MSG. If you like your soup and salad, it's in your soup, your salad dressing, and your crackers. Those frequent trips to the vending machine when you got the munchies for Cheetos? MSG is there too. Too rushed for time and have to get some fast food? You'll be hard pressed to find a joint that's sans-MSG. There's been a lot of talk, hype, and contervosy over this umami flavor enhancer, but does it deserve the bad rap? Here's the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly on MSG.
First the Facts
Monosodium Glutamate, MSG's full name, is practically synonymous with the 5th flavor, umami. The Japanese word for savory, umami is distinct from sweet, sour, salty, & bitter, but when combined with these other flavors, umami can accent and enhance their taste. MSG is the primary ingredient in most of today's food for giving that umami flavor enhancing goodness. The long and short of it is this: MSG is like nicotine for food, it makes it taste better. MSG is why "once you pop, you just can't stop."
The addictive ingredient is a sodium salt isolated from glutamic acid, a non-essential amino acid—which is probably why some companies label MSG as Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein (even though it doesn't contain protein or any macro or micronutrients for that matter). Primarily, companies manufacture MSG from the glutamic acid found in some seaweeds, and it was first produced in Japan over 100 years ago. In that time, MSG has been studied and claimed to have adverse affects ranging from headaches and joint problems to obesity and asthma. Before getting to these nasty allegations, let's look at the, albeit, brief, good side of MSG.
Unlike my previous the Good, the Bad, & the Ugly posts, MSG really doesn't have much going for it except that it makes food taste better. However, even that could be bad since most of the food it is in isn't that good for you anyways—Cheetos anyone?
Over the years that MSG has been around, there have been anecdotal claims that it can cause adverse symptoms including:, nausea; sweating; facial pressure or tightness; numbness, tingling or burning in the face and neck; heart palpitations; chest pain; headaches; and others. This has been called the "MSG Symptom Complex."
However, all of these anecdotal claims have never been verified in scientific studies. A multi-center clinical trial (controlled & double-blind) did not prove a relationship exists between MSG symptom complex and the consumption of MSG in people who thought they reacted detrimentally toward MSG. The adverse responses were few and inconsistent. Furthermore, when MSG was given with food, such reactions were not observed.
Perhaps all the bad hype MSG has been given is more to blame for these anecdotal claims than MSG itself. Tell that to someone with MSG Symptom Complex, however, and you might be the one experiencing a headache!
Though there is no evidence to suggest that MSG is indeed toxic to the body, it's relationship with obesity is harder to determine. While the the flavor enhancement properties of MSG or Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein could be one reason to blame for it's association with obesity, research has had mixed results in linking MSG consumption with obesity in humans.
Some extra food for thought: Scientists use Monosodium Glutamate to make rats and mice fat. I'm not talking about studies on whether MSG makes mice fat, it's actually common procedure to use the umami product to make fat mice and rats before a study is conducted. You want to fatten a naturally lean animal like a mouse up? Use MSG. See here: MSG makes mice fat
Despite the lack of evidence to indicate MSG causes adverse symptoms, it's shaky relationship in causing obesity in humans and the routine of using it to fatten rats and mice leads me to believe that MSG is just not worth the risk to put in your body.
Avoid MSG at all costs. If you focus on whole foods and healthy supplements like whey protein and Shakeology while avoiding cuisine that comes out of a can, box, or package, you probably aren't getting any MSG-laiden products anyways.
Put down the lays potato chips and pickup a carrot!