MSG – Is it just a flavor enhancer?

MSG – Is it just a flavor enhancer?




MSG – Is it just a flavor enhancer?

Monosodium glutamate is the sodium salt extracted from glutamic acid. Glutamic acid is a naturally occurring amino acid found in animals, many foods and food additives (Food and Drug Administration [FDA], 2012). Professor Kikunae Ikeda from Japan discovered MSG in 1909. Events leading up to Professor Ikeda’s discovery of MSG began when he found out that his wife was using seaweed called Ikombu to produce the essence of dashi, a stocky broth in the soup she made for supper. Ikeda noted that the taste found in this soup was similar to that from asparagus, tomatoes and cheese in that it did not fall in one of the categories of taste that are mapped out on the tongue. Ikeda called this unknown taste ‘Umami’ and began work on isolating it. In 1909, Ikeda revealed the chemical that he had isolated (C5H9NO4) stating that it had the properties of glutamic acid. Breaking this acid down would produce glutamate. Ikeda stabilized the chemical with salt and water to create MSG (Ikeda, 2002).

MSG and glutamate are very similar. There is no chemical difference between the MSG increased through additives and glutamates found naturally in foods. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (2012) estimates that the average adult consumes thirteen grams of glutamate daily from normal proteins and only 0.55 grams daily of added MSG. MSG is completely soluble in water and is hygroscopic. The compound is only partially soluble in organic solvents like alcohol. MSG is a stable compound (Newirth, n.d). Amino acids are usually produced through three processes fermentation, extraction from natural sources and chemical synthesis. MSG in particular is produced by fermenting sugar cane, starch or molasses in a process similar to that used to manufacture wine and yogurt (Ault, 2004).

When Ikeda discovered MSG, he was looking to isolate a certain taste he had found in his wife’s broth. This special taste is what Professor Ikeda called Umami (deliciousness). The taste is different from the five basic sensations that we experience in out tongues. These sensations are sweet (sugar), sour (lemons), salt, bitter (coffee) and pungent (mustard). Experts describe the taste as meaty. MSG flavor enhancing qualities are also felt in fish, meats and vegetables where its addition makes substances containing disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate produce a strong umami (Ault, 2004).

Some of the hidden sources of MSG are the foods that people consume on a daily basis. MSG occurs naturally in proteins and in some ingredients used to manufacture food such as autolyzed yeast, soy extracts and protein isolate. Tomatoes and cheese also contain the compound (FDA, 2012). FDA (2012) states that MSG is completely safe to use in foods. However, some sensitive people experience mild symptoms like headaches, numbness and drowsiness after consuming MSG. This only occurs if they consume more than three grams of the compound and since a serving of food normally has less than 0.5 grams, there is no cause for concern (FDA, 2012). In the past, some scientists have carried out studies that have suggested that MSG caused serious health issues in its consumers. Dr. Ho Man Kwok released the first of these reports in 1968. His paper stated that whenever he ate at certain Chinese restaurants, he would experience a certain syndrome that featured numbness at the back of his neck that would eventually spread through his arms and legs (Renton, 2005).

Many researchers, scientists and bodies in America later disproved most of the studies. Researchers are yet to document the syndrome that Dr. Kwok described and there is still no convincing explanation as to why the symptoms occur. However, some scientists believe that the causes may lie in other ingredients of the meals (Renton, 2005). The FDA (2012) states that it is yet to isolate MSG as the cause of some of the symptoms reported in the studies. The reports prompted the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) to investigate the safety of the compound. The body found that MSG is safe for consumption.



Ault, A. (2004, March). The monosodium glutamate story: The commercial production of MSG and other amino acids. Journal of Chemical Education, 81(3), 347-355.

I chose this source because it is a scholarly journal meaning that the work was reviewed and can be considered credible. Additionally, the author works at the department of Chemistry at Cornell University, which suggests he is an expert in the field.

Food and Drug Administration. (2012, November 19). Questions and answers on monosodium glutamate. Retrieved on 9 October 2013 from

The FDA is the body in-charge of making sure that foods and drugs sold in the United States are safe for consumption. The body carries out extensive research with substances put out in the market and it has done so with MSG.

Ikeda, K. (2002). New seasonings. Chemical Senses, 27, 847-849.

I picked this journal article because it is a translation and reprint of the work published in 1909 by Professor Ikeda to announce his discovery of MSG and glutamic acid. This makes this article one of the most accurate on issues concerning MSG.

Newirth, T. (n.d.) Properties of Water. Retrieved on 9 October 2013 from

This source features an experiment that Newirth carried out to discover some of the properties of water. However, MSG was used as part of the experiment and through this study, the chemical properties of the salt were inadvertently revealed. Additionally, the source is credible because the researcher is a lecturer at Haverford College, suggesting that he is an expert in the field.

Renton, A. (2005, July 10). If MSG is so bad for you, why doesn’t everyone in Asia have a headache? The Guardian. Retrieved on 9 October 2013 from

This article features research into the background, use and dangers of MSG. The credibility of the article comes from the fact that the research was extensive and that it covers different views and perspectives on MSG.

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