This post was written by Wendy Chung, dietetic intern, and reviewed/edited by Edith Yang, RD, CSR, CLT, FAND
What is ‘Monosodium Glutamate?’
Monosodium glutamate is known as MSG and it is a food additive related to the terminology “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”. It is very likely that you have heard about the effects of MSG. These include headaches, dizziness, numbness of the arms, neck, and back, and heart palpitations from the consumption of Chinese food items or any Asian-related cuisine. Despite the reports of these symptoms and the scientific literature on the food additive let us go back in time to the origins of MSG.
What’s the history behind “Monosodium Glutamate” (MSG)?
MSG was discovered in 1907 by a chemistry professor named Kikunae Ikeda in Tokyo, Japan. He wanted to identify the distinctive taste constituents of kelp and meat products. Ultimately, he found what’s known as the fifth taste element of umami or MSG. It was introduced to the United States (U.S.) in the 1920s, and it grew in consumption throughout the growth of the industrialized food system in the 1940s. In 1965, when the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was completely lifted, a huge influx of Chinese immigrants arrived in the U.S. It is around this time that there was an increase in Chinatowns and Chinese restaurants in major cities, such as San Francisco, California.
However, in 1968, a report in the New England Journal of Medicine written by Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok described his experience after eating Chinese food — he noted that he felt symptoms such as, “[…] numbness in the back of the neck, gradually radiating to both arms and the back, general weakness, and palpitation.” He continued to state that the addition of MSG in Chinese food was a probable culprit for his unfavorable experience. This event is what developed the terminology of “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.” It caused concern in the U.S. population and drew interest in the health science research field. Despite the fact that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) declares MSG completely safe for consumption, there are numerous reports and studies concluding the negative health effects of MSG.
Let us deeply look into what comprises MSG…
What is the science behind “Monosodium Glutamate” (MSG)?
If we were to break down what monosodium glutamate is, it would be a combination of glutamate or glutamic acid (a non-essential amino acid available in many protein foods) and sodium (an essential mineral). Overall, it is a water-soluble sodium salt of glutamic acid. As previously mentioned, umami is the fifth taste element discovered by professor Kikune Ikeda in the early 1900s. Umami primarily derives from the amino acid, glutamate. When this particular amino acid is not connected to another amino acid of a bigger protein molecule, it is considered a “freed” glutamate which generates that umami flavor. Let’s dive in to see what foods have naturally derived MSG, and most importantly if it is safe to eat.
What foods have natural-derived MSG? Is it safe?
MSG is referred to either as a food additive or food enhancer seasoning due to its strong umami taste. However, MSG is naturally derived in many food items that we have consumed even during our infancy. An article illustrating a study conducted by Professor Ikeda found similar concentrations of “freed” glutamate in konbu dashi (a Japanese soup) along with breast milk. Moreover, MSG is naturally found in parmesan cheese, tomatoes, mushrooms, soy extracts, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, meat, fermented sauces, fish, and seafood.
Now, the big question is — is MSG safe to eat? The short answer is yes, but with moderation. We have to remember that all foods fit into living a healthy lifestyle. Everything in excessive amounts is not recommended.
Returning to Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok’s encounter with MSG found in Chinese food and sparking a revolution of health scares of MSG, it was found that most reports and scientific studies after that were inconclusive. The methods of most studies were done on animals, sample sizes were small, and the amount of MSG given to test subjects was given in high amounts (around 1.25 to 10 g of MSG). In other words, there were not enough people and inappropriate quantities of MSG in the studies to confirm conclusive evidence that MSG is harmful. A review article by Kazmi et al inferred that the use of MSG up to an appropriate level (between 0.3 and 2.4 g in the average estimated intake) does not produce dangerous health effects since glutamate (a component of MSG) is an important amino acid.
Would it be recommended for patients with CKD and Diabetes (Type I & II)?
