Let’s Talk About MSG

Long considered to be the culprit in an ailment that has reached “urban mythic status,” even as repeated scientific studies have absolved it of responsibility, MSG, otherwise known as monosodium glutamate, is often considered a “persona non grata” in the kitchens of American Chinese restaurants and home kitchens alike.

Blamed as the origin of a disorder known as “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” which is a series of symptoms which include flushing, sweating, headache, a feeling of pressure on the mouth or face, and in extreme cases, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, chest pains and swelling in the mouth or throat, MSG has never been linked to the disorder. However, because of popular belief that it is at least partially to blame for these usually fleeting and harmless (and I would say in many, but not all, cases, imagined) symptoms, many Chinese restaurants in the US advertise that they eschew it as an ingredient.

But is that the right thing to do?

Fuchsia Dunlop asked this question yesterday in an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, and reading it made me think about my own views on the subject.

I don’t use it as an ingredient in my cooking, even though I treat with skepticism most people’s claims that they react badly to it when they eat at a Chinese restaurant.

Why am I so skeptical about this? Well, because I have watched these same folks who complain of headaches after eating Chinese food out turn around and gobble down huge amounts of processed snack foods, ramen noodles and other products that contain more MSG than most Chinese restaurant meals and show no ill effect. That is why I tend to think that many cases of this supposed syndrome are bogus and are the result of media hype, hypochondriac tendencies among some Americans and a latent xenophobia when it comes to Chinese culture. (On the other hand, I have seen someone unknowingly ingest an MSG laden broth cooked up in a dorm kitchen and break out into a wheezing, flush-faced and heart palpitating mess, so I have no doubt that with some folks, something bad -is- going on!)

So, if I am this skeptical, then why don’t I use it as an ingredient?

I don’t know, except to say that I have never felt a lack from not using it.

Since I use so many products and ingredients that include naturally occurring glutamates in my Chinese recipes, such as fermented black beans, bean pastes, soy sauce, chicken stock, dried mushrooms, mushroom broths, dried shrimp, scallops and oyster sauce, I have never really seen much purpose in having MSG around my kitchen. It just doesn’t seem necessary.

But, after reading Dunlop’s article, I am beginning to think that maybe I should drop my prejudice against MSG, go to the store and pick up a tiny bottle of Ac’cent and see what happens if I use it judiciously. Maybe I will conduct blind taste tests with friends and family.

I do know that there is one simple recipe that I have longed to replicate for years and have utterly been unable to do so that I suspect had a tiny pinch of MSG in it.

The Chinese restaurant I worked in years ago did not use MSG in food for customers, but there was a dish that the chef would make for his family and employees which I suspect had just a touch of it in its delicious sauce. It was stir fried bean sprouts with baby shrimp, and the sauce was nothing more than a tiny bit of sugar, some rice wine, a wee dash of light soy sauce, a sprinkle of salt and chicken stock. The only other flavorings were some scallions and ginger.

That was it. The shrimp were pink, plump and savory and the bean sprouts were crisp and earthy, and the sauce complemented them both perfectly.

No matter how I have jiggled the proportions it has never tasted right, and I had given up on it years ago.

I hadn’t even thought of it until yesterday when I read Dunlop’s article. Suddenly, my mouth watered as my mind was flooded with memories of that dish and how much I loved it, and how I have never, ever, been able to recreate it.

Maybe, just maybe, during this lucky Year of the Pig, I will finally be able to taste that amazing dish again.

Note: I would like to thank reader Diane for pointing out Dunlop’s Op-Ed to me yesterday.

30 Comments

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  1. I would not be surprised if some of the bad reactions come from the amount of grease in a lot of cheap Chinese food, especially if the cooking oil is not changed often enough–I react to a lot of bad Chinese food very similarly to how I react to McDonald’s “food.” I remember one restaurant in Portland Chinatown some childhood friends of mine (part-Chinese) were all mad about that served their food *swimming* in cooking oil. My poor digestive system couldn’t handle it at all.

