How to Use MSG and Why You Shouldn’t Be Afraid Of It

Ken Adam
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A Historical Perspective of MSG:

MSG has been used to enhance flavor for over 100 years. This naturally-occurring compound was first identified in 1908 by Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda. He extracted glutamate from seaweed and recognized its distinct savory taste, which he called umami.

Ikeda then stabilized glutamate into a salt, creating monosodium glutamate – MSG. MSG quickly became popular throughout Asia as an inexpensive, mass-produced seasoning. Chinese restaurants in the US started using it more widely in the 1950s and 60s as their cuisine grew in popularity.

Around the same time though, MSG developed a negative stigma. Some claimed adverse reactions like headaches, numbness or heart palpitations after eating Chinese food. MSG was blamed as the culprit, though scientific studies later disproved this connection. Still, concerns about MSG’s safety persisted.

By the 1990s, MSG had a villainous reputation in America. Chinese restaurants catered to consumer fears by advertising their food as “MSG-free.” But this ignored the fact that MSG occurs naturally in ingredients like tomatoes and cheese. While the stigma remains today, most experts agree MSG is safe when consumed in normal amounts.

What is MSG?

MSG is the sodium salt form of glutamic acid, an amino acid found in protein-rich foods like meat, vegetables, and breast milk. It’s one of the most abundant amino acids in nature. When bound to a sodium ion, glutamic acid becomes a crystalline powder known as monosodium glutamate – MSG.

MSG serves a unique function in food – activating our umami receptors. Umami is considered the fifth basic taste, along with sweet, sour, salty and bitter. It detects savory flavors and amino acids like glutamate. MSG hits the umami receptors on our tongue, enhancing the overall flavor of food.

Widespread Applications of MSG in the Food Industry

MSG has become an essential tool for the food industry to enhance flavor efficiency and consistency. Many renowned food brands, such as Doritos, have MSG listed as one of their ingredients. Yes, that’s right! The addictive taste of your favorite snack chips is partly due to the umami punch packed by MSG. Food manufacturers use MSG in the following applications:

  • Improving the taste of low-cost ingredients – MSG can make processed meats, cheap oils, and other low-quality ingredients taste better. This improves palatability while reducing costs.
  • Standardizing flavors – MSG ensures products in the same product line taste consistent despite natural variations in raw ingredients. It helps brands maintain a signature flavor profile.
  • Reducing sodium – Replacing some salt with MSG allows reducing a product’s sodium content while maintaining a savory taste. This helps companies meet sodium reduction targets.
  • Masking “off” flavors – Small amounts of MSG can cover up subtle off-notes in flavors caused by storage, processing, or oils going rancid.
  • Rounding out vegetarian dishes – MSG boosts savory umami notes in meat-free products, compensating for the lack of meat flavors.
  • Shelf-life extension – MSG inhibits food spoilage and bacterial growth. This extends the shelf-life of processed foods.
  • Cost-effectively enhancing flavors – MSG provides a huge flavor boost at a fraction of the cost of real ingredients like meat, cheese, mushrooms etc. It allows for maximizing flavor impact while controlling costs.

MSG’s versatility to enhance and standardize flavors, reduce sodium, and improve cost-efficiencies makes it an indispensable additive for food manufacturers. It’s become integral for engineering the perfect flavor profile on an industrial scale.

Health Perspective: Why MSG Isn’t a Villain for Your Health:

For years, MSG has been portrayed as a villainous additive that causes adverse reactions. But extensive research has failed to conclusively link MSG to negative health effects. Mayo Clinic’s article on monosodium glutamate (MSG) provides insights into the debate surrounding MSG’s safety, noting that the FDA has classified MSG as generally recognized as safe. When used properly, MSG appears safe for most people. Here’s why MSG’s villainous reputation is undeserved:

Lack of Definitive Scientific Evidence

Despite many studies, there’s no consistent evidence that MSG causes reactions like headaches or numbness when consumed in normal doses. Double-blind studies giving people MSG without their knowledge showed no repeatable reactions. The same Mayo Clinic article states that researchers have found no clear proof of a link between MSG and symptoms like headaches, sweating, or nausea. The FDA classifies MSG as GRAS with no safety concerns.

Naturally Occurring Glutamate is Identical

Our bodies produce glutamate naturally, and receptors throughout the body are designed to interact with it. Added MSG consists of glutamate identical to the natural form. Our bodies can’t distinguish natural glutamates from added MSG. The Mayo Clinic‘s discussion about MSG highlights the fact that the glutamate in MSG is identical to the naturally occurring glutamate.

Confounding Factors in Perceived Reactions

In some individuals, MSG may elicit mild, transitory responses. But proposed MSG sensitivity is confounded by many factors. Reactions may be due to nocebo effects, underlying conditions, food intolerances, or high sodium/fat content rather than MSG itself. Well-controlled studies eliminate these factors and show no consistent reactions.

MSG May Reduce Sodium Intake

Since MSG contains less sodium than regular salt, replacing some salt with MSG may lower overall sodium consumption. The Mayo Clinic article on managing sodium intake mentions MSG as one of the ingredients in food products that contribute to sodium content. This can be used to discuss the potential of MSG in reducing overall sodium intake, as MSG contains less sodium compared to table salt​. This could benefit those watching their salt intake. Of course, MSG should still be used in moderation.

