MSG: Devastating or delicious?

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Monosodium glutamate, better known as MSG, is a flavor enhancer used in cuisines all around the globe, giving an umami flavor to food. It is the sodium salt of the common amino acid glutamic acid, and made through the process of fermentation. When the sodium and glutamate break apart at the touch of saliva, the free glutamate activates the umami taste receptors in the mouth. MSG was first developed by Kikunae Ikeda, a Japanese chemist, in the early 1900s. It’s said that he loved his wife’s kombu, or kelp, broth, and wanted to find out what gave it its taste. He extracted a crystalline compound from the broth, known as glutamic acid, and found that it was the reason why the broth had its flavor. MSG can be produced manually, but it is also found naturally in foods such as tomatoes, cheeses, and protein isolates. Today, the process of creating it is through the fermentation of starch, sugar beets, sugar cane, or molasses, similar to the process of creating yogurt, wine, or vinegar. However, ever since the creation of MSG, it has earned itself an infamous reputation built on the roots of racism and misguided information. 

The myths and controversies behind this sodium salt originated in the 1960s, when a physician claimed to have fallen ill after consuming Chinese food. He wrote a letter describing his case to the New England Journal of Medicine, where it was picked up by reporters and news outlets that carried it globally. Following this, many claimed to have experienced symptoms such as dizziness, heartache, numbness, sweating, and a plethora of other supposed aftereffects of MSG consumption. Due to the relationship between MSG and Chinese food, the term Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, now called the MSG Symptom Complex, was coined by Dr. Ho Man Kwok. Eunice Yang, a Junior at Washington High School, explains how she’s heard that MSG is “carcinogenic and causes a lot of headaches, and is overall not good for your health.” Such myths, created in the previous century, are still around and cause concern for people today. 

However, several globally renowned organizations, such as the WHO and the FDA, have deemed that MSG is safe for consumption in appropriate amounts. It is acknowledged that, though the suggested amount of eating MSG is 0.5 grams, eating 3 grams or more (overconsumption of MSG) can lead to short term effects. These short term effects include headaches, shortness of breath, drowsiness, flushing, nausea, heart palpitations, and many more on a case to case basis. Because of this, it is required to be on the food listing of products despite the amount actually used in the item. Many processed and packaged foods, like instant ramen, deli meats, tv dinners, condiments, and popular snacks like chips, contain MSG. These items, not generally associated with MSG, are common to the average household, meaning that most people eat MSG without realizing it. 

Mr. Chow, a Living Earth and AP Biology teacher at Washington High School, also a food enthusiast well-versed with knowledge in the world of culinary arts, elaborates on how the science behind these myths regarding MSG have proved it safe to consume in appropriate amounts. Chow explains that one of the many claims behind the negative aspect of MSG is of being allergic to it. He adds that it “doesn’t make sense because there’s so many glutamates naturally occurring in food that if they were allergic to MSG or glutamates, they probably couldn’t eat anything out there. It’s a myth that you can be allergic to glutamic acids.” Glutamates are essential to the bodily function of metabolism, and without it, the human body would not be able to digest food and operate properly. Thus, as Chow mentioned, it is highly unlikely that one can be allergic to the glutamate in MSG, debunking the myth. To add on, MSG has not been proved as an allergen, as stated by the FDA. Eunice Yang sees it as a placebo effect, saying that just the knowledge of MSG is enough to make a consumer feel sick if they have negative views of it. With similar views to Chow, Yang expresses how the stigma behind MSG was based on racism, and says that “it’s often an irrational fear which leads to people having a very bad stigma of MSG.” Such fears are what started the rumors around MSG in the first place. Today, MSG is still closely associated with a negative reputation, yet still enjoyed widely.

Deepthi moved to Fremont at the age of three and has grown up there for the most part. Despite her junior year being her first year at the paper, she has always been interested in writing, often creating stories and hooks for fun. Deepthi is interested in social issues but hates the idea of writing about politics. She likes biking, hanging out with her friends, writing, watching TV shows, ice skating, and jamming to music. She is also a dedicated TA to her Sunday school and helps educate little kids on their mother tongue. Growing up, Deepthi hopes to be a pediatrician or ER doctor, something she has dreamed of since she was little.

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