Is MSG Bad for You? MSG Myths & Facts Uncovered

MSG gets a bad rap, but do you need to completely cut it out of your diet? Find out in this Signos blog article.

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by
Mia Barnes
— Signos
Staff Writer
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Reviewed by

Mia Barnes
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Updated by

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Science-based and reviewed

Published:
April 23, 2024
July 13, 2023
— Updated:

Table of Contents

You may have never heard of monosodium glutamate (MSG), but it could be a critical ingredient in your favorite recipes. The flavor booster is in snacks and meals worldwide and often gets a bad reputation. Learn more about MSG, where you’ll find it, and a few things to consider when adding or removing it from your diet.

What Is MSG?

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a commonly used food additive. It’s part of an amino acid called glutamic acid that naturally occurs in foods like yeast and vegetables. People extract glutamic acid and remove its MSG to improve the flavor profile of foods.

MSG consumption boosts brain functions like managing stress and mood swings by regulating how the nervous system communicates to the brain.1 It makes it easier for chemical messages to be sent and received by the brain, making cognitive processes easier to manage.

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What Is MSG Used For?

Companies in the food industry add MSG to their products to make them more savory. When you taste something containing MSG, the neurotransmitter boosts the brain’s ability to taste existing flavors while adding a salty profile.1

Doses of MSG differ in each food product and brand. Some lean heavily on MSG’s salty flavor to create foods like microwave noodles or chips. Others use it to enhance other foods by adding small amounts to dry seasonings.

When MSG enters the body, it acts as a neurotransmitter that communicates directly with the brain.2 It can also have some adverse side effects if not consumed in moderation.

What Does MSG Do for Food?

People who like MSG appreciate its salty flavor. Instead of adding more table salt or kosher salt to their meals, they can enjoy products with MSG to lower their sodium intake. Monosodium glutamate is the salt from an amino acid, and affects a person’s health less intensely than sodium.

People also say MSG can alter a person’s appetite. The most recent research showed decreased nausea when rats received a chemotherapy drug followed by MSG doses, improving their appetite.3 However, research with human participants is necessary to prove this effect further.

What Are Common Foods With MSG?

You can understand this dietary additive better by reading about which foods have MSG. Below are the most commonly found foods that use MSG to improve their flavors.

Animal Protein

Processed meats like pepperoni, sausage, and deli meats contain MSG. The glutamic acid flavor booster makes the meat saltier without adding more sodium. Processed meats are usually higher in sodium for preservative purposes, so MSG makes this food taste savory without going above recommended sodium servings.

You may eat animal protein to consume more fatty acids that battle anxiety or reduce stress. It’s an excellent way to support your health, but watch how much MSG each serving contains to moderate your intake.

Cheese

Companies use MSG to make the flavor of foods like cheese more palatable. Of all cheese, parmesan cheese has the highest MSG content. Some foodies say that sodium and MSG make cheese tastier and can improve cheese-dependent recipes without requiring extra salt.

Vegetables

Tomatoes and mushrooms both contain glutamate, the amino acid containing MSG. These whole foods do not contain food additives, but MSG is a naturally occurring substance, so you’ll find it in the produce section of your grocery store.

As you enjoy veggies naturally boosted with MSG flavor, remember that you’re also giving your body extra nutrients. They’re crucial for strengthening immune systems, promoting bodily functions, and regulating breast milk production, so including more in your diet could help you reach your health goals.4

Condiments

MSG gives food a saltier flavor profile. When you want something savory, it likely comes with a condiment. Who could enjoy a teriyaki salmon bowl without an umami or soy sauce splash? Often Japanese and Chinese food options have these condiments already included in the dish. Popular Asian condiments (including soy sauce), along with ketchup, barbecue sauce, mayonnaise, and salad dressings, contain MSG.

Potato Crisps

Your MSG consumption might be high if you eat potato chips daily. The MSG additive gives each salty crunch a lively flavor while keeping your snack’s sodium content within the recommended limits.

Fast Food

Salt is a preservative, so it’s in many fast foods. Glutamic acid isn’t a preservative but shares a flavor with salt. Fast food companies add it to burgers, fries, and more to make their already-salty menu items more savory.

Although you might avoid this type of food when watching your weight, eating more is easy when you’re not considering its effects on your body. Research the amount of MSG in your preferred fast food brands to understand which menu items are healthier for your lifestyle.

Seasonings

Boosting flavors is one of the many MSG benefits for food industry brands. They add it to dried herbs because it makes each seasoning’s unique flavor profile more apparent when consumers add them to recipes.

Charcuterie

Food additives like nitrates and MSG commonly appear on charcuterie boards. Unless you create a board without processed meats, cheeses, and flavorful crackers, MSG is partly why your favorite boards are so tasty.

