Ask Keri: I’ve heard MSG is actually natural but also that it’s bad for the brain. Should I avoid it?
Keri Says: MSG is an ingredient that causes lots of people to freak out. The good news: It’s not nearly as scary as its reputation. Still, you might want to avoid it if you’re sensitive to its effects.
First, what is it? MSG stands for monosodium glutamate, and it’s a food additive used to add umami flavor. Glutamate is a non-essential amino acid (which means your body makes it on its own) that’s found in foods like meat, fish, and mushrooms, and sodium is what it sounds like: salt.
Originally, MSG was made by extracting glutamate from seaweed and combining it with salt, but today it’s produced by fermenting starch, sugar cane, and molasses.
MSG and Your Health
Rumblings about MSG started to occur decades ago when rumors spread that people were experiencing symptoms like headaches, muscle tightness, numbness, and weakness after eating American Chinese food. Scientists speculated that MSG in the food could be causing excessive glutamate build-up in the brain, thereby affecting nerve cells.
Some studies were published soon after that that showed harmful neurological effects in mice, but the results have since been called into question. First of all, researchers used excessive amounts when injecting the mice, and follow-up studies on humans have shown MSG generally cannot get into the brain.
Some research has shown that a subset of the population may be more sensitive to MSG and can experience symptoms like headaches, numbness, and drowsiness after eating it. However, it has typically been shown in people who consume three or more grams of MSG without food (in water), while a serving of food with MSG typically contains less than .5 grams.
The Bottom Line
In very small amounts, all signs point to MSG being basically harmless. However, if you do feel like you’re sensitive to it and don’t feel great when you eat foods that contain it, you should totally skip it.
Here’s the biggest takeaway: Where are you going to get MSG in your diet? In addition to it famously being in Chinese takeout, it’s commonly found in processed, packaged foods like potato chips, frozen dinners, and cold cuts, and in fast food meals like chicken nuggets. I don’t want you eating that crap for a million other reasons. So, if you’re eating a healthy, whole foods diet to begin with, you’re naturally going to be avoiding MSG in most cases.