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What is MSG and Why is it Not Bad for Me?

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At some point, you were probably scared out of eating any food that contains MSG. To this day, it is one of the most infamous boogeymen of the culinary world. But what even is MSG?

MSG stands for monosodium glutamate, a combination of sodium (salt) and glutamate (an amino acid). It occurs in nature and we use it as a flavor enhancer in food. For years, scientists have known that MSG is safe, but thanks to anecdotes and the confusion between correlations and causations, the general public has deemed MSG to be dangerous and bad for your health. Let’s take a look at the root of these worries, and learn a little more about the seasoning.

The Beginning of Rumors

This all started in 1968 when someone wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine of weakness, palpitations, and numbness after eating Chinese food. He noted that he also consumed alcohol, cooking wine, and table salt, in addition to MSG. Unfortunately, the public focused on the MSG, as it was the most exotic of the ingredients listed. The letter coined a term we still use today to describe sleepiness after eating MSG-laden foods: “Chinese Food Syndrome.”

Correlation Doesn’t Equal Causation

The first study injected baby mice with high levels of MSG. The results showed that the mice became obese. But the conclusions are hardly ironclad. After all, humans aren’t baby mice, and we don’t consume MSG by injecting it into our bellies.

The methodology of this particular study didn’t match up with reality. Nevertheless, the public devoured the study’s findings, and to this day, health gurus deride the effects of MSG, and warn people about eating it, lest they should face a host of health problems.

Look Deeper

Much of the drama around MSG comes from biased analysis of ingredients. We know that foods containing high levels of fats or sugar cause obesity. But many are eager to look at foods containing fats, sugar, and MSG, and point only to that final ingredient as the source of their weight gain. But it just doesn’t add up. MSG is is a blend of table salt and amino acids (the building blocks of protein). In no way does table salt and amino acids contribute more to obesity than fats and sugars. Ultimately, people might just be blaming the wrong factor for their woes.

Why Try MSG?

Eventually, double-blind, controlled studies showed that most people have no reaction to MSG. And if they do, the effects are short-lived. A quick look at the scientific research showed no correlation between MSG and headaches, heart palpitations or weight gain. And yet, to this day some companies sell products that brag “No MSG” on their labels. 

Another thought

Given the science, if you’re looking to reduce the amount of table salt in your food, you might consider giving MSG a try. Many products use MSG to enhance their foods and you might find that you like the taste. Furthermore, MSG will allow you to experience more flavor while only using about a third of the salt that you normally would.

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