You’ve most likely heard of MSG in a negative context, thanks to rumors of harmful health effects, headaches, and even achy limbs. But the truth behind this relatively innocuous seasoning is just that . . . fairly unremarkable.
But first, what exactly is MSG?
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Monosodium glutamate is naturally occurring in many umami-rich foods, such as Parmesan cheese and tomatoes, and serves to naturally enhance flavor. It was first mass produced as a seasoning salt and flavor enhancer in 1908 by Japanese researcher Kikunae Ikeda (who, it’s interesting to note, is credited as the originator of the term “umami” itself) when he isolated glutamate in kombu and realized that it gave foods a pleasurable savoriness.
Ikeda then synthesized and packaged MSG as a shelf-stable salt, which has since become a widely used flavor enhancer in food items such as bouillon and cold cuts; it’s also added to many snack foods.
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Now that we know we eat far more naturally occurring MSG than we might have realized, how has it become synonymous with East Asian takeout food, and why are people so afraid of it? The answer is simply that false rumors began to spread when people who were suffering headaches, nausea, and body aches attributed their maladies to eating East Asian takeout food, a cuisine where MSG was once prevalent. Sadly, the seasoning took the brunt of the blame and was subsequently cast out of many kitchens, with signs and posters cropping up in takeout restaurants boasting “No MSG.”
The truth is, the seasoning has been widely recognized by food regulators as safe to eat for years now. In fact, the sodium and glutamate in MSG are indistinguishable by the human body from those already naturally present in many of the foods we eat. Not only that, but MSG also contains about a third as much sodium as salt, so it could be considered a healthier alternative for anyone looking to limit their sodium intake.
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Like salt or sugar, MSG simply makes food taste better. But just as with salt or sugar (or anything, really), overindulging isn’t a healthful practice either.