What is MSG?
According to the NSW Food Authority, "MSG is a food additive."
"Its full name is monosodium glutamate and it comes from the amino acid, glutamic acid. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Our food and bodies contain protein that, in turn, contains glutamate."
So how did we come to be using the stuff on everything from Asian food to Pringles?
Why is it used in food?
In 1908, Japanese cooks realised the reason their food tasted so good was because of the seaweed stock they were using.
They dissected its chemical make up and discovered it contained glutamate.
Glutamate is naturally present in many foods including seaweed, tomatoes, poultry, cheese and milk. However, the stuff that gets sprinkled on your Chinese food or Thai takeaway isn't.
What types of food is it found in?
MSG is everywhere.
Anywhere you see the words 'Flavour Enhancer' on an ingredients list - you're looking at MSG. But it goes by a whole host of other names too:
- 620 L -glutamic acid
- 621 Monosodium glutamate, L-
- 622 Monopotassium glutamate, L-
- 623 Calcium glutamate, Di-L-
- 624 Monoammonium glutamate, L-
- 625 Magnesium glutamate, Di-L-
- 627 Disodium guanylate, 5’-
- 631 Disodium inosinate, 5’-
- 635 Disodium ribonucleotides, 5’-
Check the labelling on pretty much any sauce, marinade, flavoured chips, stock cubes, instant noodles, processed meats and you'll find one of the above, or the more ambiguous 'flavour enhancer'.
And if you've ever wondered why KFC is so finger licking' good? Well, you can bet that one of those 11 herbs and spices that Colonel Sanders uses in his secret recipe is MSG.
Unfortunately there is no requirement in restaurants and cafés in Australia to declare the presence of MSG.
Is MSG harmful?
Food Standards Australia will tell you it's not. But plenty of people experience unwanted side effects when they unknowingly eat food that contains MSG.
There's even a thing called MSG symptom complex
The Mayo Clinic website says; "Over the years, the FDA has received many anecdotal reports of adverse reactions to foods containing MSG. These reactions — known as MSG symptom complex — include:
- Facial pressure or tightness
- Numbness, tingling or burning in the face, neck and other areas
- Rapid, fluttering heartbeats (heart palpitations)
- Chest pain
So how can you avoid MSG?
The conclusion as to whether MSG is legal and whether it should be is an ongoing saga but for now it's legal.
However, if you find it leaves you with any of the above symptoms, the best advice is to familiarise yourself with the variety of names and numbers it goes by and check the label before buying anything in the supermarket.
When you're eating out, ask for your food to be made without MSG.
If that's not possible – some foods will include ready made sauces such as Fish Sauce that contain MSG – the restaurant will be able to tell you.
Sometimes Asian restaurants will have a sign that states their food is MSG free but it's always best to ask. And remember, it's not just in Asian food.