After-Dinner Headache? MSG Is Probably Not To Blame.

After-Dinner Headache? MSG Is Probably Not To Blame.

You've probably seen Chinese restaurants touting their food's MSG-free status. You may have even noticed strange symptoms after eating food you suspected had MSG. What is this strange ingredient, and why is it so vilified?

At the turn of the 20th century, a Japanese man named Kikunae Ikeda noticed something interesting about the dashi broth his wife used in her cooking. There was something to it that was unlike the four basic tastes we knew about. Luckily, Ikeda was a chemistry professor at the University of Tokyo, so he quickly got to work studying and isolating this mysterious flavor from the kombu seaweed that formed the basis of the broth. What he created was the molecule C5H9NO4, or glutamic acid—the compound responsible for the new flavor he coined umami, from the Japanese umai, or "delicious". By adding salt, he was able to turn the molecule into a more stable, granular substance that could be sprinkled on food, and monosodium glutamate (MSG) was born.

A few decades later in 1968, Dr. Ho Man Kwok wrote into the New England Journal of Medicine complaining about a feeling of numbness, weakness, and heart palpitations that he experienced whenever he ate at Chinese restaurants—a cluster of symptoms that came to be known as "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome." He suggested that MSG was to blame. His claim spread quickly, triggering scientific studies, anti-MSG books, and plenty of "no MSG" signs in the windows of Chinese restaurants. So what of the scientific studies? In 1993, a study of 71 subjects found that so-called MSG symptoms happened at the same rate regardless of whether a person was actually consuming MSG or only thought they were. A more complex study in 2000 of 130 subjects found that people given large doses of MSG without food experienced some symptoms, but they didn't happen every time and tended to disappear when the MSG was in food. All in all, there's little evidence to suggest that MSG is harmful, and not much reason to avoid it the next time you order Chinese. Learn more about MSG in the videos below.

What Is MSG?

The rise and fall of a delicious flavor molecule.

06:29

Why MSG Isn't Really That Bad

It literally adds deliciousness.

Why MSG Gets A Bad Rap

Some say it causes cancer.

03:01

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Key Facts In This Video

  • 1

    MSG stands for monosodium glutamate. (0:26)

  • 2

    When consumed in large quantities on an empty stomach MSG can have some effects on a select few, but is fine when eating regularly. (1:50)

  • 3

    Even if MSG-free, adding soy sauce adds MSG. (2:11)

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