Let’s talk about MSG…

Ugly Delicious is the latest culinary splash on Netflix. (Still, haven’t watched it?  Check out VODzilla’s, “9 Reason You Should Be Watching Ugly Delicious“.) In Season 1, episode 7, “Fried Rice,” host David Chen tackles the myths surrounding MSG.

Growing up, I remember MSG as the hot-button medical story on the local news. “Is good or bad for you? What you need to know! Tune in Tonight.” Chen discusses the prejudice behind MSG and Asian cuisine. To learn more, I highly recommend Anna Maria Barry-Jester, article How MSG Got A Bad Rap: Flawed Science And Xenophobia.

Image: skepticalraptor.com

What is MSG?

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a combination of an amino acid called glutamic acid that’s stabilized with to sodium(salt); creating a white crystallized powder. Glutamic acid naturally occurs in foods such as mushrooms, aged parmesan cheese, tomatoes and fermented soybean products like soy sauce. Also, it’s naturally present in our bodies.1

It’s a flavor enhancer that intensifies the meaty, savory flavor of food. Otherwise known as the 5th taste, umami; in which a person’s taste receptors that typically respond to glutamate. (The rest are salt, sweet, bitter, and sour.)

Chen points out that most Americans strongly associate MSG with Chinese-American Takeout. While few are aware that it’s also in processed foods we eat every day, including salad dressing, barbecue sauce, bouillon cubes and canned soups and vegetables.2 It’s also a stabilizer in some vaccines.3 To protect them from being altered if it’s exposed to heat, light, acidity, or humidity.4

Here are a few familiar names for MSG:  

Sodium 2-aminopentanedioate
Glutamic acid, monosodium salt, monohydrate
L-Glutamic acid, monosodium salt, monohydrate
L-Monosodium glutamate monohydrate
Monosodium L-glutamate monohydrate

Ingredients like hydrolyzed protein, autolyzed yeast, and sodium caseinate, soy extracts, and protein isolate are all pseudonyms for MSG.5

In the episode, food historian, Ian Mosby, (also cited in Barry-Jester’s article) makes an appearance. He and Chang feed Doritos to an assembled group of people who claim to have adverse reactions to the MSG when they eat Chinese food. Mosby explains how MSG is also in several packaged foods (i.e., your favorite junk food).

“No one ever said Doritos made them sick. Look on the package. There’s MSG.” — David Chang.

I would have loved if the food science segment had continued; alas David had to get back to the mouth-watering cuisine. Nevertheless, I’m going to pick-up where he and Mosby left off.

In 2008, when I was undergoing tests to find out if I had celiac disease or a gluten allergy; I came across statements saying that MSG is made from or contains gluten. That’s not true. To quote the FDA, “No—glutamate or glutamic acid has nothing to do with gluten.” Thankful there are now several articles and celiac forum posts dispelling this misinformation.6

Where does MSG come from?

In Asia, MSG is derived from beets, sugar cane, tapioca and sometimes molasses. However, in the United States, it’s extracted from corn. If you have a corn allergy, you shouldn’t eat MSG, because it could trigger a reaction. It’s on a very long list of the foods and additives that a person with a corn allergy should avoid.

Also, corn-based ingredients are found in non-food items such as shampoo, toothpaste, IV solutions, medications, vitamins, cosmetics, dishwashing liquid, clothing, paint, plastics and pet food. Cornstarch, for example, is used in cooking, but it’s also in disposable diapers and adhesives. Living with a corn allergy is very complicated. (I’d know. And, Yes, David, I’ve gotten very sick from eating a bag a Doritos.)

Allergic reactions to corn and corn products may range from mild to severe/life-threatening. Yet, there’s a striking similarity between MSG side effects and corn allergies; such as headaches, nausea, dizziness, flushing, rashes, feeling tired, and tingling in the mouth.

The fact that corn allergies remain unacknowledged in the overall MSG conversation is puzzling. The question of a glutamate sensitivity often pops up. 7 However, a sensitivity and an allergy are two different things – an allergy can be life-threatening.8  The one instance where MSG can actually be harmful, is surprisingly left out. Instead of debating, the good, the bad and ugly surrounding MSG. The conversation needs to change. It’s time to start asking is it possible that people experiencing symptoms to MSG might have an undiagnosed corn allergy?

If you suspect, that you have a food allergy, please make an appointment to see your doctor, who can refer you to an allergist (a doctor who specializes in food allergies).

In addition, it’s helpful to keep a food diary to track of any reactions.
If you react, you should note:

  • What (and how much) you ate?
  • When did symptoms start?
  • What you did to alleviate the symptoms?
  • How long it took before the symptoms were relieved?

Want to learn more about MSG? Check out this video from Brit Lab.


  1. https://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/FoodAdditivesIngredients/ucm328728.htm
  2. https://www.thespruce.com/monosodium-glutamate-or-msg-996134
  3. http://www.harpocratesspeaks.com/2012/10/demystifying-vaccine-ingredients-msg.html.
  4. https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vac-gen/additives.htm
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monosodium_glutamate
  6. https://www.msgdish.com/msg-gluten-the-confusion-stops-here/
  7. https://www.livestrong.com/article/543179-low-glutamate-diet/
  8. https://www.healthline.com/health/allergies/food-allergy-sensitivity-difference

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