MSG Isn’t Harmful

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Chances are, you’re a little wary of MSG, even if you’re not exactly sure why. (It’s something to do with Chinese food and headaches or … something … right?) This week, the folks at the American Chemical Society, a congressionally chartered organization representing professionals and researchers in the field of chemistry, released a video designed to assuage those fears, assuring us that MSG is perfectly safe to consume. 

Here’s the gist: MSG stands for monosodium glutamate, and it essentially pumps up foods’ umami flavor — that strong, savory flavor in fare such as parmesan cheese and mushrooms. It’s a version of something called glutamic acid, an amino acid found in protein-rich foods like meats, milk, cheese, and even some vegetables. Our own bodies produce glutamic acid while we’re metabolizing the food we consume, and can't even tell the difference between the naturally occurring variety and the sodium version we call MSG.

MSG’s bad rap began in the late 1960s, when the author of a letter to the editor of The New England Journal of Medicine complained of what he dubbed “Chinese restaurant syndrome” — numbness, weakness, and headaches, all of which he attributed to the MSG in Chinese food. But decades of research have found no link between MSG and weakness, numbness, or headaches in most people, though a small amount of people will experience very mild symptoms after consuming huge quantities of MSG. (They’d need to consume three grams at once; for reference, most of us consume 0.55 grams every day.)

In other words, feel free to order your fried rice and kung pao chicken without fear of a crippling headache.