Is MSG Safe?

March 29, 2011

The short answer is yes — MSG is included in the FDA’s Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) list, and research in Europe, the US, and Asia shows that MSG used in prepared foods or as a condiment is safe for people of all ages.

A few weeks ago I went to a luncheon about umami — the fifth taste. If you’re not familiar with umami, it is the “meaty” or “savory” rich taste that results from monosodium glutamate (MSG) in foods. Glutamate is the most prevalent amino acid found in dietary proteins and is found in many foods, including Parmesan cheese, ripe tomatoes, Chinese cabbage, seaweed, sardines, braised beef, mushrooms, and soy sauce. MSG is the sodium salt of glutamate, and when it’s added to food in small quantities, it enhances the umami flavor.

Now, you’re probably thinking, “but MSG is bad for me, isn’t it?” I also thought that until I learned more about it and umami. It turns out that MSG contains about 70% less sodium per teaspoon than table salt (640 mg vs 2,300 mg respectively). That’s pretty amazing, especially since we know that Americans need to watch their sodium intake. Using MSG in the cooking process can actually help lower dietary sodium intake. And, the amount of MSG you take in daily is trivial – it’s only up to 1/2 gram per day (as a reference, 1 teaspoon=4 grams).

At the luncheon, chef Danny Boome (of Rescue Chef on the Food Network) served three umami-rich courses, including:

  • Grilled Orange Polenta topped with Crabmeat Salad and Herb Oil — the polenta and crab are both umami
  • Coq Au Vin — bacon, mushrooms, and chicken stock give this dish it’s umami taste
  • Green Tea Ginger Sorbet with Pumpkin Green Tea Cheesecake — green tea and cheese are both evoke the umami taste

umami green tea cheese umami

Since I don’t eat shellfish or pork, I didn’t get to fully experience this meal (I received vegetarian substitutions that had some umami elements), but what I did enjoy was delicious and definitely opened my eyes to new ways to enhance the umami taste in my cooking.

Do you experience umami in the food you eat?

Note: I was not paid or asked to write about umami or MSG. All opinions are my own.

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  1. I thought when your watching your sodium intake you have to minimize the use of tanle salt and MSG. Right now i’m helping in the standarized recipes already established at work and they’re using chicken base reduced in sodiun and no sodium.. For our patients with a restricted diet m

  2. Hello! I found this very interesting yesterday… What i was trying to explain was the following. I thouhgt when we’re working with patients with sodium restriction you have to watch out exclusively to table salt and MSG… Maybe i was wrong about or confused?? The thing is that right now i have an on going work project assigned at my organization to revise measures and organized all the already established standarized recipes. Currently they’re using chicken or beef base with reduced sodium and no MSG as a way to try enhance flavors to our meals and among others herbs and even salt… I’m asking to myself is this a good practice considering our populations has comorbidities as CHF, HBP, CkD and more. I hope you ubderstand me…

    Natalia Rivera-Lausell, nutritionist
    Puerto Rico (Caribbean Ocean)

    1. Hi Natalia, I’m not sure if I understand what you’re saying 100%, but it is definitely important to reduce sodium intake in people with CHF, HBP, CkD, etc. Switching to low sodium or no sodium varieties of foods is a good idea and using herbs in place to add flavor is important. As I mentioned in my post, MSG has much less sodium per teaspoon than salt has, but both should be watched for people with medical issues.

  3. Hi, my question is: Is the chemical type of msg a “biodegradable”? Or does it stay in our body until it collects a fair bit of it somewhere in our organs and then something like cancer might feed on it..?

    Thanks Daniela

    1. Hi Daniela! Thanks for your question and reading my post. I checked in with John Fernstrom, PhD who researches neurotransmitter synthesis and function at the University of Pittsburgh and was one of the speakers at the luncheon I attended. He explained that the body makes almost all of the glutamate it needs itself (by synthesizing it from other molecules). It is then used as a constituent of cellular proteins, an important neurotransmitter in the brain, an energy precursor for all cells, and a precursor for important cellular antioxidants (glutathione), to name but a few of its fates.

      When you eat glutamate or MSG in food, essentially none of what you eat sticks around for very long. It is metabolized almost immediately to other molecules that are useful for normal body function. In this sense, it is imminently and immediately “biodegradable.”

      Hope that helps answer your question!