Why you shouldn’t fear MSG, an unfairly maligned and worthwhile seasoning

MSG crystals. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Laura Chase de Formigny

Monosodium glutamate, more commonly known as MSG, has been around for more than a century. A potent purveyor of umami, the fifth taste that people have dedicated entire restaurants to, the seasoning is still often misunderstood, despite the articles and scientific studies over the decades that clear its name. And even for those that aren’t MSG-phobic, there’s still a shroud of mystery surrounding how to incorporate it into a regular arsenal of seasonings.

Now it’s time (again) to solve those mysteries and teach you how to use MSG as the powerful cooking tool it is.

We have Japanese biochemist Kikunae Ikeda to thank for its discovery in 1908. While enjoying a soup made from dashi, Ikeda noticed a unique taste beyond the four known to be detectable by the human palate (bitter, salty, sour and sweet). He named this savory taste umami, and he discovered its source to be the glutamate, an amino acid, in kombu. Ikeda then isolated the pure glutamate from the seaweed, bonded it with sodium to form MSG, and founded Ajinomoto to manufacture the product in 1909. (The company now produces MSG by fermenting glucose from corn.)

Its popularity in the United States can be traced to World War II. “The military thought that they had found in MSG an answer to the flavorless rations allotted to soldiers, and when the war ended, the troops came home and so did the industrialization of food production,” Natasha Geiling wrote in Smithsonian Magazine.

While the association with unhealthy processed foods is one prong of the stigma against it – “it’s not the MSG’s fault, it’s more of the processing’s fault,” Post columnist, registered dietitian and nutritionist Ellie Krieger told me – the arguably more problematic link is between MSG and Chinese food.

It all started in 1968, when Robert Ho Man Kwok wrote a letter to the editors of the New England Journal of Medicine. Kwok, then a senior research investigator at the National Biomedical Research Foundation, described experiencing numbness, weakness and palpitation lasting for about two hours after eating at Chinese restaurants. Kwok offered up possible culprits: soy sauce, cooking wine, high sodium content and, of course, MSG. “Because we lack personnel for doing research in this area, I wonder if my friends in the medical field might be interested in seeking more information about this rather peculiar syndrome,” his letter stated.

“He wanted to figure out what was causing this reaction,” his daughter Amelia Manum told me from her home in Washington, and was seeking to help others who might experience it, too. “He was always very proud of it,” since not every letter to the editor is published. Kwok’s letter led to others sharing similar observations, and soon there were (now-debunked) studies pointing to monosodium glutamate as the cause.

This, coupled with the heading “Chinese restaurant syndrome” assigned to Kwok’s letter by the journal’s editors, spawned a wave of backlash against both Chinese restaurants and MSG. “The Chinese restaurant owners were not happy,” Manum said. “I think they thought he was trying to hurt their business or something, but he wasn’t.” In reality, he was trying to figure out a potential allergen, “but it had all these other repercussions.”

Sure enough, “the stigma around MSG fueled – or, perhaps, was fueled by – long-held racist stereotypes,” Amelia Nierenberg wrote in the New York Times. Chinese restaurants had to post signs proclaiming “No MSG” in hopes of retaining customers and staying open.

The term “Chinese restaurant syndrome” even made its way into the dictionary. It wasn’t until early 2020 that the definition was changed to take into account the “misleading and potentially offensive” nature of the term. Even though the facts have changed, people are slow to acknowledge them, and some Chinese restaurants remain wary of that association to this day.

For Andrew Chiou, co-chef and co-owner of Lucky Danger in Washington, D.C., “I can tell this dish has just a little bit more spark to it” when he adds a pinch of MSG to his restaurant’s dishes. However, “we’re still debating ourselves whether we really announce to the world, double down on it,” a lingering effect of the decades of backlash. “We are trying to change the perspective of how people view Chinese takeout, and at the same time we’re still a small business, still growing and we need every guest. … I think we’re too early to push away guests just because of MSG.”

So to anyone still on the fence, per the FDA (and just about every other such regulating body), MSG is “generally recognized as safe.” Still, the misconceptions persist, as shown by feedback from some readers to my recent ranch dressing recipe.

First, you may be thinking, “But I’m allergic to it!” Yes, one report shows people displaying symptoms “that may occur in some sensitive individuals who consume 3 grams or more of MSG without food,” per the FDA. “However, a typical serving of a food with added MSG contains less than 0.5 grams of MSG. Consuming more than 3 grams of MSG [3/4 teaspoon] without food at one time is unlikely.” Furthermore, “although many people identify themselves as sensitive to MSG, in studies with such individuals given MSG or a placebo, scientists have not been able to consistently trigger reactions,” the FDA states, and the number of sensitive individuals is “suggested to be” to be only 1 to 2% of the population, according to a Food Standards Australia New Zealand report.