Mixed Iced Tea

Iced tea mixed with other forms of tea or lemonade will likely have MSG in them to make their flavors more delectable. Drinking the recommended portion sizes will help you moderate your health, as tea can make migraines worse and cause weight gain or obesity due to the included high fructose corn syrup.

Salted Snacks

Snacks like pretzels and cheese crackers don’t need extra salt if they contain MSG. They’ll stay shelf-stable and equally delectable with a bit of MSG in each bag.

Instant Noodles

Umami-flavored instant noodles and other noodle varieties will have MSG because it’s a standard flavor booster for sodium-based foods. Instant noodles use salt to make their seasoning packet burst with flavor, so MSG complements it while keeping the product budget-friendly.

Is MSG Bad for You?

People often wonder if MSG's side effects make it a bad dietary addition. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) deems MSG a “generally recognized as safe” food. That means studies haven’t conclusively proven that MSG is bad for everyone.5

MSG backlash also has xenophobic roots. Research shows distrust of MSG stems from racism toward Asian people and their food.6 It also points to another branch of the same racism, which caused Chinese restaurant syndrome to have a legitimate definition in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary before a campaign changed the term to MSG Symptom Complex.6

The side effects of MSG that were popularly circulated were always the side effects people feel when they’re more sensitive to foods that have MSG and have no singular relation to Asian food specifically.

7 Commonly Believed Side Effects of MSG

Although MSG benefits make it a popular food additive, you should know the below side effects can occur if your body is more sensitive to this compound. Notably, these are also common health effects of consuming too much salt. Both appear in the same food products, so it’s difficult to tell which one specifically causes those symptoms.

Despite the FDA considering MSG safe, it recognizes some individuals have adverse symptoms after consuming foods containing MSG.5 Below are a few you symptoms might experience if you happen to experience a sensitivity.

Sensitivity in Some People

Individuals with MSG sensitivity may discover this condition when they have symptoms other than common headaches, fatigue, drowsiness, and nausea. Research shows it can also irritate digestive organs, which is one of the MSG side effects people may feel too embarrassed to discuss.7

May Lead to the Formation of Free Radicals

The most updated studies warn MSG may make forming free radicals more likely.8 It can cause oxidative stress that creates harmful radicals, but more research is necessary to declare the amino acid potentially harmful.

This study also references the findings from research regarding weakened immune systems in obese people.8 It presumes these individuals consume an increased amount of fast foods that lack nutrients, which could create a nutrient deficiency that weakens the immune system regardless of the MSG content.

Could Be Associated With Weight Gain

Foods with added MSG may contribute to weight gain for various reasons. There isn’t scientific proof that MSG alone causes weight gain. However, MSG is an additive in foods that can contribute to an unhealthy diet. Sauces poured over carbs, fast foods, and processed meats are just a few things that can increase someone’s weight due to each meal’s nutritional content other than MSG.

Might Cause Blood Pressure to Rise

Some people have minor heart palpitations after eating foods with MSG. A study done with mice concluded MSG could raise blood pressure, which may cause heart palpitations.9

Associated With Asthma Attacks

People sometimes think processed foods with MSG trigger asthma attacks, but the research isn’t conclusive on this correlation.11 Those with asthma should introduce MSG to their diet carefully to note if they’re sensitive or not.

May Be Linked to Metabolic Syndrome

Metabolic syndrome is a diagnosis that includes multiple health conditions in the same patient. It may cause MSG sensitivity because some people with metabolic syndrome report adverse side effects after eating high-MSG foods. There’s no definitive research linking the two, but it’s something to be aware of if you have this syndrome or some of the multiple conditions that lead to it, such as heart disease or type 2 diabetes.

Impact Brain Health

Misinformation on social media in recent years claims MSG side effects include harming the brain’s well-being. Given that research shows MSG’s ability to improve the brain’s registering of flavors, regulate stress and manage mood shifts, there’s little scientific evidence your brain will suffer from a diet with the recommended serving size amounts of MSG.1,2

Healthy Ways to Cut Down on MSG

Scientific experts on research teams and within the FDA agree MSG is safe to eat in moderate amounts. The only thing to remember is MSG can be present in foods that are otherwise unhealthy to eat often, like high-carb meals and foods dense in fat.

To reduce your MSG intake, consider using natural flavor enhancers on your preferred foods or healthy alternatives. There’s a large market of MSG alternatives you can explore in addition to simple ingredients, like balsamic vinegar, apple cider vinegar, seasonings, citrus juices, and more. It depends on what you’re eating and what flavor you want to achieve without MSG or extra salt.

FAQs Around MSG

These are some of the most common questions people have regarding MSG. See if they address your concerns, and talk with your doctor if you need further clarification.

Does MSG Raise Blood Pressure?

