An “Almost” Doctor’s Guide to MSG: 6 Utterly Wrong Myths

Admit it. We’ve all teared back the crisply sealed cover of cup noodles, salivating at the thought of slurping up those curly strands of savory instagoodness. But as soon as you finish your delicious meal, that soft creeping euphoria of drowsiness (that has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that its 3am and you’ve been studying for an endocrinology exam the past 6 hours) begins to overcome you. Must be all that MSG you just choked down.

As one of the most widely despised and misunderstood food products in the world, Monosodium Glutamate, or MSG, has gone through quite the journey. A recent article by Buzzfeed contributor John Mahoney sheds light on the whirlpool of myths on MSG, focusing on the titillating rise of the “umami craze” and one chef’s quest to perfect the “5th basic taste”.

For these chefs, the path to understanding umami inevitably leads them to MSG, which is chemically identical to the glutamic acid they’re creating from scratch. And yet Chang wouldn’t think of using MSG in his restaurants today. He told me he doesn’t even use it at home, despite being a professed lover of MSG-laced Japanese Kewpie mayo. After decades of research debunking its reputation as a health hazard, and uninterrupted FDA approval since 1959, MSG remains a food pariah — part of a story that spans a century of history, race, culture, and science and says more about how we eat today than any other.

Here we give you 6 myths about the notorious food seasoning, and the truths that debunk all the unsavoriness of 45 years of dubious and inconclusive research.

Myth #1: Only Asian food has high amounts of MSG in it.

Truth: There are tons of food products that naturally contain traces of glutamic acid including, but not limited to chicken and sausage products, ranch dressing, parmesan items, gravy, dipping sauces, seasoned fries, flavored snack chips, soy sauce, cold cuts, soups, caesar salad, fish sauce, and many canned food products.

Myth #2: Chinese Restaurant Syndrome is a real thing


Flickr | Dvortygirl

Truth: The term “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” was coined in a 1968 editorial by Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok, a Chinese-American physician, who described “numbness at the back of the neck, gradually radiating to both arms and the back, and general weakness and palpitation” after eating Chinese food in American restaurants. Though Dr. Kwok mentioned the high salt content as a possible factor in his symptoms, people focused on his suggestion of MSG as the culprit. The editorial was quickly followed by a piece in The New York Times and a splurge of studies on the effects of glutamate on the body and brain.

Myth #3: MSG is an artificial food additive chemically engineered to make food taste savory

Truth: The FDA estimates humans consume about 13 grams of glutamic acid in food every day, and enters our bodies in 3 ways:

1. Glutamic acid is a naturally occurring non-essential amino acid synthesized by the body. Mahoney writes, “Human breast milk contains 19 milligrams of free glutamic acid per 100 grams — cow’s milk has 1 milligram. We’re programmed to crave umami from the womb.”

2. Many foods contain high amounts of “free”  glutamic acid

3. Through MSG, which humans consume about half a gram of every day, according to the FDA



Myth #4: People can have severe allergic reactions to MSG

Truth: There is no evidence suggesting the possibility of an allergic reaction to MSG. Mahoney writes, “The FDA, while acknowledging ‘short-term, transient and generally mild symptoms’ in ‘some sensitive individuals who consume 3 grams or more of MSG without food,’ has never removed MSG from its ‘generally recognized as safe’ list.”

Human breast milk contains 19 milligrams of free glutamic acid per 100 grams — cow’s milk has 1 milligram. We’re programmed to crave umami from the womb.

Myth #5: MSG is associated with obesity

Truth: MSG’s link to obesity has raised widespread concern, especially after a 2011 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Researchers in China followed individuals for 5-6 years and found that individuals consuming the most MSG (4.2 grams a day) were also the most likely to be overweight compared to individuals who ate the least MSG (0.4g/d). However, the study showed that people who ate the most MSG were also less active; ate more calories, fat, and carbohydrates; and were more likely to smoke. The study results remain inconclusive.

Myth #6: MSG consumption can lead to acute neurotoxicity including higher risk of Alzheimer’s and autism

Truth: These fears stem from a study of neonatal mice that were injected with very high doses of MSG. These mice suffered from brain lesions. However, the same outcomes did not occur for mice that were administered MSG with food, even at high doses. What is often left out about this study is that the MSG was directly injected to the mice’s brains, bypassing the metabolic pathways of the body, which uses glutamate as fuel and rarely let glutamate get past the intestines. Furthermore, mice are particularly sensitive to MSG, and much higher doses of MSG are safe for human adults and babies.

Mahoney elucidates,

They [David Chang and Momofuku chefs] sent samples to microbiologists from UCLA and Harvard who identified the strains of bacteria responsible for the fermentation. They also advised them on how glutamic acid works in the body. “We asked them, ‘So you’re positive that if I ingest MSG and I eat the same amount naturally, the body digests it in the same way?’ Chang recalls. “And they said, ‘100 fucking percent.’”


Featured image from Flickr / caffeina

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Ieroo Park

Ieroo is an editor for The Almost Doctor's Channel. He graduated from Boston College with a degree in English, and is looking forward to becoming an "Almost Doc". In his spare time, he enjoys playing basketball, tennis, and taking selfies with Dr. Ruth.


  1. Anthony R. Diodati

    Now l don’t know what to believe.

  2. marcdraco

    From my reading of this, Kwok got a little drunk from the stronger beverages in the Chinese restaurant.

    Either way, he started a hatred and fear of a safe additive that continues to this day.

    Not that i care – I use boatloads of the stuff.