Just like the scary-sounding acronym GMO, MSG probably terrifies you. (Us, too.) Although we’ve never been quite sure why it’s so bad or what those letters even stand for. It’s an ingredient in Chinese food and salty, processed snacks, right? (Tasty bag of Doritos, all eyes are on you.) We teamed up with David L. Katz, M.D., M.P.H, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, to bring you some answers.
What exactly is MSG? It’s short for monosodium glutamate. Huh? In a nutshell, it’s a cheap, synthetic form of a naturally occurring amino acid called glutamate—plus added sodium (hence the name).
Wait, so what’s glutamate? This protein building block is found in rich, savory and protein-rich foods like meat, fish, tomatoes, cheese, dried mushrooms and seaweed. It’s responsible for their satisfying “meaty” flavor that chefs describe as umami. Pretty neat.
So MSG and glutamate are basically the same thing? Well, they’re both pretty darn delicious. But here’s the thing: When you eat glutamate in foods, it’s bound to other amino acids into a big protein. Your body breaks it down and processes it at its own pace. MSG isn’t bound to anything—it’s actually just a powder—so your body absorbs it immediately. Like salt, MSG is a delivery vehicle for sodium and most of us get way too much of that.
And MSG in Chinese food causes headaches…or something? Historically, it’s gotten a bad rap for causing “Chinese restaurant syndrome,” or headaches and numbness around the mouth. Although a few people do have this allergic reaction, Katz maintains it has no effect on the overwhelming majority of people. Which, great news, means if it doesn’t give you a headache, you can continue enjoying your sesame chicken and fried rice without fear.
How can I avoid MSG? Simply avoiding foods that list MSG as an ingredient isn’t enough, because many companies have found ways around listing it (hydrolyzed proteins, yeast extracts and liquid aminos are names for essentially the same thing). Your best bet? A diet of mainly whole, unprocessed foods.
So what’s the bottom line? Basically, MSG isn’t the singular nutrient villain it’s made out to be. But it definitely ups your sodium intake, so eat it sparingly.