Monosodium Glutamate, better known as MSG, is a widely used food additive that has received a bad reputation. Menus for Chinese restaurants proudly state "No MSG" on their covers, but not many people are clear on why this might be important, what the effects of MSG are and whether it is unsafe.
What Is MSG?
MSG has been used for decades to enhance the flavor of food. The FDA generally recognizes MSG as safe. Besides in Chinese food, you'll find MSG in packaged meats, food mixes and prepared foods. It is the main ingredient in Accent flavor enhancer.
Due to concern about MSG and its effects, the FDA commissioned an independent study in 1995. The researchers found no evidence of long-term side effects from normally consumed amounts of MSG. At that point, the FDA reaffirmed the safety of MSG.
MSG Symptom Complex
The FDA study did confirm a group of short-term side effects, known as MSG Symptom Complex. These reactions do not occur in everyone nor do all people experience the same side effects.
Side effects are temporary and do not require treatment. The most common side effect of MSG is a headache, but some people experience facial pressure or tightness, sweating, flushing, chest pain, nausea, heart palpitations, drowsiness, numbness or tingling, shortness of breath in asthmatics or burning sensations in the back of the neck, forearms and chest.
Avoiding MSG is the only way to prevent these symptoms. The FDA has made it easier to steer clear of products that contain MSG by requiring that any food products containing MSG must list it on their ingredients labels and that restaurants must disclose MSG use on its menus. So far, no studies have been published that refute the FDA's safety rating for MSG.