    MSG in some form is found in an awful lot of prepackaged food; it’s so hard to avoid without great care that I suspect real MSG allergies are rare.

    Comment by Mel — February 19, 2007 #

  2. I wouldn’t call what I have rare or an allergy, but I am sensitive to it, very sensitive. And I don’t blame Chinese food for my reactions, it’s MSG. You’re right, all those other foods have it and probably in varying quantities, so maybe that’s why they don’t get affected by the other stuff as readily.

    So far, the severest reaction I get is from Pho made around my local area here. It’ll leave my mouth ‘dead’, taste buds are muted and mouth is all funky for 3 days. Or sometimes just the rest of that day. My doctor said to knock it off cause of high blood pressure. I do fine for the most part. But I can’t keep mug hillbilly fangers away from that pho. There’s something about soup with all those fresh yummies that I can’t resist.

    Biggles

    Comment by Dr. Biggles — February 19, 2007 #

  3. What is glutamate and what role does it play in cooking? I hadn’t known until reading this article there are others besides “monosodium”.

    Comment by Kim — February 19, 2007 #

  4. I think it depends on the amount. One program I watched showed a Chinese home cook just dumping it in. I can’t see that doing anything but mask inferior foods.

    But no, I think people don’t actually think things through – there’s MSG in so much processed foods for a start; and the Chinese seem to have managed without problems for years…

    Comment by Kath M — February 19, 2007 #

  5. My parents had always studiously avoided MSG when I was growing up and I just modeled my patterns off of them. This summer I was eating some soup I’d gotten from my local Asian market and 30 minutes later had an asthma attack. I had one spoonful a few hours later and instantly had a nasty attack, felt my throat closing everything. I went by my pulmonologist, she asked about all kinds of food allergies, which I’ve never had. I looked over the ingredients list more carefully, and what do you know, there was MSG.

    Which is not to say that no one should eat it, as there is someone allergic to everything. I was just really surprised.

    Comment by Becca — February 19, 2007 #

  6. If I recollect right, MSG itself was only developed in the early 1900′s. Now glutamates have been in Chinese cooking for probably thousands of years, but the salt of purified glutamic acid, that hasn’t been around but a century.

    Reactions likely vary based on the concentration (not just the amount), perhaps the food preparation method – as well as the biology & psychology of the individual. Of these, I suspect the latter is the most significant.

    It is easy, but simplistic, for folk to attribute any reaction to one specific ingredient, rather than a mixture of different components. Bad grease (rancid or overcooked); sodium sensitivity for those with high blood pressure; sensitivity to some spice often used in conjunction with MSG; unhygienic practices (there’s nothing quite like the feeling of finding a regular restaurant of yours closed by the health department – and wondering what you have eaten before); mistaking correlation with causation and so on.

    I had a friend years ago who claimed a dreadful reaction to MSG. Just a spoonful of “tainted” food could force him to lay down with a headache. Until he got such a reaction from a soup I had made, which had absolutely no MSG in it nor in any ingredient, but it did have a spice he had never used. Turns out it was the spice (I don’t recollect what it was now).

    Comment by Dan Jenkins — February 19, 2007 #

  7. It is better not to get accustomed to MSG. Once you get used to its taste, you will feel like something is missing from the food if it does not contain it. In my home, my mom used put a tiny bit on every dishes, now, we don’t use it and don’t miss it. But it took sometime to ween out of it. I love Asian foods, but I avoid them when eating out as much as possible because I just feel so terrible afterward. My 2 cents. -Jill-

    Comment by Jill — February 19, 2007 #

  8. Thanks for the mention!

    I found the article fascinating, especially as I had consulted my McGee just a week earlier to find out “what is that MSG stuff anyhow?”

