Who hasn't heard of the so-called "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome," complete with symptoms such as headaches, flushing, sweating, heart palpitations and more?
Since the 1960s this collection of ailments has been ascribed to the consumption of monosodium glutamate, or MSG, which is often found in Chinese foods, as well as in Japanese and Korean cuisines as a flavor enhancer.
MSG is composed of the naturally-occurring amino acid glutamate, with one atom of sodium attached to each molecule of glutamate. Glutamate is found in many foods, such as cheese, tomatoes, potatoes, mushrooms and many other fruits and vegetables. When added to foods it enhances the savory, meaty flavor of foods a taste known as umami.
It was first identified and isolated as a food additive in the early 20th century by a Japanese scientist. MSG also occurs naturally as a component of other ingredients such as hydrolyzed vegetable protein, autolyzed yeast and hydrolyzed yeast, yeast extract, soy extracts, and protein isolates.
Although the supposed connection between large amounts of MSG and headaches and other discomforts is widely believed, controlled studies of the compound have not been able to establish a causal connection for normally consumed amounts. Indeed, the FDA has listed MSG as a GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) food additive.
If a food contains added MSG, the FDA requires that it be included in the list of ingredients of that food. Any food that contains the naturally occurring forms of MSG cannot claim that they are "MSG-free."
"MSG has gotten an undeserved bad reputation," commented ACSH senior nutrition fellow Dr. Ruth Kava. "While it is always possible that an individual can have an unusual reaction to a food ingredient, for the great majority of consumers eating foods with small amounts of MSG should pose no problem."