Can one doctor’s letter to the editor spark a multi-decade paranoia and fear about an amino acid we’d already been eating for years?

If you bet the farm that it could you’d be right (and rich).  Indeed, this is exactly what happened when a physician wrote a letter to the editor of a medical journal about a single patient who complained about feeling light-headed after eating in a Chinese restaurant.  This gave birth to a never-proven set of reactionary symptoms known as “Chinese restaurant syndrome and was attributed to an ingredient widely used in Chinese food, called monosodium glutamate, or MSG.

As a result of the published letter, people started insisting that their food be prepared without MSG, and Chinese restaurants began cooking without it and declaring so on menus from coast to coast, a response to customers’ unwarranted fears about this newly disparaged ingredient.

The trend spread to non-Chinese chefs as a matter of course, and “No MSG” turned into a politically correct flag that many waved with an air of purity and condescension – despite the fact that no sound science actually disproved MSG safety.

Fast forward to a few years ago when chefs began talking of “umami” and how it was the “fifth basic taste,” after the commonly acknowledged sweet, sour, salty, and bitter flavors that had receptors and even dominant regions on our tongues.  Umami also had receptors on the tongue, but defining umami was a bit more difficult.  Umami was described as more of an “enhanced” taste.  Not a specific flavor per se, but something that could amplify the “taste volume” of many foods.

Well, chefs gave “umami” two toques up and the pro-taste-enhancement movement was started.  The “foodies” boarded the umami train and have been piling on ever since.

Terrific, but what many don’t know is that what produces umami is nothing more than glutamate – the same glutamate that helps MSG enhance the taste of foods.  Relax, it’s harmless.  In fact, it’s even good.  Indeed, glutamate is just an amino acid, one of the building blocks of protein, and it’s the most common amino acid in our food supply and is naturally present in our gut as well.

When you know how glutamate works, you’ll almost laugh at the notion that it could cause anyone to feel light-headed.  Glutamate almost never even leaves the gut.  It’s there doing its due diligence helping take care of our GI tracts, feeding our healthy gut bacteria, and supporting the part of our immune system that is housed there.

As for that report of “Chinese restaurant syndrome” symptoms, no well-controlled studies – and I mean none, even the double-blinded, randomized controlled gold-standard ones – could replicate any negatives associated with glutamate or MSG.  Good thing, as our bodies really need glutamate to function well.

I also like that it helps food taste good.  It’s actually naturally-occurring in lots of foods that we eat every day.  Glutamate is part of what makes us love the taste of tomatoes, mushrooms, eggplant and parmesan cheese.  Indeed where would Italian food be without glutamate?  Full disclosure, I’m probably a foodie as well, by many people’s definitions, because, we nutritionists like good food and we don’t live on seaweed, mind you. Then again, seaweed is loaded with glutamate, and seaweed is pretty good in some cuisines.  Thanks, Mother Nature.

Since the “S” in MSG stands for sodium, MSG does have some of that, but you might be surprised to learn that, gram for gram, teaspoon for teaspoon, MSG contains about 1/3 the sodium of table salt. Maybe MSG really is something good.  It’s likely way better than you thought.

 

For more information, read “10 Things You Should Know about Monosodium Glutamate (MSG).”