Who’s afraid of MSG? or Why 1 billion Chinese do not wake up with a headache every day


Well, I am decidedly NOT afraid of it anymore.

Monosodium Glutamate, aka MSG, has a terrible reputation in the West, which is really unfortunate as that reputation is entirely undeserved.  Since I now live in China where MSG is used all the time,  I decided that I should find out more about it.

Forgive me if I now have to give you a little bit of a history lesson – but I think you will find it interesting.

Way back in 1908 a certain Professor Kikunae Ikeda  realised that konbu seaweed (much used in Japanese cuisine ) contained high quantities of a naturally ocurring amino acid called glutamate.  Foodstuffs which contained this amino acid were much tastier than other foods. This quality he refered to as ‘umami’  – deliciousness.  It is present in asparagus, mushrooms, tomatos, parmesan cheese, smoked fish, the browned exterior of roasted meats and several other foods but in much smaller quantities than in konbu and various fish broths. Professor Ikeda set about trying to manufacture glutamate, and he eventually patented a crystalline form of glutamate which was stabilized with salt – MSG was born.  Realising its potential for enhancing food, he set up a company to manufacture it commercially and called it Ajinomoto (which means ‘essence of taste’). The company is still the largest world producer of MSG – more than a million tons annually -and exports it globally.

Knowledge of MSG must have spread like wild-fire all over the Far East as it was taken up by the Chinese, Indonesians, Malays, Koreans, Vietnamese and quickly became a kitchen staple along with salt and pepper, used in both domestic and restaurant cooking.

Through eastern ethnic restaurants MSG crept into the west.  Then, in 1968,  a Chinese American, Dr Robert Kwok wrote a single letter to The New England Journal of Medicine saying that eating Chinese food made his neck go numb and gave him headaches, and that he attributed this (with no scientific evidence) to the use of MSG in the food. He refered to his symptoms as ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’.  As a result of that one letter, MSG has been damned in the west – quite unjustifiably.    People started claiming that they were ‘allergic’ to MSG, but there is no solid evidence to back such claims (so many people claim to have food allergies to cover the fact that they don’t like something or other) true allergy to MSG is incredibly rare.  To cover themselves, and to make their products seem more ‘natural’, some western food manufacturers started printing ‘No added MSG’ on packaging, thus re-inforcing the mistaken idea that MSG is a bad thing – the same is true of some restaurants, particularly oriental restaurants in the west who realised that MSG had a bad image, and so, to gain an advantage over their local competition would say that they cooked without MSG – though without the food being subject to chemical analysis a diner would almost certainly never know whether it was used or not.

I could fill this entire blog post with a list of the umpteen studies that have been done which prove that MSG does NOT produce such symptoms, that MSG is perfectly safe to consume etc, but I will spare you all that. If you want to know more about the research go to the report published by the University of Wageningen (Netherlands) 2003 which gives a good short overview of all the scientific investigations by various bodies such as the USFDA, WHO, EU SCF, etc, which have been done in the past 50 years.   What I found  interesting is that in 2000 a team of scientists at the University of Miami discovered that receptors on the human tongue, the purpose of which had never been determined, were glutamate receptors – human beings need to recognise glutamate as it usually indicates the presence of protein which is one of our essential dietary needs,  amongst other things glutamate is also used as a neurotransmitter in the brain.

Now it is time for me to ‘fess up (as the Americans would say) – for the past two years I have been experimenting with the use of MSG when cooking for my family and friends!  It is hardly a scientific study, but I have noticed that a dish containing a small amount of MSG always gets more compliments on its taste than one without it – and better still, because MSG ‘boosts’ the flavour I can cut down/out salt and fat in a dish without diminishing flavour  – and that is better for health reasons.  MSG has one other sterling quality, it is self-limiting. That is to say that when you have eaten enough umami-rich food your appetite diminishes noticably and you stop eating.

There are several brands of MSG; the one I use (purely because I like the decorative tin!) is Ve Tsin,  and like several other brands it calls itself a ‘Gourmet Powder’ but in point of fact it is pure MSG.   ‘Mushroom Powder’ which is widely available (and much used in Korean and Vietnamese cooking) is also MSG.

So if you have been ‘anti’ MSG because you have heard some of the myths and prejudice about it, please think again, and  to coin a phrase:

Feel the fear and eat it anyway.

About herschelian

Recently moved to Beijing from London - its all new to me! Trying to learn Chinese, and what makes this city tick.
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19 Responses to Who’s afraid of MSG? or Why 1 billion Chinese do not wake up with a headache every day

  1. Kit says:

    Have to admit to falling for all the rumours about it being bad for you. Also heard it was addictive and made you want to eat more of everything – in particular salty chips and junk food. Now I have to go and read the research!

