What Is Monosodium Glutamate or MSG?

Many Report Allergic Symptoms to MSG, But Scientists Say It Is Safe to Eat

Chicken Noodles Stir Fry
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What is the spice know as monosodium glutamate, better known as MSG? It's on the label of many grocery products and in much of the food people eat at fast-food and sit-down restaurants, but few people know what it actually is and what it is used for.

About MSG

MSG, a white power, is a commonly used food seasoning derived from glutamic acid, an amino acid found naturally on Earth, such as in seaweed, sugar beets, cereal glutens, and several vegetables.

Although it has no real flavor of its own, MSG greatly enhances the taste of savory foods, which accounts for its heavy use. MSG is a popular ingredient in Asian recipes. MSG is found in the spice aisle of most grocery stores; a common American brand-name MSG product is Ac'cent. 

Where You'll Find MSG in Food

Besides that delish Chinese takeout, you'll likely find MSG in most processed foods. Think potato chips, tortilla chips, bottled salad dressings, salsa, frozen meals, among many others. It might not be on the label since the Food and Drug Administration does not require MSG to be specifically listed. Or it might be called something else: hydrolyzed protein, autolyzed yeast, glutamic acid or yeast extract. 

MSG is also commonly found in what you order in restaurants. It's especially common at fast-food restaurants -- it's one of the things that makes those chicken fingers and french fries taste so yummy.

Allergic Reactions: Is MSG Safe?

Some people suffer what they believe to be an allergic reaction to MSG. They report that they experience a variety of symptoms that include a headache, dizziness, flushing or burning of the skin, numbness, sweating, palpitations, nausea, chest pain and weakness.

These anecdotal complaints have been reported since the 1960s, and they are called the "MSG Symptom Complex" or more interestingly, the "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome," for the prevalence of MSG in Asian food.

Scientific researchers studying a possible connection between these symptoms and MSG have come up dry, reports Yale Scientific Magazine, a publication of Yale University, although they say that a small number of people might suffer short-term reactions to MSG. Still, MSG is safe to eat, say the FDA, the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

So go ahead and scarf down that chow mein and those potato chips, as long as you haven't suffered from what feels like "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome."