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Is MSG Bad For You?

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The Truth About MSG And How To Use It Wisely

MSG (a.k.a. monosodium glutamate) is a first rate flavor enhancer that amplifies the natural flavors found in food. It is salt bound to glutamic acid, an amino acid; it is naturally present in our bodies; and it occurs in nature in many foods, among them cheeses, tomatoes, mushrooms, and even pork, beef, and chicken. It is also a natural byproduct of some aging and fermentation processes. As a food additive, MSG is harmless in normal use. It is an effective flavor enhancer because glutamates are responsible for a basic taste sensation called umami, and we recommend it. I keep a jar next to the salt near the stove.

Sadly, many people have the misimpression that MSG is harmful or it can create headaches, unfortunately dubbed “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” because many Chinese restaurants use it. Doritos, Pringles, parmesan cheese, and Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup are among the many foods loaded with MSG, so if you can eat them, then you are not allergic to MSG.

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The fact is that scientists have had no luck proving the connection between MSG and ill health in controlled peer reviewed tests, the gold standard. When people who think they are allergic are brought into a lab and fed foods with MSG in normal quantities or a placebo, there is no reaction to either. That’s why the eminent food writer Jeffrey Steingarten once wrote a famous essay, “Why Doesn’t Everyone in China Have a Headache?” Here is what an independent group of scientists and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration say about MSG: It is safe. That document states, “An average adult consumes approximately 13 grams of glutamate each day from the protein in food, while intake of added MSG is estimated at around 0.55 grams per day.”

The only credible research showing harm was when it was used in large quantities on an empty stomach.

But isn’t MSG different from the glutamate in natural foods? Essentially no. It is simply glutamate with salt. The salt becomes detached when it gets wet. So why do people think MSG is evil? It all started in 1968 when a doctor wrote an informal article stating that he experienced a hangover-like effect when he ate Chinese food. He never mentioned MSG and there was no research involved. But it went viral, long before the internet, and there has been no undoing the harm.

Ac’cent® and AJI-NO-MOTO® are commercial powdered forms of MSG. You can find Ac’cent® in most spice sections of grocery stores. I recommend it. Sprinkle it on meats or add it to stews and soups. But also try it on Mac & Cheese and popcorn! Add it before or during cooking. You can add it just before serving but it is less effective that way. I use it in savory dishes but not sweets. I recommend about 1/2 teaspoon on a pound of food. It has a bit of salt in it, so you can even cut back on the salt in your recipe.

Skeptical? Do this experiment: Get two steaks and sprinkle 1/4 teaspoon of MSG per pound of meat on one steak before cooking. Make a small cut in the edge of this steak so you know it is the MSG one. Use nothing else other than some salt. Then have someone give you a taste of each steak without telling you which is which. I’m betting you’ll have no trouble telling them apart, and you will prefer the MSG steak.

For more on the subject and the history of MSG, click here and here.

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Published On: 9/15/2021 Last Modified: 12/10/2021

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  • Meathead - Founder and publisher of AmazingRibs.com, Meathead is known as the site's Hedonism Evangelist and BBQ Whisperer. He is also the author of the New York Times Best Seller "Meathead, The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling", named one of the "100 Best Cookbooks of All Time" by Southern Living.

 

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