  2. Kit says:

    I’ve shared your post on Facebook – hope that’s OK – much interest already from the SA food blogging network!

  3. Dan Griffin says:

    Another interesting fact involving MSG. Did you know that kethcup is as ubiquitous and popular as it is because it one of just a few foodstuffs that contains all 5 main tastes – sweet, sour, bitter, salty… and the delicious umami!

  4. herschelian says:

    Kit – thank you for your very measured response – I have had a certain amount of flack on my personal email from people who say things like ‘well how come when I eat MSG I always get a headache’ – to which my answer is ‘you’ve read the press so if you know you are eating food containing MSG you EXPECT to get a headache, and so you do – it’s psychosomatic’ because all the research in double-blind experiments shows people don’t have measurable reactions to MSG. Also, a good deal of really intereanti sting experimentation is now being done with elderly people who do not eat healthily, using MSG in food to encourage them to prefer healthier options..watch this space.
    Dan – yes tomato ketchup contains MSG which may well make it seem more appealing, but those who consume large amounts of ketchup usually do so when eating bland foods or high carb, low umami foods.
    The anti-MSG predjudice is strong and very ill-informed.
    BTW I am NOT suggesting it be added to all food, or that it be consumed in large quantities – everything in moderation!

  5. John Rollason says:

    Well said, Myth-buster Jo!

  6. Penny says:

    I love MSG! I’ve been eating it since I was a kid and it’s a staple in my kitchen. Greatly enhances food flavor.

  7. John Rollason says:

    What is interesting for me is that I have no recollemcyion of posting the ‘myth-busting’ comment above, must have eaten too much MSG! Anyway, I support it. Being a runner & accustomed to carbo-loading before races, I’ll be happy to spice up the carbs with some MSG! Go it Jo & stick to your guns!

  8. Mickey says:

    This report is very misleading. If you are talking about MSG as a natural occurring compound, then fine, it’s not going to hurt you. However, most of what we are consuming, as in added MSG is synthetic. Whenever you add anything synthetic to your body it doesn’t know how to process, therefore it’s, at the very least, not going to be GOOD for you. If you read the report he has posted that is addressing natural MSG, synthetic MSG, which is most commonly used is harmful. There are many, many, many studies that conclude this. http://www.naturalnews.com/034031_MSG_health_effects.html

    Lastly, the FDA and WHO are not the best authorities to follow when it comes to food. They let aspartame, glyphosate, tartrazine, wood fillers and artifical colors/flavourings in our food. So I call BS on this article. Sorry dude.

    • Jj says:

      That website is very obviously biased, they don’t provide a link to the study they mention, and all of their references at the end of the article are similar biased websites. The Wikipedia article on MSG cites multiple studies that show at very few, if any, people have any reaction to MSG at all, and the toxic dose in humans is 5 times that of ordinary table salt. The study cited in the article you linked was possibly a toxicity test – if we are going by that measure, you should probably avoid oxygen and H2O as well!

    • crusche says:

      It was beginning to feel like reading a cult post feedback here until your response Mickey – thankfully there is some logic applied.

      MSG, like HFCS, and many other additives to skew our plate’s natural tendencies and many of these additives have gone without proper unbiased testing for either argument’s representation. Regardless of personal preference, subpar “scientific” studies, or the delay in research due to many lobbying faculties (FDA is so far from being a positive influence with skewed reporting and censored published research) MSG negatively impacts some people and to a great extent specifically with the presence of migraines.

      The only reason I read through this lamentable article is due to my search for a solution to a loved one’s reaction to this compound. They suffer extreme migraines from MSG, as we have unfortunately tested with varying foods. Now we are in China, and despite taking the caution of dining at an upscale Japanese restaurant somehow this ingredient has been ingested because of the relaxed attitude towards this product.

      People are mostly idiots, but in this day and age they are becoming far more resourceful in research and deconstructing an argument by stating that “As a result of that one letter, MSG has been damned in the west” – I’m afraid people detest this product because of what it does to them.

      Although, there is minimal substantiated claims recording this reaction from scientific posts, the people who suffer these “reactions” care very little for the claims being made and even less for friends who “experiment” with it in their cooking to make a statement to support a pitiful blog post.

      If MSG does not effect you, then consider yourself lucky, like those individuals who are less sensitive to cigarette smoke, tainted water, and various other additives to our food.

      Anyone who promotes a product that “masks” the reality of a consumed product’s taste is already probably on path shaded by a myriad of nutritional falsehoods.

      If there is anything I could do to prevent people from succumbing to the tendency of “it doesn’t bother me NOW and it’s not a problem claimed by the FDA or WHO, then I’m “good”” I would. Unfortunately, there are many truths that science will not resolve for a delayed period and this is one of them.

