“Natural.” There’s no official definition for the word as it relates to food, which makes the interpretation of it subjective. It seems most people seeking natural foods are doing so to keep close to nature and avoid products they view as synthetic. Monosodium glutamate, aka MSG, sounds far from nature, but is it? To answer that, let’s look at what it’s made of, where it comes from, and what happens to it in your body.
The flavor we call umami is highly sought and valued in Asian cooking. The sauces, many based on soybeans rich in glutamate, deliver the umami flavor. Fermentation processes used to create the sauces break down the proteins in soybeans, releasing free glutamate acids and generating the flavor-elevating effect. And the use of MSG crystals heightens the umami flavor of the dishes.
In 32 years of clinical practice, I’ve taken dietary histories on thousands of adults and children. At some point, nearly all Americans have eaten Chinese food, either by going to a restaurant or getting take-out. If I ask them if they avoid monosodium glutamate – what they know as MSG – those that have heard of it will almost always say they avoid it. My patients who would be considered “foodies” almost universally avoid MSG in their food. Or do they? More about that later.
Sensitivity to MSG, commonly known as “Chinese restaurant syndrome” started not with any evidence, but with an article written by a physician in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1968.
The question I posed as the title of this blog is a good one that needs revisiting often. Why? Because it puzzles me that some people still are not aware that monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a perfectly safe food ingredient.
While the internet can be a blessing (and yes, it is here to stay), it also can be a curse. A curse? Here’s the thinking about that. Years of inaccurate information and anecdotal tales of woe have been posted and reposted and reposted again about MSG safety. Individuals who don’t believe it is safe or do not understand that the science supports MSG’s safety often sensationalize it. In this day and age where ‘sexy’ sells, outrageous information is what too often grabs attention. Tried and true science can be a bit boring, hence the perpetual posting of untruths about MSG.
I’m not exactly sure why, but the question of whether monosodium glutamate and gluten are related is a common one. There can be some confusion over the terms involved, as well as how MSG is produced, so if you’re concerned about gluten, here’s what you need to know…
Maybe it’s the G-L-U? You might have noticed that the first several letters of both words are the same. Unless one is familiar with nutrition science, the words used in the discipline can be confusing—especially if they sound similar—or partially similar, like these two do. This similarity doesn’t mean that the two things are related at all.