Let me say right at the start, that MSG is safe. Very safe. You’re probably not used to hearing good news about MSG – monosodium glutamate, at least not in the media. You’ve heard all the hype about Chinese restaurant syndrome, so-called “experts” telling you all manner of scary stuff. You consciously looked for the “we don’t use MSG” statement on menus. Mostly, you probably thought you should avoid it.
Think again. And I say that as a registered dietitian and nutritionist who has counseled people of all ages for over 25 years.
Why? Because you’ve already been enjoying it for years in other foods and didn’t even know it. MSG is nothing more than glutamate, the pure form of an amino acid called glutamic acid. Glutamic acid is actually the most common amino acid in our bodies. It’s a basic building block of muscle and it’s critical to our functioning.
Glutamate is also naturally present in foods we love, like parmesan cheese, tomatoes, mushrooms, asparagus, and many more. In fact, part of what we love about the flavor of these foods comes from the glutamate. About 90 percent of the glutamate in our diets is naturally present in foods. MSG is just one source and accounts for about 10 percent of our dietary glutamate.
Have you ever heard of “umami”? If you’re a foodie, you have. Umami is considered the fifth basic taste; after sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Ask any chef about foods and dishes that have umami and they’ll be sure to provide a lengthy list. Chefs often describe “umami” as a savory quality or flavor. Glutamate is precisely what provides the umami taste in foods. Italian food, for example, with lots of tomatoes, mushrooms, and parmesan cheese, is a gold mine of umami and, therefore, glutamate, but lots of other cuisines have “high-umami” foods as well. The human tongue actually has taste receptors for glutamate/umami.
As a nutritionist, I want people to eat more foods like tomatoes, mushrooms and asparagus. These are healthy foods! If they’re loaded with glutamate, relax, glutamate is more than fine. Read on.
Safety of Glutamate and Monosodium Glutamate
Glutamate, and its pure form, MSG, are safe. Glutamate is made by a fermentation process, much the same way that yogurt, vinegar and beer are made. The body treats the glutamate in MSG exactly the same way it treats glutamate that’s naturally present in food. When foods with MSG are consumed, the body breaks the MSG down into glutamate and a tiny amount of sodium.
Some may be surprised to learn that MSG doesn’t have any taste of its own. Its use is to enhance the flavors already present in food.
MSG is one of the most exhaustively studied food ingredients. Its safety has been affirmed by such diverse and respected groups as the National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association, and the European Community’s Scientific Committee for Food, among many others.
There are lots of things in this world of which to be afraid. MSG isn’t one of them. Mother Nature figured out it was a great flavor enhancer. Instead of avoiding MSG, perhaps we need to leverage its flavor enhancing advantages. We can do that and even lower the sodium content found in our diets at the same time. A future post will tell you why, so stay tuned.