What Is MSG? Is It Bad for You?

This is the chemical structure of MSG or monosodium glutamate. MSG is a salt, so it dissociates into ions in water.

This is the chemical structure of MSG or monosodium glutamate. MSG is a salt, so it dissociates into ions in water.

You’ve heard about MSG as an ingredient in food and may have been told to avoid it, yet do you know what the chemical is or where it comes from?

MSG is the acronym for monosodium glutamate, which is a sodium salt of glutamic acid. You’re most likely to encounter MSG in the foods you eat, where it enhances your taste bud’s ability to taste flavor, acting much like ordinary table salt (NaCl). Many people recognize MSG is a flavor enhancing food additive, but what you may not know is that MSG also occurs naturally in many foods.

Where MSG Comes From

Commercially, most MSG results from fermentation of sugar beets, sugar cane, molasses or starch. MSG can exist as a pair of stereoisomers, but only the natural L-glutamate form is found in food and added as a flavoring. Monosodium glutamate is one of several forms of glutamic acid, an amino acid, which occurs in foods and in the body. Glutamic acid and its salts are found in hydrolyzed vegetable protein, yeast extract, protein isolate and related substances. Many countries require products to which MSG has been added to be labeled. Further, products containing natural forms of MSG shouldn’t be labeled “No Added MSG” or “No MSG” because the US FDA considers this to be confusing and misleading to consumers.

MSG Health Concerns

Despite suggestions that MSG is responsible for negative health effects, such as headaches, obesity, hyperactivity and linked to food allergies, numerous studies have shown monosodium glutamate to be safe, even in large amounts. However, research also indicates about 1% of the population is sensitive to MSG and may experience symptoms including headache, numbness or tingling, weakness and flushing if a large amount of MSG is ingested at once. Should you avoid it? If you’re one of the people who react to it, yes. Otherwise, you’re probably ingesting it in its natural form without giving it a second thought.

MSG is not as bad as most people think. What should you avoid? Personally, I’d make sure my soy sauce isn’t made from human hair.

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