    I don’t use the pure spice, but I DO like those glutemates…soy, kombu, dried mushrooms, parmesean, dried shrimp and scallops…mmmmmmm…

    Comment by Diane — February 19, 2007 #

  9. There’s a mushroom seasoning called “Poloku” seasoning, its all 100% vegetarian seasoning, a great flavor enhancer to replace MSG/Chicken base seasoning, just want to share this with you all, cheers ! :)

    Comment by MeltingWok — February 20, 2007 #

  10. I’m glad to see you mentioned this piece barbara. I’ve been sick as a dog (hmmm…year of the dog ended…is it the pig’s response to me because i don’t eat him? hee hee) the last few days and haven’t been looking at much news online.

    My ex’s parents ran a chinese restaurant in NJ for many years and his dad mentioned that they always changed their cooking oils everyday rather than every several days or once a week like other local chinese restaurants. He said that changing the oil was crucial to consistent quality of the food (their restaurant had a huge following in their community). They didn’t use MSG, but i think they also used top ingredients that supplied that “fifth taste”.

    I believe that a lot of the complaints about chinese food giving westerners “health problems” has more to do with poor cooking conditions than MSG.

    Just my 2 cents :-)

    Xin nian kuai le! (Happy New Year!)

    Zhu shi da ji!

    (this expression is used during year of the pig only…a play on words since “zhu” means “pig” as well as “all”)

    Comment by Rose — February 20, 2007 #

  11. Well, this is probably a topic with lots of vastly diverging opinions… my 2 cents:

    mostly MSG is used to mask bad quality of food and lack of taste, i.e. to trick consumers to eat (more) cheap stuff.

    I have several food allergies and I know many people who react heavily to smallest amounts of several things… including myself. I can stand a little (natural) MSG but I will get killer migraines from the amount used in some restaurants (too much oyster sauce will do it, too). And I am anything but sure that the stuff is harmless, see e.g. http://www.truthinlabeling.org

    So why bother with an ingredient that may be seriously bad for you, if you don’t miss it? That said, I’m curious o learn how your experiment on the shrimp dish may turn out :-)

    Comment by Foodfreak — February 20, 2007 #

  12. I have used MSG in my stir fries and fried rice off and on (because I came by some a few years ago)…I always took all that ‘caution’ about MSG with another pinch of salt :) But truthfully, to my obviously less sensitive tongue, I can’t tell the difference! But we had no adverse reaction in the family. But I add just a pinch, maybe that is not supposed to make any difference?

    Comment by Anita — February 20, 2007 #

  13. It’s easy to be skeptical when you don’t experience tingling and numbness around your mouth, blinding headaches and other symptoms every time you eat food that has MSG in it.

    Comment by Gluten-Free By The Bay — February 20, 2007 #

  14. Your comments on the “fiction” of MSG sensitivity are ill considered. There are food allergies and there are food sensitivities. And MSG is just one of a dozen or more additives that CAN make me sick. The problem is that it doesn’t always knock me on my can, but tends to synergistically work with other additives, such as sulfites. When MSG hits, I am down for two or more days with flaming headaches and consuming fatigue … and it’s not imagined. So please don’t make assumptions about the ills and ails of others. At one time they thought demonic possession caused disease. MSG does affect some people at SOME times.

    Comment by LeRoy Bidlo — February 20, 2007 #

  15. I am sorry to see people take offense to this post. That was not my intent.

    However, it helps to ctually read the post before you assume that I am saying that -all- cases of MSG sensitivity are fictitious. I said nothing of the sort. I said that I have known people who swear that they are sensitive to MSG react at a Chinese restaurant, but then eat tons of MSG and additive laden processed junk food–including ramen noodles–and not react to it.

    This leads me to believe that complaints of Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, or more properly, MSG sensitivity, are not as common as some people believe when they diagnose themselves.

    And, then I said that I had seen someone unknowingly eat MSG laden soup and react horrendously. And then I said, I had no doubt that for some people, something definately bad is going on with the MSG.

    Do not construe my words as a personal attack on you, your bodies or your ailments–they are not. I am simply stating that what some people may be reacting to in Chinese restaurant food is not MSG, but something else. It may be nothing at all.