Due to the public knowledge of supposed conditions like Chinese Restaurant Syndrome (now known as MSG Symptom Complex), people think MSG automatically raises your blood pressure. It will do that when consumed at high doses for long-term use, but not when consumed daily in moderate amounts.9 However, when introducing MSG to your diet, you can always track your blood pressure to see how your body responds and make more informed dietary decisions.

Is MSG Any Worse for You Than Salt?

Potential side effects like heart palpitations make some people nervous about MSG. It might make you wonder if you should switch to a diet that only relies on salt to boost your flavors.

Although those side effects of MSG are less likely when you don’t eat more than the recommended serving size on your purchased food, table salt typically impacts a person’s health more. Even small amounts raise blood pressure, which is one of the reasons why people started using MSG as a flavor enhancer alternative.

What Is the Toxic Effect of MSG?

Foods with added MSG that comprise most of a person’s daily diet could contribute to symptoms like heart palpitations, headache, and fatigue. It depends on whether that person is naturally more sensitive to MSG and how much they eat daily. Otherwise, the toxic effects of MSG that people typically picture mostly come from either disinformation or faux health conditions with a long history of racism.

What Is the Difference Between MSG and Sodium?

Sodium is a mineral that makes foods or beverages saltier. It can turn into numerous forms of salt that are in most homes. MSG is monosodium glutamate and comes from an amino acid called glutamic acid. When derived from glutamic acid, MSG enhances flavors without the use of minerals.

Learn More About Healthy Nutrition with Signos’ Expert Advice

Filling your daily diet with the best foods for your health is a lifelong learning experience. Now that you know more about MSG, you can make informed decisions for your well-being. There are many natural ways to enhance flavors while improving overall health — especially with expert advice from organizations like Signos.

Signos’ experts can help you strengthen your health by learning about bodily processes and how to manage your typical dietary side effects. There are numerous free resources on nutrition and healthy habits on Signos’ blog and a quick quiz you can take to start your personalized journey to a healthier you.

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References

  1. ScienceDirect. (n.d.). Glutamic Acid - an Overview. ScienceDirect. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/biochemistry-genetics-and-molecular-biology/glutamic-acid
  2. Pal, M. M. (2021, September 13). Glutamate: The Master Neurotransmitter and Its Implications in Chronic Stress and Mood Disorders. Frontiers. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2021.722323/full
  3. López-Tofiño, Y. (2021, April). Effects of the Food Additive Monosodium Glutamate on Cisplatin-Induced Gastrointestinal Dysmotility and Peripheral Neuropathy in the Rat. Wiley Online Library. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/nmo.14020
  4. Gateway Foundation. (2023, March 9). Nutrition to Help Your Body Heal in Addiction Recovery. Gateway Foundation. https://www.gatewayfoundation.org/addiction-blog/nutrition-for-substance-abuse-recovery/
  5. Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. (2012, November 19). Questions and Answers on Monosodium Glutamate (MSG). U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/food/food-additives-petitions/questions-and-answers-monosodium-glutamate-msg
  6. Wahlstedt, A. (2022, February). MSG Is A-OK: Exploring the Xenophobic History of and Best Practices for Consuming Monosodium Glutamate. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. https://www.jandonline.org/article/S2212-2672(21)00068-X/pdf
  7. Brant, B. (2021). Monosodium Glutamate Increases Visceral Sensitivity in a Preclinical Model of Irritable Bowel Syndrome. ProQuest. https://www.proquest.com/openview/f914fd53b2d28a29035eaa9dddea8eb6/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750&diss=y
  8. Das, D., Banerjee, A., Bhattacharjee, A., Mukherjee, S., & Maji, B. K. (2022, January 29). Dietary Food Additive Monosodium Glutamate With or Without High-Lipid Diet Induces Spleen Anomaly: A Mechanistic Approach on Rat Model. U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8802345/
  9. Thongsepee, N., Martviset, P., Chantree, P., Sornchuer, P., Sangpairoj, K., Prathaphan, P., Ruangtong, J., & Hiranyachattada, S. (2022, October 5). Daily Consumption of Monosodium Glutamate Pronounced Hypertension and Altered Renal Excretory Function in Normotensive and Hypertensive Rats. U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9563186/
  10. Devi, K. (2022). A Landscape of Monosodium Glutamate on Homosapiens. European Chemical Bulletin. https://www.eurchembull.com/uploads/paper/adfd34f632798790ba7bae3120980bc0.pdf

About the author

Mia Barnes is a health writer and researcher who specializes in nutrition, fitness, and mental health.

View Author Bio

Please note: The Signos team is committed to sharing insightful and actionable health articles that are backed by scientific research, supported by expert reviews, and vetted by experienced health editors. The Signos blog is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. If you have or suspect you have a medical problem, promptly contact your professional healthcare provider. Read more about our editorial process and content philosophy here.

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