To continue our series on food additives, Andrew covers everything you probably didn’t want to know about monosodium glutamate—also known as MSG—including what it is, where it is found, and why you should avoid it. If you find yourself asking, “Should I avoid eating MSG?” keep reading this post.
I know what you’re thinking, “I hardly ever eat Chinese food, so why should I be worried about MSG? It’s not in American food, right?” Well, read on my friend, and let’s take a closer look at one of the most common food additives the world over.
Should I Avoid Eating MSG?
What is MSG?
MSG is a common flavor enhancer used in many different foods. By itself, it doesn’t really have any noticeable flavor; however, once you add this table-salt-look-alike to food it brings it alive. And without a doubt, it really does make food taste better—especially savory foods. As a human, you are able to taste several types of flavors: sweetness, saltiness, bitterness, sourness, and umami. That last one is a Japanese word that can be roughly translated as “yummy”—and most pertinent to our discussion today, it is the taste that is triggered by MSG.
Well, what is MSG scientifically?
Scientifically speaking, MSG is monosodium glutamate. Its chemical formula is C5H8NO4Na. For those of you unfamiliar with those letters and numbers, that chemical formula shows that it has some carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, and sodium atoms all mixed together into one nice (or not-so-nice) chemical. It is a salt formed from glutamic acid, a common amino acid (small chemicals that are the building blocks of proteins). Being a salt, it forms a crystal structure (like table salt) and it readily dissolves in water (also like table salt) which makes it really useful in the preparation of food.
Now for a really important distinction: there are a couple different forms of glutamic acid. One of these forms is naturally-occurring and is found in most foods. In this form, glutamic acid is merely one of the many amino acids linked together into long chains that we call proteins. As already mentioned, this form of glutamic acid is actually really common in foods—especially protein-rich foods like meat, eggs, and dairy. This natural form of glutamic acid is what gives these foods their savory and delicious taste.
The other form is glutamic acid that has been isolated from its natural linkages with other amino acids and manipulated to form something quite different. Instead of being joined together with those other amino acids into proteins as it should be, it is reacted with a base and forms an ionic compound that we commonly call a salt. Basically, that base accepts a hydrogen ion from glutamic acid and gives the glutamic acid one sodium ion instead. In science-speak, we use the root “mono-” to mean “one,” so the new compound is called monosodium glutamate(MSG) as one sodium has been added to the glutamic acid.
At the surface, these two forms of glutamic acid seem to do the same thing—trigger the previously mentioned umami taste buds. However, that is where their similarities end.
Where is MSG found?
If you want some MSG, all you need to do is go to any Asian store and you can find bags of it right next to the table salt. However, it is actually in many more places than that. MSG is added to many processed foods that want to trigger your umami taste buds—think foods like BBQ potato chips, bullion/broth, beef jerky, frozen dinner entrees, and store-bought sauces. Just take a look next time you are in a store and you are sure to find it!
Why should you avoid MSG?
I prefer to avoid any chemical that has been isolated from its original context. I mean, it is just one part of the whole food for a reason, right? But, if you need more research-backed scientific evidence than just one man’s opinion, there are many other reasons to avoid MSG.
Probably the most common reason to avoid it is that it contains sodium. As Americans, we already get way too much sodium in our diets, and that leads to things like hypertension (high blood pressure), stroke, and heart disease—the number one killer of men and women in the US. Studies on sodium intake and hypertension abound. If you are interested, here is one published by the American Society for Nutrition, and here is another by the New England Journal of Medicine.
The American Society for Nutrition performed a large study on Chinese adults and found a direct link between consuming MSG and BMI—the higher the amount of MSG consumed, the higher the BMI (body mass index). This link held true even after adjusting for things like age and physical activity. In another article, Science Direct comes right out and calls MSG a “villain” and shows how it has a direct effect on liver inflammation and can lead to Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD). And if you have never heard of NAFLD, it is surprisingly common and bad news.
So, simply put, just don’t eat MSG.
Fermentools wants to be your go-to place for all your fermenting questions. For more posts like this one, visit our Science category. This is just the first of many food additives to avoid, so stay tuned for future posts on many of the others!
Andrew and Michelle are the new owners of a 12-acre homestead in rural America. They are just embarking on this journey that is far removed from their city-life upbringing, so they realize that they have a lot to learn in order to succeed in this new place. Come along with them and read more about what they learn as they make this transition at their blog Simple Life Homestead.