The Myth We Once Believed: ‘MSG Is Bad For You’

Words: Crush

We’ve all heard about the rumoured Chinese Restaurant Syndrome and its association with controversial food additive, MSG. Sure, it doesn’t help that it’s a crystallised white substance and mimics the appearance of ‘culinary crack’, but is MSG really as bad as people have been led to believe?

What is MSG?

MSG, short for monosodium glutamate, is a flavour enhancer that brings out the savoury and umami taste in food. It was first identified by a Japanese scientist, Kikunae Ikeda, back in 1908. He isolated the unique taste in seaweed/kombu broth and labelled it ‘umami’ which translates to ‘pleasant savoury taste’ or ‘the essence of deliciousness’. Since then, MSG has become a staple in Asian cooking, elevating dishes to new heights of flavour.


Chinese Restaurant Syndrome

Fast forward to the 1960s, and the term ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’ – also known as ‘Monosodium Glutamate Symptom Complex’ – started making rounds. This phrase referred to symptoms Westerners experienced after consuming Chinese cuisine.

Dubious claims about severe migraines, flush sweating, tingling extremities and heart palpitations have been reported by MSG naysayers – likely just the effects of being exposed to seasoned food. But let’s be real, it’s no coincidence that this stereotype emerged at a time when racial bias was rampant. The syndrome’s origins were based on unfounded claims that MSG, often used in Chinese and Asian cuisine, was the culprit.


But What Does Science Say?

The scientific community has thoroughly investigated the alleged link between MSG and these symptoms, leading to the conclusion that most of the claims are based on anecdotal evidence or a ‘nocebo effect’ rather than a direct causal relationship. The nocebo effect occurs when perpetuated beliefs about a substance cause individuals to experience adverse effects, even when the substance doesn’t inherently cause harm. In fact, the term “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” itself perpetuates racial discrimination.

The nocebo effect occurs when perpetuated beliefs about a substance cause individuals to experience adverse effects, even when the substance doesn’t inherently cause harm.

In the case of MSG, studies have consistently failed to find significant evidence linking it to severe adverse reactions. Furthermore, regulatory agencies worldwide, such as the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the World Health Organization (WHO), have classified MSG as ‘generally safe’ when consumed in typical amounts found in food.

Now, here’s the kicker – many of the same claims made about Chinese Restaurant Syndrome haven’t been thrown at the MSG-laden snacks regularly consumed.

Think about your favourite bag of chips and other commercial snacks; chances are, they contain MSG, yet they’re not associated with the same unfounded health concerns. What’s even more interesting is that MSG occurs naturally in foods like tomatoes, cheese and soy sauce, and has been safely used for over a century to enhance flavours in cooking.

 MSG occurs naturally in foods like tomatoes, cheese and soy sauce.

In Asian cuisine, it’s openly celebrated as an essential ingredient – chefs artfully balance flavours with it. However, in Western culture, MSG has often been vilified due to these misconceptions, leading to the rise of ‘No MSG’ labels, which are more misleading than some might think. So, why the unwarranted fear?

Like many chefs, David Chang, owner of Momofuku and star of Netflix food show Ugly Delicious, recognises that it’s all about the dosage and how it’s used. In his words, “If it makes food taste better, why wouldn’t you use it?” – and we must concur.


Try these Umami Loaded Recipes

MSG amplifies the natural taste of umami in certain dishes to make them more glutamate-rich. These recipes don’t contain MSG but feel free to sprinkle some on…

Sticky Asian Pork with Egg Noodles

Mouthwatering pork belly glazed with soy sauce, hoisin and honey – absolutely divine!
Sticky Asian Pork with Egg Noodles recipe

Miso Butter Charred Onion Potjie

An Ottolenghi-inspired potjie packed with miso, butter and caramelised onions.
Miso Butter Charred Onion Potjie recipe

Roasted Mushroom Chorizo & Old Brown Sherry Soup

A warming bowl of soup loaded with umami, thanks to the mushrooms and OBS.
Roasted Mushroom, Chorizo & OBS Soup recipe

Tonkotsu Style Ramen

Glutamate-rich soy sauce, mirin and pork impart spoonfuls of flavour in this dish.
Tonkotsu Style Ramen recipe

Learn all about umami, and take your food from bland to bold with these umami pastes

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