What is MSG?

Learn about MSG (monosodium glutamate), a widely used savory flavor-enhancing ingredient. What it is, the stigmas around it, and how to use it in cooking and food products.

bowl of ramen noodles with slices of chicken
Table of Contents
  1. What exactly is it?
  2. Found naturally in foods
  3. What’s it used in?
  4. Why does it have such a bad rap?
  5. Is it safe to eat?
  6. What’s the difference between umami and MSG?
  7. Using it in cooking

Boil a pot of water, rip open a bag of noodles, and sprinkle in the seasoning packet. A piping hot bowl of ramen bursts within minutes with rich, brothy flavor thanks to one ingredient. We may have all encountered MSG (monosodium glutamate) at some point, which is a type of salt. Either by nibbling on some crunchy snacks, a quick fast-food lunch, or in a box of take-out. 

MSG is similar to table salt (sodium chloride) to enhance the taste of low sodium foods, but a little goes a long way. It’s gotten a bad rap over the years with its association with causing possible health issues. However, let’s dig a little deeper to learn more about its uses, safety for consumption, and if it’s the same as umami. This way, you can make a more informed choice, especially as you read those ingredient statements, and consider having it in your pantry. 

close up photo of MSG granules

What exactly is it?

MSG is a food additive to elevate the savory taste of foods. Its chemical name is monosodium glutamate, and it’s classified as a flavor enhancer by the USDA Federal regulation. Because of this, it must be labeled on food products in the ingredients statement and related hydrolyzed proteins, so it’s easy to spot. 

MSG is a sodium salt of L-glutamic acid, an essential amino acid that the body needs for building protein. In pure form, it’s a chemical that companies artificially produce in a factory. It is white and translucent in appearance and can come in a granule or powder form. You can buy bags or small jars of it to season food.

Found naturally in foods

You may be surprised to learn that MSG naturally occurs in most foods since it’s part of glutamic acid that forms proteins. The highest levels are found in protein-rich foods like eggs, cheese, fish, kombu, chicken, red meat, and even tomatoes. I often use these glutamate-rich ingredients to naturally bump up the savory flavors in dishes like mushroom soup without adding the purified MSG.  

What’s it used in?

MSG is used as an inexpensive flavor enhancer, packing a big punch in small amounts. It can replace sodium chloride to create a more refined umami taste. You may find it at fast-food restaurants in their chicken items, and some Chinese restaurants use it in stir-fries, but it tends to be less common with the historical controversy. 

Many snacks like chips and crackers add it for a more pungent savory taste. It helps frozen foods be more palatable. It’s also used in commercial seasoning blends for sauces, tacos mixes, soups, condiments, instant noodles, and processed meats like hot dogs and sausages. The key here is to check the restaurant information, if available, and food labels.

chicken ramen seasoned with msg

Why does it have such a bad rap?

The negative connotation of MSG stemmed from a letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1968. It came from a doctor who blamed pain and heart palpitations on MSG-rich Chinese food. That led to “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” an entirely made-up disease that’s still prevalent today.

Is it safe to eat?

The eternal question. MSG is on the Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) list, approved upon evaluation from the FDA. MSG is safe to eat, according to the Federation of America Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB’s). 

The group identified some short-term, transient, and generally mild symptoms, such as headaches, numbness, flushing, tingling, palpitations, and drowsiness that may occur in some sensitive individuals. However, that was from consuming 3 grams or more of MSG without food. This is quite a lot, considering standard portion sizes. For those sensitive to MSG, it’s best to read labels and avoid those products.

What’s the difference between umami and MSG?

Umami is the taste profile, whereas MSG is what creates the umami experience. They are not the same component. You can naturally experience umami from certain vegetables, meats, sauces, and seafood. MSG is the purified processed form of glutamate to enhance the umami flavor. 

MSG is the 1st molecule to be reported that has an umami taste. Glutamate is, of course, the building block towards MSG, but glutamate has several molecules, and only the left-turning molecule, L-glutamate, fits into the glutamate receptor, being the only used as a taste enhancer. The commercially produced MSG is highly pure, comprising more than 99.5 percent of the L-glutamate in food with umami.

Using it in cooking

  • It gives more of a savory flavor dimension like brothy notes, not just salty. 
  • Food brands sell it in seasoning bottles, just like other spices and herbs. They look like white crystal granules, similar to kosher salt. 
  • It enhances the tastes of other glutamate-containing ingredients like meat, tomatoes, mushrooms, and cheese. 
  • Add small amounts at a time, just like you would other seasonings during or at the end of cooking in stews, soups, sauces, stocks, or stir-fries. 
  • The general guideline is about half a teaspoon of MSG per pound of meat or four to six servings of vegetables should be sufficient. 
  • MSG can only flavor so much. Once it hits its threshold on the food, it will taste the same. You’re just adding more salt to the dish.
  • The ideal serving size of MSG should be less than 0.5g in food.

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Jessica Gavin

I'm a culinary school graduate, cookbook author, and a mom who loves croissants! My passion is creating recipes and sharing the science behind cooking to help you gain confidence in the kitchen.

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