So I was in Perth recently and stopped in at a Vietnamese Supermarket, which just happened to be the closest one to my destination. I was wanting to buy a birthday card, however something caught my eye before I found one. I stopped in shock, before I quickly recovered and took a photo.
I saw a big pile of boxes full of bags of MSG. Now you might be thinking what’s so unusual about that? Well for starters I usually try and avoid eating MSG in the food products I buy (and have never thought to buy a bag of MSG), so when I saw this I almost instinctively pulled away. As if by standing too close it would somehow leap out of the bags and into my body.
And it got me thinking more about why I avoid it and some of the common questions around MSG.
Is MSG Safe for me to eat?
In 1908, a Japanese chemistry professor determined that monosodium L-glutamate (MSG) was responsible for the characteristic meaty or savoury taste of the broth of dried bonito and Japanese seaweed. Since then, various salts of glutamic acid including MSG (all of which are also known as ‘glutamates’) have been commercially produced and deliberately added to food as a flavour enhancer.
Glutamates also occur naturally in almost all foods, including meat, fish, vegetables and mushrooms. Even breast milk contains naturally occurring glutamate. In general, protein-rich foods such as meat contain large amounts of bound glutamate, whereas vegetables and fruits (especially peas, tomatoes, and potatoes) and mushrooms tend to contain high levels of free glutamate. Certain cheeses, such as Parmesan, also contain high levels of free glutamate.
There is no chemical difference between added and naturally occurring glutamate.
A small number of people may experience a mild hypersensitivity-type reaction to large amounts of MSG when eaten in a single meal. Reactions vary from person to person but may include headaches, numbness/tingling, flushing, muscle tightness, and general weakness. These reactions normally pass quickly and do not produce any long-lasting effects, as long as the level of MSG eaten remains low or nil.
The evidence from a large number of scientific studies is that MSG is safe for the general population at the levels typically incorporated into various foods. This has been confirmed by a number of expert bodies. The problem of course is that MSG is incorporated into more and more foods which means we are ingesting more than when these studies were done.
In the mid nineties, three more flavour enhancers called ribonucleotides (627, 631, and 635 which is a combination of 627 and 631) started appearing on supermarket shelves after scientists realised that these chemicals could boost the flavour enhancing effect of MSG up to 15 times (see Fedup for more information). So even though MSG may not be in your food, you may be consuming these flavour enhancers.
Does MSG affect me differently when I’m pregnant, and will it affect my unborn child? And what about my parents, how does it affect them?