If you’ve walked past any Chinese restaurant in the industrialized world, there is a good chance you have seen a sign that says something along the lines of, “We don’t cook with MSG.” What’s the big deal? Is MSG actually bad for you? It must be bad if restaurants are making signs about it, right?
It turns out, it’s a bunch of boloney. In fact, it’s not even controversial to say that MSG is not bad for you.
What is MSG?
MSG, or monosodium glutamate if you want to expand the acronym, has its origins in Japanese seaweed. It was in Japan that scientists were able to isolate MSG and begin using it as a flavor additive to food.
As a food additive, MSG is praised for its ability to add “umami” to the flavor profile of just about any food. Umami is widely considered to be one of five tastes that we can experience. It is often described as a “pleasant, savory” taste, but some people go further in their descriptions. For example, I have heard West Africans say that it makes their food “taste like home.”
When did MSG turn into satan incarnate?
It would appear as if a letter from a doctor to the New England Journal of Medicine is what lit the fuse. The doctor reported symptoms that he personally experienced after eating Chinese food. Soon articles and dubious studies emerged, casting MSG as a dangerous villain.
The stigma took on a life of its own, and Chinese restaurants were forced to stop using MSG, or at least tell their clients they had done so. The backlash was severe, and it certainly affected the business of countless Chinese restaurants, even those that announced they were no longer using the flavor enhancer.
So MSG was never really bad for you?
As this Washington Post article points out, a small number of studies (in which mice were injected with MSG directly into their brains!), indicated MSG could pose certain health risks. However, there are no studies showing that moderate consumption of MSG is bad for your health. Anyway, we’ll go out on a limb and say that injecting most things directly into your brain would be bad for your health.
And consider this: glutamate occurs naturally in many different foods. It is not harmful. Chemically, it is identical to MSG. In other words, MSG is just as harmless as foods containing naturally occurring glutamate. So, breathe easy. Eat that orange chicken. Enjoy it. Tell you friends that they don’t know what they are talking about.
Wondering how this information pertains to travel? Well, if you are planning on traveling to a developing world country, you will likely eat your fair share of MSG. I have personally had it in just about every meal I’ve eaten in West Africa (usually in the form of Maggi Cubes, which is a kind of bouillon cube often used for soup stock), and I came across plenty of it when I was in South America and Southeast Asia as well. As I said, don’t be scared, dig in!