What Is MSG?

Buying, Cooking, and Recipes

Asian noodles and dumplings in bowls with chopsticks along with tea and teapot

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MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is a flavor-enhancing food additive used in Asian cooking, fast foods, and commercially packaged food products. It is a white powder derived from a natural glutamic acid found in seaweed, sugar beets, and certain vegetables. Some people find that consuming MSG in food can trigger side effects and symptoms, including headaches, nausea, and more.

Fast Facts

  • Also Known As: Monosodium glutamate
  • Shelf Life: A year or more
  • Taste: Umami
  • Found In: Spice aisle
  • Mainly Used In: Asian dishes

What Is MSG?

Over 100 years ago, MSG was invented by a Japanese chemist named Kikunae Ikeda when he discovered that seaweed had flavor-enhancing properties. And although glutamates occur naturally in everything from meat and milk to corn and wheat, MSG is strictly a food additive made by fermenting starch, sugar beets, sugar cane, or molasses.

MSG is derived from an amino acid called glutamic acid, which occurs naturally in mushrooms, aged Parmesan cheese, and fermented soybean products like soy sauce. Glutamic acid belongs to a broad category of compounds called glutamates, which are the source of the "fifth taste" called umami. In addition to its own distinctive taste, umami also has the property of enhancing other flavors by imparting depth and fullness to them.

The Food and Drug Administration does not require that MSG be included on food packaging ingredient lists, so note that not all packaged foods containing MSG will explicitly say so on the label. Ingredients like hydrolyzed protein, autolyzed yeast, and sodium caseinate contain MSG. People who have an allergy or sensitivity to MSG should be vigilant for these ingredients as well.

MSG Uses

MSG, a synthetic glutamate, does two things: First, it adds umami to food, meaning it contributes a savory, somewhat meaty taste. Second, monosodium glutamate enhances flavors, salty and sour in particular. Therefore, both home and restaurant cooks add it to dishes to contribute taste and intensify the flavors of the other ingredients.

In addition to Asian recipes like stir-fries, Latin American and Caribbean cuisines also incorporate MSG, particularly into spice rubs. The additive can be used in a variety of dishes, from meat to fish to egg, as well as in gravies and soups. MSG helps to balance out the sweet and sour while mellowing the natural bitterness found in certain vegetables. It is also a good way to cut down on the sodium in foods because less salt will need to be added.

MSG is included in many commercially packaged food products, such as flavored chips and crackers (especially cheese flavored), canned soups, instant noodles, soup and dip mix, seasoning salt, bouillon cubes, salad dressings, gravy mixes or premade gravies, and cold cuts and hot dogs, including soy-based (i.e., vegetarian) varieties. MSG is also present in many of the menu items at fast-food restaurants, particularly in chicken dishes.

How to Cook With MSG

To use MSG in recipes, the crystalline white powder is added before or during the cooking process, at the same time as salt and pepper or other seasonings. A dish that serves four to six people, or a pound of meat, needs 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of monosodium glutamate. However, when cooking, the amount of seasoning added to a dish should be to personal preference, so it is best to begin with a small amount of monosodium glutamate and increase as needed. Too much MSG will create an undesirable flavor and will not improve the taste of food that is poor in quality. When using both MSG and salt, begin with a smaller amount of salt than called for to see how both seasonings work together in the recipe.

What Does It Taste Like?

Glutamates such as MSG taste like umami, or more accurately, are umami (just as sugar is sweet and lemons are sour). Umami is described as "savory," "meaty," or "earthy." It has come to be recognized as the fifth taste, in addition to sweet, salty, sour, and bitter.

MSG Recipes

Monosodium glutamate can be added to almost any type of dish to kick up the flavor. It works especially well in recipes that include other foods with umami, such as mushrooms and tomatoes.

Where to Buy MSG

Monosodium glutamate can be found simply labeled as MSG or under the brand name Ac'cent in the supermarket's spice aisle. The brand Ajinomoto is sold at Asian grocery stores and online. MSG is packaged in canisters, pouches, and large sacks, and is also sold in bulk.

Storage

MSG should be kept in a tightly sealed container away from heat and light and stored in a cool, dry place. There, it should last for a year or more.

Side Effects

MSG is "generally recognized as safe" or GRAS by the FDA, but that doesn't mean it's safe for everyone. Some people have a sensitivity to it in large quantities, while others have a full allergy to it. Those who cannot consume glutamate should avoid MSG.

Although it's believed that most people do not have a reaction to MSG, some find that consuming MSG, especially in large quantities, can trigger various side effects and symptoms, including (but not limited to) headaches, nausea, dizziness, rapid or irregular heartbeat, flushing or excessive sweating, skin rash, numbness, intense thirst, lethargy or sleepiness, ringing ears, and tingling in the mouth.

Per the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, a large quantity is anything exceeding 3 grams (close to 2/3 teaspoon) of MSG. Considering the recommended amount for seasoning about five servings of fried rice or about a pound of meat is 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon, consuming a large quantity seems unlikely.