Umami, MSG, and Chinese Restaurant Syndrome

By Matthew Wang, MS in Human Nutrition candidate

Tomatoes, sour cream and onion chips, soy sauce, Parmesan cheese. What do all of these foods have in common (besides being delicious)? They all contain Monosodium glutamate, otherwise known as MSG. You may have seen “NO MSG” signs outside of Chinese restaurants or on snack packages at the grocery store. But what is MSG? And why is it so important?

According to the FDA, “MSG is the sodium salt of the common amino acid, glutamic acid. Glutamic acid is naturally present in our bodies as well as in many foods and food additives.” MSG was first characterized when a Japanese professor, Kikunae Ikeda, extracted it from a seaweed broth commonly consumed in Japan and other Asian countries. After this discovery, Professor Ikeda filed a patent to commercially produce MSG from extracting it from seaweed broth. From here, it was distributed across Asia where people used it to enhance the “Umami” taste of their dishes. 

“Umami” is considered one of the core five tastes in Japan (sweet, sour, salty, and bitter) meaning that the umami taste cannot be achieved by simply mixing the other tastes. Umami is what makes a dish taste “meaty” or “savory” and is triggered not only by monosodium glutamate but also chemicals such as Disodium inosinate and/or Disodium guanylate which are both the disodium salt of nucleotides (the chemicals which make up the genetic information in our cells). 

Examples of umami-rich foods

These three chemicals are the main components of umami and they are often used in conjunction with each other to exponentially increase the umami sensation in products such as potato chips and instant noodles. So…are these chemicals safe to consume?

First off, everything is made up of chemicals, whether it’s the water in your water bottle, the water bottle itself, or MSG. The FDA considers MSG as GRAS, or “generally recognized as safe”. Other GRAS food additives include the likes of salt, sugar, and caffeine. Disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate have also been recognized as safe by the FDA, although they lack the same amount of research that the FDA has put into MSG and thus currently lack the GRAS designation. 

So we know that MSG is safe. Then why do snacks and restaurants always seem to promote themselves for not using MSG in their food? First of all, MSG and “glutamic acid,” the amino acid found in dietary protein, are indistinguishable by the body and metabolized in the same manner. According to the FDA, the average adult consumes around 13 grams of glutamate each day from dietary protein, while added monosodium glutamate comes in at around 0.55 grams per day. 

Today, we know from scientific evidence that MSG is safe. The other chemical components of umami are also likely to be safe since they are naturally occurring in many foods, just like MSG. When these chemicals are added in their pure form to foods such as potato chips and instant ramen, they are added for the purposes of increasing that foods’ umami taste. Because of the previous MSG buzz, many restaurants and snack companies now use ingredients like yeast extract or soy extract to increase the MSG content of their food without having to name MSG as an ingredient.

So if you’re wondering if MSG and other umami inducing chemicals are safe to consume, the answer is yes. They are found in our everyday food and unless you consume them in overwhelming quantities, you will most likely be fine. But as always, when making any significant changes to the diet or when you think you may be having an adverse reaction to something, the best thing to do is to contact a registered dietitian nutritionist or physician. 

I hope this article was helpful and informative! If you are interested, check out this link where you can learn all about the underappreciated taste that is umami. 

Peer-edited by Johanna Bishop, MS, RDN

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