Controversial Opinion: MSG is Good
Is it really as bad for you as dubious science and rumours have made it out to be? Our very own Megan Gordon breaks it down, grain by grain.By Megan Gordon
It’s a Friday night at some odd point in the mid-90s, and the Gordon family are settling in for a night of Mrs Doubtfire and a Chinese take-away. “Oh and please hold the MSG” can be heard over Robin Williams’ falsetto, as the call to the local purveyors of Sweet & Sour Pork, Chicken Chow Mein and Honey Chicken ends.
This is a memory I’m sure many of you share and is indicative of an idea that Australia (and much of the Western World at large) has absorbed as a fact: MSG is bad for you and should be avoided. Like many commonly held beliefs from yesteryear, the wisdom of time (via science, amongst other things, thanks science) and an expanded appreciation for cultural context have shown how wrong we were.
What I’m trying to say here is that MSG isn’t bad for you. In truth, it’s really rather good (when not consumed in huge horse-like quantities, but I’ll get into that bit next). Basically, I’m of the belief it’s the Midas touch of the kitchen – everything it comes into contact turns to edible gold. So much so that these days, when my brother and I get together to cook we’re asking each other “have you added the magic seasoning powder yet?”.
Anyways, let’s get into some history and science so you too can start freely sprinkling this magical powder in your meals (if you aren’t already, that is).
What the heck is it?
MSG is an abbrev for Monosodium glutamate, which comes from the amino acid glutamate, or glutamic acid… one of the most prolific amino acids in nature.
It was first discovered over 100 years ago, in 1908 to be exact, by a very cool Japanese chemist named Kikunae Ikeda.
At the time, he was on a mission to discover what gave dashi its excellent oomph, when he happened upon MSG, by isolating the compound in seaweed. At the same time he also coined the term umami to describe the experience of tasting it. What a legend!
These days, MSG is produced by fermenting starches from things like sugar beets, sugar cane or molasses.
The rise of MSG-phobia
The fear of MSG can be traced back to the 60s. Specifically, in 1968 when The New England Journal of Medicine published a letter from Dr Robert Ho Man Kwok. In this letter, he referred to the allergic-like symptoms he experienced every time he ate Chinese food. This prompted others to write into the journal describing similar experiences, and in turn, the editors coined the term “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” linking these adverse reactions to MSG.
Then, a 1969 study from a neuroscientist named John Olney found injecting large doses of MSG into newborn mice had adverse neurological effects. Taken together, the public sentiment was such that MSG was the root of all ills when eating.
Books like 1994’s Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills by Russell Blaylock then doubled down on this MSG-panic (ref here). Hence my mum asking to hold the MSG in the mid-90s. Crazy hey?
Oh, and this is just conjecture on my behalf, but I strongly suspect there’s a pretty compelling correlation between an anti-Asia sentiment that contributed to the rise of this anti-MSG sentiment too. Anti-Chinese whispers, amirite? Turns out, wrong. Read on.
What do the people in lab coats say?
There’s a lot of noise out there online in reference to this delicious subject. As stipulated, many believe MSG to be the source of dietary woes at best, and potentially deadly at worst.
At the heart of these fears is the idea that eating MSG leads to excessive glutamate in the brain and excessive stimulation of nerve cells. But, there aren’t any human studies to support this and the Olney mice study involved injecting doses far in excess of an average dose. Plus, we consume MSG, we don’t inject it.
Bypassing the gut is a big deal, see, because MSG is broken down here and doesn’t reach the bloodstream. Also, this study showed that dietary glutamate cannot cross the blood-brain barrier in large amounts so MSG should have little to no effect on your brain.
But what about those strange allergic symptoms I hear you say? In another study I read so you don’t have to, people with self-reported MSG sensitivity consumed either 5 grams of MSG or a placebo. The conclusion of this was that 36.1% reported reactions with MSG compared to 24.6% with a placebo.
Whilst this might seem like it’s evidence that MSG is linked to reactions like headaches, tingling and flushing, let’s take this with a grain of glutamate.
The threshold for MSG to have any effect seems to be 3g, which is about 6 x the daily average intake (in the US). PLUS you can taste MSG so this isn’t really a blind study, now is it? The latter point was made by my brother, Dr. Gordon, no less (only mention this because he’s been forced to study for years and knows stuff (more than me at least)). Also, double-blind studies like this show little correlation between MSG and adverse symptoms.
It’s also everywhere, guys!
At this juncture it’s also worth pointing out that there is also LITERALLY no chemical difference between the glutamic acid in MSG and that in natural foods.
To quote my brother, Dr. G, again: “make sure you hit home that glutamate and MSG specifically are in fucking everything people love.”
That’s things like soy sauce, tomatoes… even breast milk, folks. That’s umami, it’s glutamate… It’s MSG. It is delicious.
So yeah, some of us were wrong. MSG is great, it’s like adding an Instagram filter to your food. It rounds it out, lifts the contrast and just makes the whole thing taste better. Please start using it.
But how do I do MSG?
Some serving suggestions as per the Buffet Slack:
And now, go forth and live your best MSG-laden life, folks. You’re welcome.