Savory but bad for you: Flavor enhancer MSG is often used in fast food and processed food
09/23/2021 / By Joanne Washburn / Comments
Savory but bad for you: Flavor enhancer MSG is often used in fast food and processed food

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is widely used as a flavor enhancer and is typically added to Chinese food, canned soups, processed meats and fast food. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies MSG as a food ingredient that is “generally recognized as safe.” Despite this, the use of MSG remains controversial.

MSG has been widely used in Chinese, Japanese and Thai cuisines since its discovery in the early 19th century. However, MSG rose to notoriety when a physician wrote to the New England Journal of Medicine about the possible causes of a syndrome he experienced whenever he ate at Chinese restaurants in the United States.

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In particular, the physician described feeling numbness at the back of his neck, which would later spread to his arms and back. He also described general weakness and heart palpitations. Over the years, the FDA has received many anecdotal reports of similar symptoms in people who ate foods that had MSG.

Experts looking into the link between MSG and these symptoms — which would later be called the MSG symptom complex — initially reported that there was no relationship between the two. However, they did acknowledge that people can have acute reactions to MSG. As such, when MSG is added to foods, the FDA requires manufacturers to list the ingredient on their labels.

As it stands, the only way to prevent a reaction to MSG is to avoid foods containing it. Unfortunately, that is easier said than done due to how prevalent the use of MSG is in the food industry.

A prevalent and potentially dangerous ingredient

MSG is typically associated with Chinese cuisine, but that’s no longer the case. The infamous flavor enhancer is also used in canned and processed foods. MSG remains a popular ingredient among home cooks because of its ability to amplify “umami,” a category of taste that corresponds to the flavor of glutamate.

Glutamate is an amino acid that your body naturally produces. It also occurs naturally in several foods. MSG is the sodium salt of glutamic acid. It’s made from fermented starch or sugar.

Umami, on the other hand, is typically described as a taste that spreads across the tongue, coating it. “Umami” itself is a Japanese loanword, which can be roughly translated as a “pleasant, savory taste.”

Studies show that humans have taste receptors for umami. These receptors bind with glutamate in foods and allow your brain to process the flavor as umami.

MSG works by making food taste good with less salt and fat. This is mostly why MSG is widely used in fast food. In fact, reports show that MSG is a key ingredient in a pair of chicken sandwiches being test-marketed by McDonald’s in 230 restaurants in Texas and Tennessee.

Other fast food chains, like Popeyes and Chick-fil-A, are also known to use MSG in their chicken sandwiches.

Because there seems to be no other purpose for MSG aside from flavoring, some experts advise limiting the use of MSG in foods or swapping it for natural and healthier alternatives. Sure enough, chefs are opting for whole-food sources of umami, such as kelp, seaweeds and mushrooms, to create umami rather than turn to MSG.

Substitutes for MSG

Since MSG is primarily used to increase the savory flavor of foods, you can swap it for other ingredients that do the same but without the health risks associated with MSG.

Here are some healthy substitutes for MSG:

  • Salt – Salt is a universal flavor enhancer. At low amounts, it will reduce bitterness but amplify sweet and umami flavors. At high amounts, salt will suppress sweetness and amplify savory flavors. For best results, use kosher or sea salt. Don’t use more than one teaspoon of salt daily to avoid the negative health effects of excess salt intake.
  • Dulse – Dulse is an edible red seaweed that grows wild in the cold waters of the Northwest Pacific Ocean and the North Atlantic Ocean. It naturally tastes salty, which is why it makes a great substitute for MSG in savory recipes. Dulse is usually sold dried in Asian groceries and needs to be rehydrated before use.
  • Beef stock – Pure, homemade beef stock is incredibly savory and makes a great MSG alternative.
  • Parmesan cheese – Parmesan, a hard cheese made from skimmed or partially skimmed cow’s milk, helps make your dishes extra savory.
  • Shiitake mushrooms – Shiitake mushrooms add a strong, savory flavor to dishes. To intensify this flavor, let the shiitake mushrooms caramelize in a pan before continuing the cooking process.
  • Yeast extract – Yeast extract is often used to make beer and bread. It has a mild, savory flavor.
  • Soy sauce – Soy sauce is an umami-rich sauce that can be added to virtually any dish, especially stir-fries, casseroles and soups. Just make sure to get the low-sodium variety. Alternatively, you can use low-sodium oyster sauce or fish sauce.
  • Anchovy – Anchovies are small, common saltwater fish that you can use as a substitute for MSG. If you don’t like fishy flavors, don’t fret. The fishy taste of anchovies is barely detectable once they’re cooked.

MSG is a widely used flavor enhancer known to cause adverse effects, such as headaches, palpitations and numbness, in some people. To avoid these adverse effects, ditch MSG and switch to healthy alternatives, such as salt, seaweeds, mushrooms and anchovies, to name a few.

Sources:

Healthline.com

BBC.com

Academic.OUP.com

CuisineVault.com

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