Have you heard of MSG? If you’re anything like me, you might not even know what it is, even though there are tons of conflicting articles about the actual health safety of consuming foods that contain MSG. If you want to learn more about what exactly monosodium glutamate is, why it’s being used as a food additive, where you might find MSG, and if there are any healthier or safer alternatives to MSG, you’ve come to the right place. Here’s everything you need to know about MSG.

What is MSG?

MSG is short for “monosodium glutamate,” which is a synthetic form of glutamate, a naturally-occurring amino acid found in certain foods. It was created in the 1900's by Kikunae Ikeda, who was a chemistry professor at the Imperial University of Tokyo. During his early work, Ikeda first discovered that humans could experience a fifth taste called "umami" (derived from the Japanese word umai, which means “delicious”) when trying to replicate the distinct savory taste of his wife’s kelp broth.

He successfully isolated glutamate as the molecule responsible for umami and then continued to create a more shelf-stable form of glutamate, called monosodium glutamate, to be sold in supermarkets. MSG is commonly used today as a food additive in most processed foods, such as French fries, chips, bottled salad dressing, as well as your standard Chinese takeout.

Why is it Added to Foods?

dough, dumpling, pastry, gyoza, meat, chicken
Teodora Maftei

Interestingly enough, MSG by itself is practically tasteless. However, when used as a food additive, it can intensify the flavors of some of your favorite foods. But more importantly, it adds a sense of umaminess.

Is it Safe to Consume MSG?

Grayce Nieberle

Technically speaking, it is safe to consume MSG, according to the FDA, which considers MSG to be “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS.) But, anecdotally speaking, some people have experienced adverse effects from consuming MSG-added foods (notably Chinese food) like headaches, flushing, sweating, nausea, and chest pain. Funnily enough, some medical experts have termed these symptom clusters “Chinese restaurant syndrome." Regardless, there’s inconsistent evidence demonstrating that MSG is actually unhealthy, but of course, it’s safest to consume everything, including MSG, in moderation.

How Will I Know if There’s MSG in my Food?

rice, chicken, vegetable, pork, meat, sauce
Florence Ma

If you’re just going to rely on your taste buds, it’s going to be tricky to detect MSG in your foods. The best advice is to read the food label if there’s one available. Just be mindful that you might not always specifically find “MSG” on the label since the FDA doesn’t require food companies to list MSG. Instead, you might see other names for MSG, such as hydrolyzed protein, autolyzed yeast, glutamic acid, or yeast extract. If you’re eating out, don’t be afraid to ask your waiter or chef if the restaurant uses MSG in its cooking. Otherwise, keep an eye out for foods that commonly have MSG added, especially Chinese takeout.

Are There Any Alternatives to MSG?

vegetable, salad, spinach, seaweed salad, wakame, herb, lettuce
Rachel Dean

Surprisingly, there are actually tons of foods that naturally contain glutamate, therefore eliciting that addicting umami taste. Some examples are seaweed, soy sauce, miso, tomatoes, aged cheese, mushrooms, Worcestershire sauce, and fish sauce. If you’re interested, you can find a more extensive list of umami-rich foods here.

Hopefully, this article provided you with everything you needed to know about MSG. I think the most important takeaway is that while there’s still conflicting evidence about whether MSG consumption is necessarily unsafe or unhealthy, it’s always best to consume MSG (and any other food or food additive) in moderation.