Another reason people offer for their avoidance is wariness over manufactured glutamates versus those found naturally in foods. “The human body is used to naturally occurring glutamates and digests them easily, but we don’t know exactly how the body digests commercially manufactured MSG,” Hooni Kim wrote in her cookbook “My Korea.” However, per the FDA, “The glutamate in MSG is chemically indistinguishable from glutamate present in food proteins. Our bodies ultimately metabolize both sources of glutamate in the same way.”

As Tia Rains, vice president of customer engagement and strategic development for Ajinomoto, explained it, when you add MSG to a liquid, its two components separate. “So then you just have free sodium floating around and then free glutamate, which is why the glutamate that’s naturally present in tomatoes, Parmesan cheese, asparagus, corn, you name it, is the same as the glutamate that’s coming from the MSG,” she said. “It just gets added to the pool. The chemical structure is identical. It’s like saying that the water that’s coming from your iced tea is somehow different from the water that’s coming from your coffee.”

While published studies have seemed to link MSG to negative health outcomes, none of them hold in today’s court of scientific research. Though we sometimes take science as fact, it evolves. Like Pluto’s status as a planet, just because something was true once doesn’t make it true now.

If you still decide you don’t want to cook with MSG, that’s your prerogative. But for the MSG-curious out there, here’s how and why to use it at home.

First, you need to understand umami and how MSG affects food. “It is to savory flavor what refined sugar is to sweet,” Helen Rosner wrote in the New Yorker. On its own, many say, MSG is rather bland. I find it faintly salty with a whisper of umami, as if it had been in the same room with sauteed mushrooms, aged Parmesan cheese and a nicely seared steak to absorb their essences. When added to foods, MSG makes flavors, particularly salty and sour, really come alive. Add a sprinkle to a slice of avocado or your next batch of scrambled eggs to see for yourself what it does and just how it impacts flavor.

One of the many benefits of MSG is that it lets you more acutely pull the umami lever in the kitchen. Though you can also add umami through other foods high in glutamates, sometimes you don’t want the flavor or texture of that ingredient. Some may balk at the one-dimensionality of it, but just as there are times when you want to add sugar instead of ripe fruit for sweetness, there are times when MSG might be more appropriate than anchovies. By helping you more precisely tweak the flavors of a dish, MSG is a powerful tool for cooks of all levels.

As a bonus, MSG can be beneficial nutritionally. Nine out of 10 Americans consume too much sodium, and MSG can help reduce it. One teaspoon of fine sea salt has 1,760 milligrams of sodium compared to only 500 milligrams for the same amount of MSG, and studies have shown that replacing some of the salt in dishes with MSG can reduce sodium levels without affecting the perception of saltiness. Different sources recommend putting anywhere from a 10-to-1 ratio of salt to MSG to a 1-to-1 ratio in your salt shaker to implement this in your daily life. (Though some caution “adding more MSG than the 10-to-1 ratio will overwhelm your taste buds, and your food will develop a distracting and lingering mouthfeel.”)

“It’s a completely viable technique to reduce sodium, but keep flavor robust,” Krieger told me. “Particularly, I’ve noticed that to be really effective in something like a soup, where typically soup needs a fair amount of salt to taste good, and that could put a lot of people over the top if they’re really watching their sodium intake.”

In addition to soup and eggs, MSG can be added to salad dressings, bread, tomato sauce, meats, popcorn, “an absolutely filthy martini,” you name it. MSG is a great way to add flavor to just about anything except sweets. It’s particularly great with vegetables, too. “I think it can really work wonders with vegetable-based foods to give them this other layer of umami,” Krieger says.

As for how much MSG to use, start with a small amount so as to not overwhelm the palate. “It is very strong, so use it sparingly,” Chiou says. As with any other ingredients, you can always add more. “A dish that serves four to six people, or a pound of meat, needs 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of monosodium glutamate,” wrote Danilo Alfaro in the Spruce Eats. For 1 quart of liquid, Chiou recommends 1/32 teaspoon – less than what many consider even a “pinch” – whereas Kenji López-Alt in the Takeout suggests 1/2 teaspoon. Season with it throughout your cooking process as you regularly would with salt, and use it a finishing seasoning for items like roasted meats and vegetables.

Ready to grab some and try it out for yourself? MSG can be found in well-stocked supermarkets, Asian markets and online. I picked up a small bag of Ajinomoto’s MSG at a Japanese market near me, and in many grocery stores you can find MSG in the form of Ac’cent Flavor Enhancer. (It doesn’t say “monosodium glutamate” clearly on the front of the label anywhere, but that is the only ingredient listed.)

“I’ve seen a few chefs just scoff at it, like, ‘You don’t need that,’ or ‘Why do you need this?’ You should be able to cook better or use different ingredients, and partially they’re right,” Chiou says. I’m not here to force you to use MSG, as there are certainly other ways to coax out umami in your cooking, but if you’ve made it this far, hopefully now you recognize that it is a safe and perfectly good tool to use to boost flavor.

As Chiou said, “In some cases, it’s like, yes, the sauce is delicious right now. But add a pinch of this, and it’s over the top.”



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