It’s the question most of us have found ourselves asking, especially after eating out at a Chinese restaurant: What is MSG?
Used as a flavour enhancer, MSG is believed by many to cause headaches, sweating, chest pain or palpitations, facial pressure or tightness, nausea, weakness, mood changes or even worsen asthma symptoms. These perceived effects are often referred to as ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’, because MSG is widely understood to be present in Asian meals.
But is MSG really responsible for these feelings of discomfort? And is it bad for you? Here’s everything you need to know.
What is MSG?
MSG stands for monosodium glutamate, derived from the amino acid glutamate, one of the most plentiful naturally occurring amino acids.
The flavour enhancer is used in savoury Asian dishes, and although it contains sodium, it has less than a third of what exists in salt.
The ingredient offers a unami taste (savoury), although it is regarded as unpleasant until combined with other foods.
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Originally developed in Japan by biochemist Kikunae Ikeda in 1908, MSG is now produced by fermenting starch, sugarcane, molasses and sugar beets. MSG is found naturally in a number of foods including tomato, cheese, and dried mushroom.
What is MSG in?
The most well-known use of MSG is in Chinese restaurants, specifically in meat, savoury dishes. But MSG is absolutely not limited to Asian foods.
Here are a list of foods that contain added MSG:
- Flavoured pringles
- KFC fried chicken
- Campbell’s chicken noodle soup
- Ranch dressing
- Frozen dinners
- French fries
- Some frozen meals
- Instant noodles
- Some brands of tomato sauce/mayonnaise
- Some meat products from fast food restaurants
- Some gravies
Packaged and processed foods are the biggest culprits, and MSG is used in most restaurants.
Here are a list of foods that contain natural MSG:
- Fish sauce, soy sauce and soy protein
- A number of cheeses, including parmesan and roquefort
- Cured meats
How can I tell if food has MSG in it?
According to the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code, food manufacturers must declare when MSG has been added. They can do this in one of two ways. Firstly, by explicitly stating MSG as an added ingredient, or secondly, by using the code number 621, which identifies food additives.
Is MSG bad for you?
The effects of MSG have been studied for over 40 years, over many countries, by thousands of researchers.
According to the Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), no conclusive link has been made between MSG and ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’.
In 2003, the FSANZ concluded: “There is no convincing evidence that MSG is a significant factor in causing systemic reactions resulting in severe illness or mortality.”
Food Authority NSW also states that in Australia and New Zealand, “no food additive – including MSG – is approved for use in food until its safety has been established by FSANZ. MSG and other glutamates are among a group of food additives that are generally permitted in foods, due to their safety.”
There are, however, a small percentage of the population who may be sensitive to MSG – especially those with asthma.
Symptoms to MSG sensitivity include headaches, muscle tightness, general weakness and numbness or tingling. There are no long-lasting effects.
If you experience these symptoms, FSANZ recommend you undergo a clinical assessment by seeing your GP or a dietitian.