the the US in 1956, and then partnered with Kellogs six years later.
  • MSG’s notoriety started with studies conducted by Dr. John Olney at Washington University in 1969. He injected and force-fed newborn mice with doses of up to four grams/kg bodyweight of MSG. They suffered brain lesions, and he claimed that the MSG in one bowl of soup do the same to a two-year-old.
  • No other scientists testing MSG and found evidence of harm – in one 1970 study 11 humans ate up to 147 grams daily for six weeks without any adverse reactions. The average westerner eats about 2 grams a day.
  • In decades since, not a single public health investigation has found any harmful effects related to MSG. Study after study has confirmed that CRS is not caused by MSG. While the causes are unclear, many scientists suggest that peanuts, shellfish and other allergens common in Chinese food may be to blame.
  • A 1991 report by the European Communities’ (EC) Scientific Committee for Foods reaffirmed MSG’s safety and classified its “acceptable daily intake” as “not specified,” the most favorable designation for a food ingredient. In addition, the EC Committee said, “Infants, including prematures, have been shown to metabolize glutamate as efficiently as adults and therefore do not display any special susceptibility to elevated oral intakes of glutamate.”
  • Human milk contains ten times the glutamate of cow milk.

So, why is it that there are so much fear of MSG? The culprits are most likely ignorance, a rational distrust of the impartiality of studies any time money is at stake, and sensational attacks by book authors and talk show hosts.

Few people realize that glutamate is a basic and essential building block of the human body. Our bodies produce it naturally, it is extremely common in a number of foods we eat. Have you ever wondered why tomatoes and cheese taste so good? Both are loaded with it. In fact, parmesan cheese has more than any other basic food. Here are some other foods high in glutamate:

Free glutamate (mg per 100g)

  • cheese 1200
  • Chinese soy sauce 1090
  • Japanese soy sauce 782
  • walnuts 658
  • fresh tomato juice 260
  • grape juice 258
  • peas 200
  • mushrooms 180
  • broccoli 176
  • tomatoes 140
  • mushrooms 140
  • oysters 137
  • corn 130
  • potatoes 102
  • chicken 44
  • mackerel 36
  • beef 33
  • pork 23
  • eggs 23

Importantly, “natural” and industrially produced glutamate are chemically identical, and the body handles them in the same manner. Even the anti-additive organization concedes this point. They argue that contaminants are introduced during production, and this could be true. This argument completely ignores a huge portion of the world, though. The Chinese have far greater longevity and health than residents of similarly poor countries, such as Guatemala, and the Japanese are arguably the healthiest people in the world.

While there are some very good arguments for looking at nutrition in a holistic manner, this is case in which people are at arms over nothing. I’m off for a bowl of ramen noodles. And then maybe some stir fried broccoli and mushrooms after that.

European Food Information Council: Facts on MSG
Monosodium Glutamate: A look at the Facts
Slate: Could MSG Make a Comeback?