With all chronic illnesses, we must always seek health advice from a healthcare practitioner (HCP). MSG is commonly found not just in Asian food items, but also in many American food products and other cultural cuisines. Patients with chronic kidney disease (CKD) and diabetes (either Type 1 or 2) often need to pay close attention to what they are consuming, but with the discussion of MSG, there are a few promising benefits.
As always, consulting your HCP and/or registered dietitian is highly recommended since everyone is unique in their nutritional needs. Despite the innovative and potential new research on MSG, we must take everything with a grain of salt (pun intended).
Considering that diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and hypertension (HTN) are some of the primary causes of CKD, effectively managing your diet with a registered dietitian is first and foremost important. With CKD, the kidneys cannot eliminate the extra sodium or fluid in the body. This can lead to swelling, breathing difficulties, and harm to other organs. However, there are studies that demonstrate that the consumption of MSG can lead to an overall small calorie deficit and a reduction in sodium intake. A study done by Halim et al. introduced four plant-based dishes to 163 participants in three versions — a standard recipe, a reduced-salt recipe, and a reduced-salt recipe with the addition of MSG. There was a sodium reduction of 47-63% in the reduced-salt recipes and a sodium reduction of 31-61% in the reduced-salt with MSG recipes. The results concluded that the addition of MSG as a food enhancer in meals decreased sodium intake without risking flavor and taste.
Perhaps after reading this, you may still have reservations or doubts about eating or cooking with MSG. It’s always a good idea to consult with your dietitian regarding MSG in your cooking. If you’re interested in seeking nutrition professional assistance as to how your health or diagnosis may be affected by one of the aforementioned naturally-occurring MSG foods, schedule a 1:1 appointment today with our board certified dietitian at Healthy Mission Dietitian. Remember, your health is priceless!
Healthy Mission Dietitian, Inc is your primary resource for learning all you need to know about CKD nutrition in Asian groups from Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean, and more.
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My name is Wendy Chung, and I am a current dietetic intern obtaining guidance from Edith Yang, RD, CSR, CLT, and FAND, founder of Healthy Mission Dietitian. There’s nothing more that I like than writing and researching about health and nutrition. I hope I was able to provide insightful information about MSG. My goal is to help you understand the origins of MSG and where it comes from. Most importantly, understand whether or not it will affect your health. If you’d like to see more of my past work and research, connect with me through my LinkedIn page.
- Chun, J., Kim, B., Lee, J., Cho, H., Min, S., & Choi, M. (2014). Effect of NaCl/monosodium glutamate (MSG) mixture on the sensorial properties and quality characteristics of model meat products. Korean Journal for Food Science of Animal Resources, 34(5), 576-581. https://10.5851/kosfa.2014.34.5.576
- Halim, J., Bouzari, A., Felder, D., & Guinard, J. (2020). The salt flip: Sensory mitigation of salt (and sodium) reduction with monosodium glutamate (MSG) in “Better‐for‐You” foods. Journal of Food Science, 85(9), 2902-2914. https://10.1111/1750-3841.15354
- Kazmi, Z., Fatima, I., Perveen, S., & Malik, S. S. (2017). Monosodium glutamate: Review on clinical reports. International Journal of Food Properties, 20(sup2), 1807-1815. https://10.1080/10942912.2017.1295260
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- Sharma, A. (2015). Monosodium glutamate-induced oxidative kidney damage and possible mechanisms: A mini-review. Springer Science and Business Media LLC. https://10.1186/s12929-015-0192-5
- Wahlstedt, A., Bradley, E., Castillo, J., & Burt, K. G. (2022). MSG is A-OK: Exploring the xenophobic history of and best practices for consuming monosodium glutamate. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 122(1), 25-29. https://10.1016/j.jand.2021.01.020
- Yang, RD, CSR, CLT, FAND, Edith. (2021). Renal diet cookbook for beginners – 75 simple recipes to help manage chronic kidney disease. Rockridge Press.