MSG copped a bad rap back in the day. Was that unfair?

As someone who has spent my life not worrying too much about the health effects of a meal, as long as it tastes nice, I’ve never really thought about what MSG is, and why many restaurants used to boast of being ‘MSG free’.

Clearly there must be an unhealthy element to it, but what made MSG one of the bad guys of food?

First, let’s break down what MSG actually is. The initialism is short for monosodium glutamate which, in simple terms is a flavour enhancer, just like salt and pepper.

The Australian government’s Food Standards website provides a little history of MSG which tells us pretty much all we need to know: “In 1908, a Japanese chemistry professor determined that MSG was responsible for the characteristic meaty or savoury taste of the broth of dried bonito and Japanese seaweed.

Since then, various salts of glutamic acid including MSG (all of which are also known as ‘glutamates’) have been commercially produced and deliberately added to food as a flavour enhancer.

Read: What is umami?

So if you like your broth to have a savoury, meaty taste, just add MSG! What could possibly go wrong?

The truthful answer to this, based on current research, is not much really. But if you’re over 50, the chances are you’ll remember people at restaurants during the 1980s and 1990s asking for “no MSG” or the restaurants themselves boasting MSG-free dishes.

And it turns out that the fear of MSG grew from a single letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1968, in which a doctor, Robert Ho Man Kwok, described feeling a numbness at the back of his neck which would spread to his arms and back after eating at Chinese restaurants in the US.

Strangely, he had never had this experience in the many Chinese restaurants in other continents at which he’d dined. Eventually, MSG was pinpointed as the cause of his numbness.

Read: Four nutrition myths you need to stop believing

The story was picked up by the New York Times, who gave its version of the story an unfortunate title which included the rather alarmist phrase, ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’. Despite the protestations of many restaurants, who correctly pointed out that very few other diners had complained of such symptoms, the myth of the ‘dangers’ of MSG grew.

To be clear, Dr Kwok’s symptoms were real, and MSG was indeed the likely cause. Some other diners also reported feeling flushed or suffering headaches after eating Chinese food.

But a series of misguided studies that arose from these reports then began painting MSG as a far darker ingredient, which could cause lesions and brain dysfunction. MSG’s fate as a health villain was sealed, at least for a decade or two.

Since then, more rigorous studies have been conducted, and the latest science tells us that MSG is a generally safe ingredient.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) has this to say about the flavouring: “MSG is considered safe and is an authorised food additive in the EU and Australia and New Zealand in line with good manufacturing practice.”

Read: Food safety’s gut-wrenching facts

Good manufacturing process means a food manufacturer can use a food additive only up to the limit that achieves its specific purpose.

Some diners may experience a reaction to MSG, says FSANZ: “A small number of people may experience a mild hypersensitivity-type reaction to large amounts of MSG when eaten in a single meal. Reactions vary from person to person but may include headaches, numbness/tingling, flushing, muscle tightness, and general weakness.”    

Now that science has trumped misinformation (a seemingly increasingly rare phenomenon these days), MSG doesn’t rate many mentions on restaurant menus. If you find yourself enjoying a meal all the more with a little bit of MSG added, you can continue to do so guilt free.

Have you been avoiding MSG because of the warnings you saw years ago? Will you consider including it now? Why not share your thoughts in the comments section below?

Andrew Gigacz
Andrew Gigacz
Andrew has developed knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income and government entitlements, as well as issues affecting older Australians moving into or living in retirement. He's an accomplished writer with a passion for health and human stories.


  1. I was using MSG in some of my home cooked meals in the ’70s, I found it made a more flavoursome meal hence the enhancement. I did stop using it after reading the so called dangers of it & haven’t touched it since, also it went missing off supermarket shelves so I wouldn’t know where to even buy it now, maybe an asian supermarket?
    Now, after reading this article about how it is not as dangerous as first thought, I would love to try it again because it really does work, but in moderation I think is the key. As we know salt, sugar etc. are ok in moderation otherwise they are going to play havoc with one’s health with buildup of side effects. So I would like some more access to MSG in supermarkets, let’s face it you don’t have to buy it.

  2. “…Robert Ho Man Kwok, described feeling a numbness at the back of his neck which would spread to his arms and back after eating at Chinese restaurants in the US….”
    I used to get the same feeling if I ever had a 2nd drink of alcohol! One glass of wine was fine!
    So in all my 73 years, I have never had more than one drink in any day after discovering that!
    “…Is MSG made from soybeans?
    At first it was produced through the hydrolysis of gluten to extract wheat protein. Then in the 1930s there was a shift to extracting MSG from soy beans. In the 1960s production moved to the bacterial fermentation of sugar cane and similar crops in a process much like the way cheese, yoghurt and wine are produced…”
    During the anti-MSG era, I heard MSG was simply soybean extract, so never worried about it.
    My mother used to say it made her thirsty, so she drank extra water while eating it.

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