Amount Consumed is Within Safe Limits

Average MSG consumption, even in high Asian-food consumers, remains well below amounts shown to be potentially harmful in tests on animals. Human studies show no risks at normal culinary doses. At moderate levels, our bodies can metabolize added glutamates without issue.

Overall, the science does not support MSG being inherently dangerous at typical consumption levels. While a small subset may have sensitivities, for most people MSG poses no health risk when used properly in cooking. The fears about its safety have been overblown.

conclusively link these symptoms to MSG. Even the FDA classifies it as a food ingredient that’s generally recognized as safe.

The Science Behind MSG: Understanding Its Composition:

To understand MSG’s safety, it helps to look at its chemical structure and composition:

  • MSG consists of 78% glutamate bound to 22% sodium.
  • The glutamate in MSG contains carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen atoms. This molecular structure is identical to the glutamate produced in our bodies.
  • The sodium allows the normally unstable glutamate molecule to crystallize into a stable, water-soluble form. This enables MSG to dissolve and spread flavor efficiently when used in food.
  • MSG is classified as a non-essential amino acid since our bodies can synthesize it. But we also get glutamate from protein-rich foods.
  • On its own, MSG has little taste or smell. It must enter foods to elicit the savory umami sensation by interacting with receptors.
  • Chemical analysis shows MSG isolated through fermentation is molecularly identical to MSG extracted from seaweed. The production method doesn’t alter safety.
  • MSG contains only about 13% sodium by weight, compared to around 38% sodium in regular table salt.

Understanding the science behind MSG’s chemical composition shows there is nothing inherently harmful about this substance. Our bodies recognize it as a normal molecule that we routinely consume in food. When used in moderation, MSG poses no more health risks than traditional ingredients used in cooking.

How MSG Can Positively Impact Your Sodium Intake:

One underappreciated benefit of MSG is that it contains much less sodium than regular table salt. Replacing some salt with MSG in recipes can potentially reduce your overall sodium consumption.

► MSG vs Salt – Sodium Content Comparison

  • Table salt is approximately 38% sodium by weight, while MSG contains only 12-13% sodium.
  • This means MSG has about 1/3 the sodium of an equal amount of salt.
  • Switching from 1 tsp of salt to 1 teaspoon of MSG would cut sodium by over 200 mg.

► Tips for Reducing Sodium with MSG

  • For sautéing, use a mix of 3/4 tsp MSG + 1/4 tsp salt instead of 1 full tsp of salt.
  • In soups, stews, and sauces, use half the amount of MSG as you would salt. This can cut sodium substantially.
  • For seasoning blends, do a 3:1 ratio of herbs and spices to MSG instead of salt.
  • Gradually incorporate more MSG to allow your tastebuds time to adapt to less salt.

► Benefits of Lower Sodium

  • Reducing sodium intake has been linked to lower blood pressure in people with hypertension. This may reduce risks of heart disease and stroke.
  • Those on medical sodium-restricted diets may benefit from replacing some salt with MSG to boost flavor.
  • Lower-sodium dishes appeal to health-conscious diners. Using MSG enables reducing salt without sacrificing taste.

MSG offers a clever way to cut some of the sodium from your diet while still enjoying delicious flavors. With proper education, MSG could shake its stigma and be embraced as a low-sodium seasoning alternative.

Learn More: Low Sodium Soy Sauce vs Regular: Which One Fits Your Dietary Needs?

How to Use MSG: Unique and Creative Ways

MSG’s versatility means you can add it to nearly anything. From a sprinkle on your scrambled eggs to a dash in your broccoli or chicken casseroles, MSG can take your dishes to new flavor heights.

► Making Your Own MSG-Infused Sauces and Seasonings:

An easy way to incorporate MSG into your meals is by creating your own MSG-infused seasonings and sauces. You can make an MSG-spiced rub for your poultry or create a savory soy-based sauce for stir-fries.

► MSG Cocktail Magic: An Unexpected Use of MSG:

Now, this might surprise you, but MSG can even find its way into your cocktails. A pinch of MSG can enhance the flavors of your drink, making it a unique addition to your mixology toolkit. Just imagine sipping on a Bloody Mary with an added umami kick!

► Sweet and Savory: Exploring MSG Use in Desserts:

MSG in desserts? You bet! While it might seem unconventional, a little bit of MSG can enhance the flavors and palate of certain sweet dishes, too. It can help balance and round out flavors, making your sweet treats even more delectable.

So, the next time you’re in the grocery store, don’t shy away from that little bottle of MSG. Remember, it’s not just for Chinese food or savory dishes. From your main course to your cocktails and desserts, MSG can be your secret weapon in the cooking process.


In the realm of cooking, MSG is not just a seasoning, but a magic ingredient that can transform your dishes, making them burst with flavor. From its humble beginnings in a Japanese lab to its global recognition, MSG has come a long way.

Despite the myths and misconceptions, MSG is not the villain it’s often portrayed to be. In fact, it can be a healthier alternative to regular salt, helping you reduce your sodium intake. And let’s not forget, it’s the key to unlocking that elusive fifth taste – umami.

Whether you’re whipping up a quick stir-fry, mixing a cocktail, or even baking a dessert, a little sprinkle of MSG can elevate your culinary creations. So, why not give it a try? Explore the world of MSG, experiment with it in your kitchen, and experience the umami magic for yourself.

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