    Or, more likely, it is something else entirely, or a combination of ingredients. I suspect, like others who have commented here, that degraded cooking oil has some part to play in the symptoms. Old, overused cooking oil that has degraded from repeated exposure to high heat is toxic. Mix that with an overdose of sodium from soy sauce and other sodium laden Chinese condiments with MSG, and there may be a potent brew to fell the healthiest of individuals.

    Heck, a lot of very oily or sugary processed foods make me sick, so I don’t eat them. Processed cheese food makes me sick as a dog. I am allergic to black pepper of all things and react badly to it.

    But if someone wrote a post generalizing about how while some people claim to get sick when they eat processed foods, but they have seen these folks eat said foods to no ill effect, I would not take meaning that their experience is being generalized to negate my personal experience. Especially when they say, “This is my experience–but I have also had the experience of watching people eat processed food and get really sick, so I have no doubt that something is definately going on there.”

    See what I mean?

    That said, I do believe that there are individuals who are sensitive to MSG.

    I also believe that there are people who get sick after eating bad Chinese restaurant food.

    I, however, do not think that the two sets of illnesses are necessarily caused by the same thing. The former is caused by MSG, obviously, but the latter either is only caused in part by MSG, or by something else entirely.

    I do not think that everyone who is sensitive to MSG is full of crap or it is all in their heads. I am sorry if I gave that impression.

    Comment by Barbara — February 20, 2007 #

  16. I didnt get an elitist attitude vibe from you Barbara – I got a feeling that you wanted to be open to Dunlop and MSG, cant blame anyone for that!

    I say, if you want to play with your taste buds, start with sodium chloride. Its fantastic at perking up the flavors and you can sense/discern the difference immediately. Its not completely benign and does play a key role in many physiological mechanisms, but our bodies are quite adjusted to its injestion in its purified form.

    Comment by nika — February 20, 2007 #

  17. FWIW, I also think there are people who are allergic or sensitive to MSG

    I do not think as many as claim to be actually are are, given that MSG is as hard or harder to avoid as soy unless you eschew all processed and prepared foods. I do not see many the people who claim MSG allergies doing this.

    For example, most people do not assume a product that contains “hydrolyzed soy protein” contains MSG. Truly avoiding MSG requires a level of compulsive attention to labeling most people do not practice.

    And yuck, if it’s common practice not to change cooking oil more than once a week, no wonder I can’t eat at a lot of Chinese restaurants. Sadly, my city does not seem to have any good Chinese restaurants of any stripe.

    There are lots and lots of reasons food might not agree with people–always blaming a bad reaction on MSG without a medical diagnosis seems dangerous to me because it could lead to overlooking another food sensitivity or allergy with potentially dangerous consequences (my roommate has seizures from consuming tomatoes in any real quantity, for example).

    Comment by Mel — February 20, 2007 #

  18. Also, the reaction is to free glutamates, which are found in soy sauce and tomatoes, among other things. So if someone is blithely eating soy sauce and tomatoes and food with hydrolyzed proteins (used exactly like MSG in processed foods), it’s rather unlikely that they are MSG-sensitive. Does that mean NO ONE is? No. But self-diagnosis is generally a risky business, and a lot of people tend to self-diagnose food allergies and sensitivities. They’re not always right. If you think you have a food sensitivity, go to an allergist and find out for sure; it may be to a different food than you thought.

    I’d actually recommend that FDA report as a pretty good basic primer on MSG symptom complex.

    Comment by Mel — February 20, 2007 #

  19. [...] Tigers & Strawberries – Let’s Talk about MSG [...]

    Pingback by Nika’s Culinaria » Monosodium Glutamate: Bad for your brain, your figure, and your health — February 21, 2007 #

  20. I grew up on a bland diet; the first time I ate something an aunt made with Accent, I loved how it tasted. I bought some when I stocked my first apartment, and used it on a lot of stuff, and loved most of it. PS: I didn’t know much about cooking flavorful foods LOL

    But after hearing about it causing allergic reactions and/or migraines in some people, I quit using it in case I might make someone sick.

