Monosodium glutamate or MSG
Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is used to bring out the flavour in food. MSG is safe for most people, though may cause temporary allergy-type reactions in some. Learn more about MSG, how it's used and how to avoid it if you're sensitive.
MSG is a fine white powder that looks like salt or sugar. It has no flavour, but stimulates the taste buds and brings out savoury flavours. It's sometimes added to Asian foods, canned vegetables, soups, sauces and processed meats.
The main component of MSG is an amino acid called glutamic acid, or glutamate. This is found naturally in foods that contain protein, like meat, poultry and milk. It's also found in tomatoes and mushrooms. Many other foods form glutamate when they're broken down in your body during digestion.
Health concerns about MSG
The use of MSG became controversial in the 1960s after some people claimed they reacted to foods that contained it – especially food from Chinese restaurants. They linked it to symptoms including severe headaches, flushed or burning feelings around the neck and chest, nausea, rapid heartbeat, and difficulty breathing.
The most recent expert review of MSG was published in 1995 by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB). It concluded that MSG is generally safe, but may produce short-term reactions in some people.
Sensitivity to MSG
Researchers don't know how many people may react to MSG, though people with severe or poorly controlled asthma may be very susceptible.
Foods labels must list MSG
MSG is approved for use in processed foods under the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code. All additives, including MSG, must be listed on the product label by function and name or international code number. For example, MSG may be listed as 'flavour enhancer (621)'.
MSG may also be added to food cooked in restaurants. If you're concerned, ask if the restaurant uses MSG or other ingredients that contain it.
MSG is one of several flavour enhancers made from glutamate and other amino acids. These are often used instead of salt. These must also be identified on ingredient labels, and include:
- monopotassium glutamate (622)
- calcium glutamate (623)
- monoammonium glutamate (624)
- magnesium glutamate (625).
It's not known if any of these cause reactions.