Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a highly popular yet controversial food additive. This particular additive falls into the category of “flavor enhancer” along with diocytl sodium sufosuccinate, disodium guanylate and hydrolyzed vegetable protein. MSG was deemed a safe food additive and approved in 1959 by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA.) Today MSG is commonly found in a lot of canned soups, not to mention its notoriety as a mainstay of Asian cuisine. Processed food, mixes, frozen meats and stock are likely to have MSG.
Although additives generally have no flavor in and of themselves, MSG is the exception. Despite being salty and bitter, MSG works well to enhance and heighten the flavor of common foods. It also has the power to block out the scent and flavor of anything that might be partially spoiled. This is precisely why so many meats and pre-made meals rely on MSG to help them sell a product.
Where does MSG originate? MSG finds its origins in dried seaweed but is most commonly taken from wheat or corn gluten. People with sensitivities to gluten (i.e., people who have celiac disease) may find that they also have adverse reactions to MSG. The additive can trigger headaches, allergic reactions, diarrhea or vomiting. In 1986 an investigation of the use of MSG lead to the finding that MSG was safe, despite reports of short-term reactions. Additional studies by other groups came to the same conclusion.
MSG isn’t all bad. Without it, the foods and flavors we expect to come out of the kitchen of our favorite restaurants might not be the same.
There is no denying that some people are sensitive to MSG. By and large the root of the problem is the glutamate. People’s bodily reactions to MSG in their diet include: numbness, burning sensation in the esophagus, facial tingling, headache, nausea, rapid heartbeat drowsiness and weakness. Perhaps this explains the lethargy many feel upon consuming a large portion of Chinese food.
Asthmatics who are already sensitive to certain additives may find that they have adverse reactions to MSG as well. Most of the evidence on that subject is anecdotal rather than scientifically steadfast.
In order to keep the public well-informed about the food choices they are making. The manufacturer cannot assume that consumers will know that MSG is an additive. For this reason, the FDA requires product labels to disclose specifically how much MSG is present in the food.