    Comment by Sherri — February 22, 2007 #

  21. I know it’s a bit late, but I’m far behind on my blog-reading.

    While I valued your link to Nika’s blogpost on MSG, there’s a number of inaccuracies in it (for example: citric acid is produced using Aspergillus niger fungus fed on sucrose, and is not a) MSG or b) made from corn – that said, A. niger is a corn-loving fungus, so I can see the confusion). While the amino acid glutamate is, indeed, present in gelatin, gelatin does not equal MSG. Gelatin is generally a repeating chain of amino acids with a proline every third amino acid (for example: Ala-Gly-Pro-Arg-Gly-Glu-4Hyp-Gly-Pro). Glutamate may be a part of the chain, but there’s no sodium involved. I could go on, but you see my point – the post’s “facts” are actually suspect. (Also, the reaction to hydrolyzed protein manufacture is a bit much – what’s wrong with an extraction of non-salable vegetables? Have you seen what passes for “non-salable” in most middle-class grocery stores? Usually it’s fairly decent stuff). Lots of things can be contaminated by free amino acids like MSG, but it’s highly unlikely they’re contaminated to any sort of health-impacting level (never forget the power of the liver to separate out what’s necessary from what needs to be excreted – Glutamate is one of the most useful amino acids we have, FYI).

    That said, the PubMed links are real, and some are studies I would consider important (it’s always dangerous to assume that something done in a test tube or rat model equates to a human consequence – you also have to make sure that the dosage given the model animal is realistic in a human sense). I would argue, however, that the danger of MSG in processed foods is not the biggest risk of those foods (unless you’re allergic), as I think it pales in comparison to trans-fats and sheer calorie count. If MSG truly aids in creating obesity, it’s probably more that you can’t stop eating the food containing MSG because it excites your taste buds than it is the neurotoxic effects of MSG on the hypothalamus.

    On the allergy thing: MSG is an amino acid, and therefore can be an allergen (the vast majority of allergens are proteins, because that’s what our antibodies bind best too). Someone with an MSG allergy will also necessarily have a shellfish allergy (as well as sensitivity to things like fermented soy products, fish sauce, some tomato products, etc). Its a very dangerous allergy, especially as we need a certain amount of glutamate in order to function (it’s a key neurotransmitter). If you want a more “natural” source of MSG, I suggest fish sauce or powdered dry shrimp. I would also suggest not using those things if youre feeding someone with a true MSG allergy.

    It’s dangerous to give blanket “good/bad” labels to food additives. What’s dangerous about them is usually the amount you consume, not the additive in particular (a universal problem, as seen in cases of water overdosing), with a few notable exceptions (usually completely manmade).

    You can always have too much of a good thing. Junk foods are problematic for a myriad of reasons. But if your diet contains very little in the processed food way, and you wash your vegetables, using a little Accent shouldn’t be an issue.

    Comment by Alexis — February 27, 2007 #

  22. coley and poppy think chow main is heavy so please make it cheaper to buy

    Comment by poppy — April 26, 2007 #

  23. I was searching online trying to figure out what the heck is going on with me right now, and I came across this website. Helpful, thanks to all for your postings. Right now, I have this weird pressure in my face and base of my neck. The backs of my arms, face, neck, shoulders…all on fire. My throat feels like its swelling. From what I’m reading here, it sounds like the cause of this may be the large bowl of beef pho I had about an hour ago. Just adding my experience…since there seems to be some debate here on this site. Thx! :)

    Comment by Janna — August 16, 2007 #

  24. I’ve believed that I have a sensitivity or allergy to MSG for several years now. Although I love to cook, I cook nearly everything from scratch because just about every kind of processed, packaged, and frozen food contains MSG. Or hydrolyzed soy/corn/pea protein, which is the other name I commonly see. But sometimes its hidden in “natural spices”, which is quite annoying. And yet I can eat soy sauce, and often do, and haven’t ever noticed a sensitivity to shellfish or tomatoes. I’d really love to know what I’m *really* allergic to. If it isn’t MSG, what is it in those seasoning mixes and bouillon that makes me sick? Its digestive sickness rather than the tingling/headache, which adds a bit more confusion to the mix.

