On paper, MSG (monosodium glutamate) seems like some kind of miracle spice: Adding just a dash can make any dish delicious. It’s easy mode for amateur chefs, a cheap ticket to Flavortown.
It's also one of the most maligned ingredients on Earth. Everyone knows that stuff is bad for you, right?
Not so, says the FDA, which labels MSG “generally recognized as safe.” Nevertheless, because there’s a huge stigma surrounding it, the agency mandates that products containing MSG must be clearly labeled. That seems contradictory, but it's where a decades-long controversy has led us.
The kefuffle began back in 1968, after a scientist wrote to the New England Journal of Medicine about symptoms he experienced after eating Chinese food. He coined the term “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” signs of which included “a numbness at the back of the neck that radiates to the arms and back," and "general weakness and palpitation."
But in the nearly half-century since, no study has been able to consistently trigger the symptoms of CRS with MSG. The American Chemical Society points out that studies found that some people felt discomfort when consuming MSG on an empty stomach, but that is not generally how people eat the stuff.
Perhaps most tellingly, the symptoms associated with CRS also accurately describe common reactions to eating too much salt. And given how much sodium is in that pork fried rice with crab rangoon and chicken teriyaki meal (Combo #2 at my local Chinese place), it’s unsurprising that some diners end up feeling sick.
The Mayo Clinic agrees that there is no definitive link between MSG and symptoms of CRS, but acknowledges that a small percentage of the population does have negative reactions to it. And a professor at American University confirms that some people can be sensitive to the stuff and should avoid it.
The takeaway is this: MSG is safe for the vast majority of people, but like most things, excessive consumption will make you sick. And similar to gluten and other allergens, a small number of people are really sensitive to it—labeling it makes sense.
MSG hasn’t been shown to be toxic, carcinogenic, or radioactive. You probably won’t get sick and definitely won't get superpowers from eating it. It’s nothing more than an ingredient that makes food taste good. So go ahead, treat yourself to a little General Tso's.