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MSG 101- What Exactly Is Monosodium Glutamate

What is MSG

What Is MSG?  

There has always been a lot of controversy around the food additive that is MSG (monosodium glutamate). There are many claims that MSG can cause nausea, headaches and even permanent brain damage, but is there any truth to these claims?

What exactly is MSG and why has it got such a debated reputation?

MSG is the widely used term given to the chemical combination of sodium and glutamic acid. MSG is formed into a crystalline powder when starches are fermented into glutamic acid with the addition of salt (sodium).

Glutamic acid is also found naturally in food, where it has no chemical difference in terms of individual structure. Although, naturally occurring glutamic acid is not as easy to digest due to the body having to first break down bound proteins.  

Regardless of MSG's bad reputation, glutamic acid is a non-essential amino acid that the body produces it itself. Glutamic acid is required for various functions throughout the body and without it, the body simply would not function.

How is MSG used?  

Because MSG is a flavouring, it is used exactly in that way – as a means to flavour food.

Widely used in eastern cuisine, MSG enhances savoury, umami flavours, making dishes taste more well-rounded and balanced. When on its own MSG does not have a pleasant taste at all, and only improvs taste when combined with other complimenting flavours.

monosodium glutamate

What is MSG found in?  

MSG is not used as a table condiment like salt, simply added as and when. MSG is instead usually found in pre-made goods such as dry ramen noodles, stock cubes and bullion paste; As well as processed foods including ready meals and airplane foods.  

Sodium As A Nutrient.  

Essential nutrients are compounds that the body can not produce on its own, but needs to acquire on a consistent basis. Essential nutrients are obtained by the diet in the form of vitamins, and minerals.  

Is sodium a micronutrient?  

Nutrients are often broken down into 2 main categories, macronutrients and micronutrients. 

Macronutrients are your carbohydrates, proteins and fats; and are needed in large quantities by the body.

Micronutrients on the other are your vitamins and minerals. These are only needed in 'micro' quantities, but are equally as important as their macro counterparts.  

Sodium is one of the many minerals that the body needs in order to maintain health and functionality. Sodium plays an essential purpose in muscle contraction, nerve functionality and the balance of water in the body; all of which are significant to bodily function and the regulation of blood pressure.

Why Is Sodium Used In Processed Foods?  

Whilst not all processed foods salty to taste, most of them contain substantial amounts of sodium in one form or another.

Salt is used not only to make food items taste 'salty' but also to develop and enhance natural flavours. Sodium is one of the most ancient preservatives, used to prevent spoiling of food before technologies such as refrigeration.

Today, sodium is still used as a preservative, less out of necessity, but to instead as a way to extend the use-by date of foods that might sit on supermarket shelves for many months.

Why is MSG added to food?  

MSG is added to food in a similar manor to salt. Whilst MSG's main use is as a flavour enhancer, it also acts as a flavour preserver. Over time some food can lose vibrancy in taste and flavour complexity – MSG prevents this from happening.  

A common myth surrounding the use of MSG is that it is used to suppress the hunger of diners at all you can eat restaurants. There are some studies that support the notion that MSG can suppress hunger in those particularly sensitive to the substance, but there is little evidence to suggest that restaurants use it to stop people from eating as much as they usually would; as opposed to a flavouring.       

MSG and Take Away Foods.  

– What is monosodium glutamate used for in take away foods?  

Not all take away food use MSG, but is a frequently used ingredient in many Asian and eastern cuisines. As per its regular application in all cooking, MSG is used as flavour enhancer in take away foods.

As people have become more aware of MSG's use in cooking, the apparent misuse and potential side effects; many have pinned the feelings of over-fullness and nauseated after eating take away (particularly Chinese) on MSG.  

 is sodium a micronutrient

This has led to the term "Chinese restaurant syndrome", which is the name given to feeling sick, over-full, headachy, and nauseated after eating Chinese food.

Whilst it is true that those who are sensitive to MSG might experience some side effects, the generalised feeling of being unwell after eating Chinese food is more likely the result of the richness, amount of cooking oil used and the excessive amount of regular sodium found in soya sauce.  

Why is there so much confusion and controversy surrounding MSG?  

MSG has been used in cooking for hundreds of years, but the fear surrounding the substance only came to light due to a study in 1969. The study involved giving baby mice large doses of MSG, and the results concluded that it caused significant neurological decline.

Since that initial study, many others have somewhat upheld the notion that MSG is harmful in humans.  

Today it has been proven that MSG is, in fact, is completely safe for human consumption, and unless you are particularly sensitive, one would see no adverse side effects.

Only if MSG, where to be consumed in particularly large doses, would it become dangerous. This can also be said for regular salt, sugar, bananas, even water.

– Too much of anything can be harmful.  

A note to leave with.  

What is MSGs use in cooking has been popularly debated topic for many years. MSG is a food flavouring that is used widely as a way to enhance the flavour of foods, and preserve the taste of food, particularly in eastern cuisine.

MSG has developed a bad reputation through poorly executed studies and years of misinformation. Generalised feelings of unwellness and over-fullness after eating take-aways, specifically Chinese, have also lead to the widespread notion that MSG causes bad side effects.

There is little to support this myth, and the sicky feeling is more likely a result of other characteristics of takeaway Chinese, such as the excessive use, of oil, salt and other rich flavourings.

MSG is completely harmful and safe for consumption in regular amounts. Overconsumption may lead to adverse side effects, but this would be very difficult to achieve from an ordinary diet.  

As with all foods, consume MSG in moderation and unless you have a particular sensitivity, you should not experience any unfavorable effects.