    Comment by Valierran — July 18, 2008 #

  25. MSG = deliciousness and Umami. It enhances flavor. There is just as much, if not more, MSG in Mexican and Italian Food. When you dig deeper into the science the fear of MSG goes away. When MSG hits the acid in your stomach it becomes glutamic acid. Glutamic acid is an amino acid that is a building block for protein and occurs naturally in your body and in food we already eat. Whats funny is that knowing all this I still avoid it.

    Comment by DJB — July 19, 2008 #

  26. It took me years to discover that my migraines were linked to MSG. The problem is that a reaction to MSG can occur up to 48 hours after consumption. In my case, it’s approx 24 hrs after I eat something with MSG. My migraine episodes have dropped from once a month to about once a year when I slip up and eat something with hidden MSG. It’s usually from eating at a friend’s dinner party — I worry that it’s downright rude to quiz a friend on what’s in the food, but end up suffering for 3-4 days afterward.

    Which leads me to why I’m writing. When you say you think of conducting blind taste tests on friends & family, I certainly hope you warn them that some of the foods may contain MSG. I would end a friendship with anyone who knowingly fed me MSG just to see if I reacted. I might even sue!

    I believe as you do that many people who say they are sensitive to MSG, actually are not. But I do know that for me it is toxic in a very real, painful, and debilitating way. I wish it were labelled more clearly — just something like “contains glutamates” on the list that warns about things like peanuts, soy, or wheat gluten.

    BTW, I enjoy Chinese food & frequent a local restaurant where the owner is WONDERFUL about discussing which dishes can be prepared without MSG and which should be avoided. I have never had a reaction from her food. The local Italian place is another story: the owner refuses to discuss the idea that he may be using an ingredient that’s making me sick. Of course, I no longer go there. And lest anyone think I have a problem with Italians — I am 100% Italian.

    Comment by Joanne — August 23, 2008 #

  27. MSG is thought to be the cause of alot of ailments when it could be celiac disease, gluten intolerance or some other sensitivity. This is what I found out after being told I had a severe MSG sensitivity. A biopsy actually confirmed that I have celiac disease instead. I cannot eat anything with wheat in it. I don’t go out of my way to eat things loaded with MSG either. After totally avoiding wheat/gluten for several months I feel 500% better. It turns out that celiac disease was actually the problem and not MSG sensitivity.

    Comment by Dawna — September 14, 2008 #

  28. Ouch. MSG! I remember one Passover dinner years ago. I suddenly got nauseous and very dizzy. Remembered a similar reaction to takeout Chinese food. We’d just finished our chicken soup and I asked to read the label. My aunt looked at me funny but there it was – MSG! Never again! :-)

    Comment by David Alexander — March 30, 2009 #

  29. No one is allergic to MSG who isn’t also allergic to table salt. MSG does not make anyone feel bad, or sick, it certainly doesn’t cause asthma! Americans are really scared of not being frightened. There is nothing wrong with MSG, end of story. Science and fact trump your silly stories about “eating at a friend’s party once…”

    Comment by garcho — January 3, 2010 #

  30. When I eat foods in restaurants or a lot of processed foods, I get a variety of symptoms: swollen throat, headache, diarreha and running nose. I have assumed that it was msg in the foods. However, I can eat Bragg’s Aminos, soy and all spices w/o a reaction. I would like to solve this problem. To the person who thinks sodium chloride is the same as msg, chemically they both contain sodium, but they are chemically different!

    Comment by Cean M. Schopf — January 12, 2012 #

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