Is MSG Actually Bad for You? Registered Dietitians Set the Record Straight
What dietitians want you to know about this long-vilified ingredient.
Monosodium glutamate (more commonly known as MSG) has had a bad rap since the 1960s. Even now, six decades later, many people avoid foods that contain it—even without knowing exactly what MSG is.
As registered dietitians here explain, MSG is widely misunderstood and wrongly vilified. Here, they explain what MSG is, what it’s used for, what people get wrong about it, and give the verdict on if it’s actually healthy or not.
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What Is MSG?
“MSG stands for monosodium glutamate. It is used to add umami flavor and is a flavor booster,” says Mindy Lu, MS, CN, LMHC, a certified nutritionist, therapist and clinical director at Sunrise Nutrition. She explains that MSG was originally harvested from seaweed, but now it’s mostly sourced from bean and cereal proteins.
Jaclyn London, MS, RD, CDN, a registered dietitian and author of Dressing On The Side (and Other Diet Myths Debunked), says that MSG is both an ingredient in its own right and a compound that is naturally found in other food ingredients including hydrolyzed vegetable protein, autolyzed yeast, hydrolyzed yeast, yeast extract, soy extracts and protein isolates.
While MSG is most commonly associated with adding umami flavor to Asian cuisine, Sophie Hung, RD, MPH, CPT, a registered dietitian at A Healthier You Journey, says that MSG can also be found in soups, chips, snacks, frozen meals, instant noodles and condiments such as oyster sauce, hoisin sauce, fish sauce and bouillon.
Lu adds to this, saying, “While most people associate MSG with Asian foods, it is a widely used seasoning in foods of all cultures, especially if the food is packaged or processed. For example, you will find MSG in chips and snack foods like Doritos or Pringles, seasoning blends, sauces and condiments such as ketchup, barbecue sauce, frozen foods, packaged curry, and processed meats such as sausages, meat sticks and hot dogs. It truly is just everywhere.”
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How Did MSG Get a Bad Rap?
In the 1960s, a Chinese-American physician named Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok, MD, wrote a letter about MSG to The New England Journal of Medicine after getting sick after eating Chinese food. Suddenly, the term “Chinese restaurant syndrome” was everywhere and MSG became an ingredient to be avoided.
Both Lu and Hung believe the widespread vilification of MSG was at least partially racially motivated. “When MSG was first discovered, the U.S. was actively restricting how many Chinese immigrants came here,” Hung says. “The Chinese Exclusion Act passed in 1882, was extended several times until its repeal in 1943. Anti-Chinese racism was rampant, largely in response to Chinese workers being hired for laborer jobs because they were willing to work for less than fair pay.” Fast forward to the 1960s when Dr. Kwok’s letter was published. “He wrote that he believed his symptoms could have resulted from consuming either alcohol, sodium or MSG. This sparked a host of misinformation about MSG, which was likely related to then-present biases against Chinese immigrants and their cuisine,” Hung says.
“It can be incredibly harmful for members of the Asian-American and more specifically, Chinese-American community to hear the way people talk about Chinese food; that it's bad because it's greasy and ‘full of MSG,’” Lu says. “That message gets internalized and negative commentary about a culture's food suddenly becomes negative commentary about a culture's people—and that has profound and severe consequences.”
London believes that the reason why MSG has long been looked down upon is due to other factors as well, including the types of foods it tends to be used in, side effects that have been reported and how it is metabolized in the body. “The physiology of MSG is partially to blame for why it’s been targeted as a compound to avoid,” she says. London explains that endogenous glutamate (AKA the glutamate we make in our bodies) has several vital functions. However, too much glutamate can negatively impact the central nervous system, including the brain. But here’s what she says is really important: “The idea that an uptake in the MSG that we [can] consume orally from food would be associated with, or play a direct role in altering our brain chemistry is unfounded,” she says. Instead of grasping the physiological nuances, many jumped to the wrong conclusion that MSG was bad for brain health.
London also points out that MSG is often found in ultra-processed foods. These types of foods are nutrient-void already. But she says that some brands marketed their foods as MSG-free in a similar way that some foods are marketed as having “no artificial colors” or “nitrate-free” in an effort to make them seem healthier than they may actually be.
All of these reasons combined have contributed to MSG being an ingredient many aim to avoid.
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So, Is MSG Healthy or Not?
All three dietitians say that MSG is not exactly a goldmine of nutritious benefits, but it shouldn’t be vilified either; it depends on how it’s used. Lu says that MSG is a great flavor enhancer. Using MSG to add umami to veggie-filled soups, fish, salad dressings, and even on eggs are all ways to make nutrient-rich foods taste even more delicious, which may lead to more people eating them more often.
London agrees, saying that most Americans don’t eat the recommended servings of vegetables a day, so the more delicious, flavorful ways people find to add them to meals make one’s overall diet healthier. She says that she herself uses MSG when she’s cooking to add flavor to stir-fries, roasted veggies and soups.
It’s important to know that scientific studies have repeatedly shown that MSG is safe unless it’s consumed in extremely high amounts. Instead of obsessively avoiding foods with MSG, London advocates for focusing on eating a diet high in nutrient-rich whole foods.
Lu sums all of this up, saying, “MSG is a neutral food and food ingredient; similar to all other ingredients out there. There is no need to overly police your food. Look at the big picture instead and focus on cultivating a positive relationship with food that is flexible and full of joy.”
Next up, find out what the absolute worst food for gut health is, according to an integrative medicine doctor.
Mindy Lu, MS, CN, LMHC, certified nutritionist, therapist, and clinical director at Sunrise Nutrition
Jaclyn London, MS, RD, CDN, registered dietitian and author of Dressing On The Side (and Other Diet Myths Debunked)
Sophie Hung, RD, MPH, CPT, a registered dietitian and certified personal trainer at A Healthier You Journey