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Why are we still worried about MSG?

Ajinomoto MSG Source: Wikimedia Commons

Did you know that you eat glutamates (including MSG) every day? Monosodium glutamate, or MSG, is the sodium salt of glutamic acid, which exists naturally in our body and in breast milk. It’s also in foods like Parmesan, tomatoes, mushrooms, meat, kombu and Vegemite. It’s what gives that delicious umami (savoury, slightly meaty) taste to foods.

It can also be produced by fermenting molasses, sugarcane, sugar beets or tapioca. The result is a white crystalline powder that looks like salt. It’s often added to processed foods like stock, gravy, crisps, noodle cups and even soy sauce. You can also buy the powder and use it to season food.

“Whether it’s present in processed food or it’s naturally occurring, our body can’t tell the difference, it gets digested the same way,” explains Anika Rouf, accredited dietitian and spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia.

MSG is deemed safe by food authorities around the world, including our own Food Standards Australia New Zealand. Their official position is that “MSG does not represent a health concern for the general population”.

But many brands and restaurants still advertise in big bold letters that their food doesn’t contain MSG. And a lot of people still avoid eating it.

A stigma that sticks

While glutamates occur naturally in foods, Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda first isolated it as a flavouring in 1908. But it wasn't until 1968 that things got controversial.

It’s that year that Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok wrote a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine, titled “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”. He shared that he experienced numbness at the back of his neck, weakness and palpitations after eating out at Chinese-American restaurants.

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