What is MSG: Everything you need to know about this flavor enhancer
What is MSG and what is it used for? What is the relationship between MSG and the fifth flavor or umami? Should we avoid this flavor enhancer? In this article we explain everything about monosodium glutamate: With what other names this food additive is known, what foods contain it, its relationship with obesity, the Chinese restaurant syndrome, and we give you some advice.
You may have heard the word glutamate somewhere, but do not know very well what it is, or what it means. Sometimes we even get information of how bad it is but have no idea why. For example, we hear about the effects of foods with glutamate in our body. In this article, we will develop what you need to know about this amino acid.
What is MSG or monosodium glutamate? This substance, also known as MSG or sodium glutamate, is the sodium salt of glutamic acid (one of the most abundant essential amino acids in nature). MSG is a food additive, which provides the same “umami” flavor that we can find naturally in some foods. Chemically, they are the same. The food industry uses and commercializes monosodium glutamate as a food additive or “seasoning” to enhance the flavor of some foods.
MSG, by itself, does not have a pleasant taste. It is necessary to complement this substance with other foods so that it can enhance, harmonize, and balance the flavor of certain dishes, making them more appetizing.
What is MSG in foods? Monosodium glutamate combines very well with different foods: Meats, fish, vegetables, soups, sauces and contributes for these to have a more pleasant taste.
This additive has been considered non-toxic and safe if consumed in normal quantities. However, there seems to be a group of people who manifest symptoms, such as vomiting, nausea or diarrhea, when they consume foods prepared with MSG.
What is MSG and its relationship with “umami” or fifth flavor?
We all know the basic flavors of taste (sweet, bitter, salty and acidic). Well, in addition to these, we have to include the umami, the taste of monosodium glutamate. For many it may sound like something new or strange, however, it was identified as a flavor by Kikunae Ikeda in 1908.
This scientist investigated algae rich in umami and managed to isolate one of the components of these algae, MSG or Monosodium Glutamate.
“Umami” in Japanese, means “delicious” or “deep flavor” because, after eating it, the flavor remains in your mouth. In fact, it has such a pleasant taste that it encourages to continue eating more of that product.
- We can learn to identify MSG taste by concentrating on the center of our tongue. The biologist Charles Zuker, determined in 2001 that the largest number of taste receptors specific for this taste are there, in the center of the tongue.
Surely, you have eaten foods that had this characteristic flavor, but since we do not have this word in our vocabulary, we simply describe it with either a “mmmm” or “wow this is so tasty!” You may even have tried some pre-cooked food or bag snacks and commented, “I don’t know why but I can not stop eating it!”.
Even if you stop to think about it, there are various commercials, which indirectly allude to the properties of Monosodium Glutamate (MSG). They bet that “you won’t resist just eating one” or they warn you, suggestively, that “once you pop open the bag, you won’t be able to stop”.
What is MSG and what other names does it have?
Monosodium Glutamate is a flavor enhancer that appears on food labels in different ways. This amino acid receives different names, such as:
- Hydrolyzed vegetable protein
- Self-leavening yeast
- Hydrolyzed casein
- Hydrolyzed corn
- Hydrolyzed Wheat Gluten
- Whey protein concentrate
- Citric acid
- Partially hydrolyzed whey
- Hydrolyzed milk protein
What is MSG and what food contains it?
There are many other foods that contain monosodium glutamate added to generate this flavor and increase its consumption. We could consider it a sort of “trick” of the food industry to raise its income, increasing the demand for these “succulent snacks”:
- Appetizers, fried foods, snacks
- Cold meats and sausages
- Olives, pickles, pickles …
- Pre-cooked food
- Instant soup
- Frozen food
- Prepared sauces and soy sauce
- Junk Food (frozen pizzas, kebabs, hamburgers …)
What is MSG ?- MSG effects? Relationship between MSG and obesity
Should you avoid MSG? After reading this article, the next time you go to the supermarket you will start reading the labels and you will find that MSG is everywhere in its E621 form.
Glutamate can affect us negatively when we exceed a certain intake. However, this is like with everything. If you exceed in eating fruit it can be negative for your health as well. Nothing is good in excess, therefore it is advisable to limit consumption.
Try not to get too caught up on this. It’s true that there is a relationship between MSG and overweight, but it doesn’t mean that monosodium glutamate is directly fattening. MSG’s relationship with obesity is as follows:
Consume high processed foods like snacks, junk food, pre-cooked food, etc:
- One of the main characteristics of this type of food is that it is loaded with sugars and trans fats, which in turn make us feel not satisfied nor full. Apart from these additions, we might guess that MSG is also added to the mix, to make it more flavorful and increase our intake of the product. Thus, Monosodium Glutamate contributes indirectly to weight gain, but it isn’t alone. What really fattens us is the consumption of hypercaloric foods, especially if it is part of our regular diet.
- Lack of self-control: There are people who are more controlled at mealtimes than others. As much as a food carries MSG and your brain asks you for more, we are owners of our actions. Therefore, it is up to us, and only us, to decide to eat only a portion or less. This is highly related to impulsive behaviors and the immediate gratification of a desire or need.
What is MSG and its relationship with Chinese food?- Chinese Restaurant Syndrome
You may have heard about how Chinese food or products used can be detrimental to your health. Some things you have heard will be rumors or speculations. However, there is something that is real.
These restaurants have become common to produce certain symptoms that have been labeled part of the “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”.
Something I want to clarify before is that these symptoms are a consequence of free-form amino acids.
- Origin: It was first described by Dr. Kwok
- Beginning: Appearance around 15-20 minutes of starting a meal prepared with MSG.
- Duration: 2 hours
- Cervical hardening with pain radiating to both arms and back.
- General weakness
Dr. Taliaferro undertook an analysis of the situation in the Journal of Environmental Health, stating: “All competent international agencies agree that the normal and controlled use of Monosodium Glutamate does not pose a health hazard”.
The Committee of Experts on Food Additives of the World Health Organization, Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), the Scientific Committee for Food of the European Community, and the American Medical Association have expressed this on different occasions. Even the demanding US FDA has classified Glutamate as generally recognized as safe or GRAS substance in the same group as salt, pepper or sugar.
“There is no scientific evidence establishing that glutamate causes, in particular, severe adverse reactions or that reactions from low concentrations pose a threat “- US FDA
What does this all say? There are people who are more vulnerable or sensitive to MSG. The best thing is to do is to control consumption and not eat large quantities of food containing this product.
What is MSG-Recommendations
Health seems to be the key to the survival human beings. We aim for stability, good habits, superb cognitive skills, physical and brain training routines and a balanced diet. With MSG it’s the same, to be healthy just try to consume it with moderation and always within a balanced diet.
On the other hand, knowledge is power and, with food, it is very important to know what you are eating. We have already seen what other names MSG has on labels, therefore, it is your decision if you want to ingest it or not.
Anyway, these are our conclusions. You can contribute more information if you like. What do you think? Have you suffered any of the Chinese restaurant syndrome symptoms? Have you ever heard of Monosodium Glutamate? Do you know any myths or truths about this amino acid? Just remember are what we eat.
As always, I invite you to comment below!
This article is originally in Spanish written by Patricia Sanchez Seisdedos, translated by Alejandra Salazar.
Alejandra is a clinical and health psychologist. She is a child specialist with a diploma in evaluation and intervention in autism. She has worked in different schools with young children and private practice for over 6 years. She is interested in early childhood intervention, emotional intelligence, and attachment styles. As a brain and human behavior enthusiast, she is more than happy to answer your questions and share her experience.