MSG, delicious or dangerous…

By Lauren Hoskin

Although having been used as a flavour enhancer for over 100 years, much controversy surrounds the artificially produced flavouring Monosodium Glutamate, also known on food labels as E621. MSG is often used in savoury food and adds an extra flavour named ‘umami’, thought by many to be delicious. Chemically, MSG is the sodium salt of glutamic acid, a non-essential amino acid. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, and vital for all bodily functions. The body naturally produces glutamic acid and uses it for neurotransmitter functions (sending signals to and from the brain) and also in metabolism (breaking it down to use as fuel for all bodily functions).

For over 100 years MSG has been extracted from its natural source; Laminaria japonica, a Japanese seaweed. It is also found in many meat and dairy products, especially parmesan cheese, as well as ripe tomatoes and mushrooms. In the 1950’s the discovery of Corynebacterium glutamicum, a bacteria which produces several amino acids, made the mass production of glutamic acid possible. The bacteria are cultured through an industrial fermentation process to produce glutamic acid, which can then be turned into the sodium salt, monosodium glutamate.

Since the widespread use of MSG as a flavour enhancer there has been a great deal of debate about the effects of its use. Reports of adverse reactions to the molecule, including numbness of the back, chest pains, nausea and sweating have been noted especially in association with Chinese food. This has given the complex of symptoms a nickname ‘Chinese restaurant syndrome’. Evidence suggests that these symptoms may be the result of an allergic response; however it seems only to be present in a small proportion of the population. So far no studies have shown confirmation of any other negative side effects.

Conversely, MSG use has one potential health benefit. As it contains about two thirds less sodium than table salt, it can be used instead of salt to reduce sodium intake whilst maintaining the flavour of the dish. This would benefit anybody worried about high salt intake as a cause of high blood pressure, heart disease or kidney failure.

It is hard to make any firm conclusions about it when results have so far been so conflicting. With the public so poorly informed, many people may just have fear of the unknown. However, it appears that until any scientific evidence proves otherwise, MSG will continue to be used across the world and be considered by health authorities as safe.