Food marketing is a hell of a thing, isn’t it?
The way it can subconsciously force us to hold beliefs about foods we’ve never even tried or don’t even know what they are.
This is why you’re afraid of MSG. And you don’t even know why.
Seriously, whenever people express shock that I cook with MSG, it usually comes in tandem with a statement akin to “but it’s so bad for you!” To which I always respond with the trick question “but do you know why?”
Without fail, they always flounder and stammer, mumbling something about headaches or whatnot. But the truth is, the public doesn’t really know why they hate MSG. And even if they can name one or two reasons why they think it’s bad, they have no clue where that message even comes from.
Well today, I’m going to tell you with no shame that not only do I use MSG in all of my cooking as a seasoning that can elevate literally any savory dish, but the health and culinary benefits you’ve been missing out on.
I’m also going to tell you exactly why you avoid this ingredient you recognize so vaguely and why you should avoid it no longer.
What is MSG?
Recently, I was quoted in an article with the Food Network describing why I love seasoning my food with MSG which, despite its mystic name, actually occurs naturally in many foods such as cheese and tomatoes.
MSG stands for monosodium glutamate and was discovered in Japan in the early 1900s by a chemist who wanted to duplicate the flavor of seaweed for soups.
We’re all aware of the four basic taste receptors on our tongue from health class: salty, sweet, bitter and sour. However, there’s also a fifth taste that’s becoming more and more known called “umami“ which can be best described as savory or many would say “a deep beef flavor.”
If you’ve ever had truffle, miso soup or a super-rich tomato sauce, you’ve tasted umami. And, because of where your umami receptors are on your tongue, it enhances the flavor of food to a game-changing degree.
I’m serious when I say I throw this stuff in nearly everything that I cook and it makes it instantly taste 10x better.
So why am I as a dietitian pushing this ingredient on you so hard? Because the fear surrounding this ingredient is causing you to miss out on the tastiest meal prep to ever dance upon your taste buds that’s why.
Why Are People Afraid of MSG?
In the 1960s, a doctor wrote a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine talking about the weakness, heart palpitations and headaches every time he ate Chinese food. He deduced that it had to be due to the fact that the food contained MSG.
The letter was published and studies were done to see if this guy was actually right and, after injecting mice with extremely high doses of MSG (amounts no human would ever actually eat) scientists found that these mice exhibited negative side effects.
Thus was born the fear of so-called “poisonous MSG.”
Next thing you know, Chinese restaurants around America started slapping “No MSG” signs in front of their establishments in anticipation of the growing fear people were inevitably going to cultivate around eating Chinese food. The cuisine had become associated with the stuff.
So the signs were everywhere. Thus, comes back to my opening point about food marketing.
When you see signs and labels that tend toward the negative like “zero sugar,” “low fat,” and “No MSG,” your mind forms a subconscious thought that if food companies are making an effort to tell you their food lacks an ingredient, it must be bad for you.
However, we know what sugar and fat are. MSG just sounds like a chemical, so people’s wariness of it isn’t hard to understand.
MSG Has Health Benefits? No Way.
You may be wondering why a dietitian is trying so hard to convert you to an MSG believer, just to make your food tastier.
Well, fact of the matter is, by using MSG, you can take advantage of its health benefits, too.
As a dietitian whose training began in medical nutrition therapy, I am super passionate about foods that can help people with conditions like diabetes and heart disease continue to eat the foods they love despite their condition.
For diabetes, one day-saver is things like diet soda. For heart disease, it’s MSG.
That’s because MSG can help you season your food with only a fraction of the sodium content of salt.
Now, if you’re athletic/active, you don’t really have to worry about your sodium intake. However, if you are someone who watches that sort of thing, using MSG instead of salt (or simply cutting the amount of salt you'd usually use with MSG) is not only tasty af from a culinary standpoint, but helps you control your sodium intake.
Pretty cool, right?
How Can I Start Using MSG?
I thought you’d never ask.
I have a shaker that has a half-and-half combination of both salt and MSG that I add to a variety of meals I make. But if there’s one that you have to try, it’s adding MSG and salt to your scrambled eggs. A chef introduced me to this idea and I swear you’ll never experience eggs the same way again once you try it.
Other than that, you can add MSG to pretty any meal you would normally add salt to be it chili, pasta, soup, roasted veggies, you name it.
Try it out and then throw me at DM @theathletesdietitian on Insta to declare your inevitable wonder.
The Bottom Line?
For the bottom line this time, I want to consult my friend and colleague Cara Harbstreet, MS, RD, LD of Street Smart Nutrition who has some things to add about the harm around MSG fear.
“I’m more than ready for MSG to be embraced for what it is - just another safe, flavor-building ingredient that can be used to add flavor. MSG is, unfortunately, an example of how one physician’s opinion can lead to decades of fear, confusion, and the alienation of certain cuisines from non-white cultures.” Which is an excellent point as MSG caused people not only to fear the ingredient, but Chinese food itself.
“I know many dietitians have been on board with MSG for a long time,” Cara says. And I’m one of those dietitians! “But even still, it’s difficult to help people overcome their conditioned beliefs they’ve heard and internalized for years. And naturally, as an Asian-American woman, I’m proud to be a part of any awareness campaign that can shed a positive light on Asian cuisines, cultures, and history that is not often mentioned or featured.”