      Just look at saccharin and aspartame, the FDA, still after proven research of the cancer-stimulating chemicals, completely supports both and you find it in many things.

      I am thankful for the scrutiny emerging towards the FDA and global organisations for it is giving way to local, farm-raised products using organic methods – an industry that had withered in the path of mass product Roundup Ready crops. No labels and lab reports really talk about the health risks of extended exposure to Roundup-exposed plants either but people have figured it out and are demanding higher quality, REAL food.

      MSG does not fall in this category and there is a reason it is found in the cheapest quality of foods worldwide.

      Think about it.

  9. Great piece. My sentiments exactly. People get too worked up over additives that they perceive to be “unnatural” or “artificial”, instead of focusing on the real issues that endanger our food supply.

  10. bambooash says:

    Ever wondered why the Japanese have such great record of long lives?
    Great blog. Just stumbled over the following article as well.
    http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2005/jul/10/foodanddrink.features3

  11. minx19 says:

    I find it odd that people don’t cook with MSG. In my country, Nigeria, it’s a staple in our cooking. I’ve eaten food prepared with MSG since I was a kid along with other members of my family. Never had a headache from it. I can’t imagine cooking without it cos the food won’t taste good. In fact, if one eats food and it’s not tasty, you get asked if you added MSG. With brand names such as Knorr and Maggi.

    • herschelian says:

      Ni hao Minx19 – thank you for visiting my blog!
      I didn’t know that Nigerians use MSG in their cooking, but I am not surprised because they love tasty food, nothing bland! I am convinced that this ‘fear’ of MSG is just a western fad which some people have blown out of all proportion:-)

    • Kuukua says:

      Hi minx 19. A few months ago, i would have agreed with you perfectly but I’m a living breathing proof that msg is a problem. I’m a 30 year old Ghanaian lady who used msg all her life until a few months ago when i started i started getting serious heart palpitations after eating certain foods. One day, after having dinner at a Chinese restaurant , i fainted from anaphylactic shock n was rushed to the emergency room. Long story short. I went to the ER five times before my doctor, dietitian and i were able to narrow the cause to msg. Even the tiniest bit of it gives me heart palpitations, headaches and heaviness in my chest.

      Trust me, It’s true. Msg does have an adverse effect on some people. It takes getting used to especially for someone like me who has used it all her life.

  12. Dwight says:

    Excellent article! I concur entirely with this article. I have prepared and also eaten meals with and without msg and the difference in taste is astonishing. I have heard the myths but I never bought into them simply because I like the superior taste of foods prepared with msg. Now that I know that background to all the myths going around I will continue to enjoy my msg prepared food with greater comfort and satisfaction, while pointing those still hung up on the myth, to the facts, for them to ‘free themselves’ if they so desire.

  13. Elene says:

    Im curious which brands of msg originate from which foods? I just read on the ajinomoto website that their brand of msg is now made from corn, not the original seaweed concoction of my grandmother’s kitchen. I have a severe intolerance to corn products and while on a customized Alcat rotation diet, I have not been able to avoid corn – every week comes the realization that a common ingredient is made of corn – white vinegars, pill/vitamin capsules, asorbic acid (vitamin c) etc. Interesting to note I do get headaches and muscle aches as well as a depressed mood with corn, and its not psychosomatic as corn and about 70 other foods cause my body to attack itself as confirmed by blood tests. (FYI Anyone who once followed the SAD or Standard American Diet is prone to this. Im asian but was born and grew up in the states on processed foods when i wasnt eating traditional asian foods via mom’s home cooking from scratch.)

  14. Jim Duncalf says:

    MSG is not a natural product. Contrary to this article there is a large body of work to suggest that MSG causes several health issues, mostly neurological. see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tTSvlGniHok

    • herschelian says:

      The youtube talk that you give suggesting ‘there is a large body of work to suggest that MSG causes several health issues’ is a talk by retired neurosurgeon Russell Blaylock;
      Russell Blaylock’s views are considered dubious; for instance:

      Russell Blaylock is a trained neurosurgeon who considers himself an expert on nutrition and toxins in food, cookware, teeth, and vaccines. Contrary to the vast bulk of the scientific evidence, Blaylock maintains that vaccines such as the H1N1 vaccine are dangerous or ineffective; that dental amalgams and fluoridated water are harmful to our health; and that aluminum cookware, aspartame, and MSG are toxic substances causing brain damage.1, 2, Ironically, Blaylock perpetuates the myth that science-based medicine is not interested in prevention, despite the fact that immunization, which he opposes, prevents more disease and saves more lives than just about any other medical activity.
      Read the whole critique here: http://skepdic.com/blaylock.html

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