Is MSG good for you?

Monosodium glutamate, more commonly known as MSG, has a shining reputation that falls somewhere between Olestra (remember that?) and genetically modified Frankencorn. But some of the country’s best chefs still love it, use it–and bring it with them wherever they go.

Back in the day, there were reports that some people may be intolerant to MSG, and it was branded as headache- and allergy-inducing. Then it was dubbed an excitotoxin–potentially brain-damaging.

Despite the controversy, MSG is a deliciousness-enhancer. It is umami, in crystalline form. Rumblings about MSG started to occur decades ago when rumors spread that people were experiencing symptoms like headaches, muscle tightness, numbness, and weakness after eating American Chinese food. Scientists speculated that MSG in the food could be causing excessive glutamate build-up in the brain, thereby affecting nerve cells.

Some studies were published soon after that that showed harmful neurological effects in mice, but the results have since been called into question. First of all, researchers used excessive amounts when injecting the mice, and follow-up studies on humans have shown MSG generally cannot get into the brain.

Some research has shown that a subset of the population may be more sensitive to MSG and can experience symptoms like headaches, numbness, and drowsiness after eating it. However, it has typically been shown in people who consume three or more grams of MSG without food (in water), while a serving of food with MSG typically contains less than .5 grams.

In very small amounts, all signs point to MSG being basically harmless. However, if you do feel like you’re sensitive to it and don’t feel great when you eat foods that contain it, you should totally skip it.

Here’s the biggest takeaway: Where are you going to get MSG in your diet? In addition to it famously being in Chinese takeout, it’s commonly found in processed, packaged foods like potato chips, frozen dinners, and cold cuts, and in fast food meals like chicken nuggets. I don’t want you eating that crap for a million other reasons. So, if you’re eating a healthy, whole foods diet to begin with, you’re naturally going to be avoiding MSG in most cases.

Check out my related post: Does draft beer actually taste better?

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