You’ve definitely seen the labels, from soy sauce packets at your local Chinese takeout spot to that large sign at the airport Panda Express you hit up just before your red-eye flight (never a good idea). “No MSG,” they proudly proclaim. But what exactly are they talking about and why should we care?
MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is a non-essential amino acid that is added to foods — most commonly Chinese — to enhance flavor by balancing and rounding the perception of other tastes. Ever since the coining of the term “Chinese restaurant syndrome” in 1968, there has been widespread speculation that MSG may be responsible for a variety of symptoms, including headache, weakness and palpitations. While it has been labeled as “generally recognized as safe” by the FDA, questions remain regarding the safety of its use in food.
Those who hold that MSG is a culprit in health problems point out its classification as an excitotoxin, which essentially means it can “overexcite” one’s cells to the point of damage or death. As a result, it has been hypothesized that high intake of MSG could eventually lead to brain damage and even trigger learning disabilities and other disorders. They also warn that the substance can be disguised under other names and may already be present in foods claiming to not contain it.
It is important to note that there remains no consensus on the validity of any and all claims related to possible ill effects of MSG consumption. It would appear, however, that a sigh of relief may be in order the next time you open up a menu with the words “No MSG” etched on the bottom.
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