There it was, this ominous headline on the website of the sometimes wacky, sometimes wise Dr. Mercola:
"Is this silent killer lurking in your kitchen cabinets?"
Is Mercola suggesting that Dr. Hannibal Lecter is hiding behind the can of Swiss Miss Instant Cocoa and ready to pounce on you and scoop out some of your brain with a sharp spoon as soon as you open the cupboard?
Nah, because it turns out that the Doc (Mercola, not Lecter) was talking about MSG, or monosodium glutamate. He writes that the food-flavoring substance is an "excitotoxin," which means it can overexcite your cells, and not in a good way like a new episode of "Dance Moms."
No, this excitotoxin can supposedly stimulate your cells to the point of damage or death, and if you're lucky to survive it, you may walk away with just eye damage, headaches, fatigue and disorientation, depression, rapid heartbeat, or obesity.
Dear Lord, if this is true, we should warn everyone in Japan where so many native foods contain MSG in the form of soy sauce or dashi (a ubiquitous soup stock). And kiss Brazil goodbye, because there's a shaker of MSG on nearly every table in the country.
We in the U.S. are probably sunk, too, because, as nutritionist Thalia Prum points out, MSG is found naturally in food like meat, fish, poultry, hard cheeses, tomatoes, and mushrooms.
Oh yeah, it's also found in breast milk. You never knew your mom was a death peddler, did you? Man, you think you know a person and boom!, they offer you a poisoned boob.
The truth is that MSG isn't a poison at all like so many people believe, and neither is there any evidence that the supposedly MSG-related "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome" exists.
What the Hell is MSG Anyway?
Monosodium glutamate is a sodium salt of the amino acid glutamic acid. And no, it's not related to gluten, even though it kinda' sounds the same. The chemical is made from the fermentation of sugar beets, sugar cane, or molasses, and the end product (glutamate) is chemically identical to the glutamate found in food proteins.
MSG is highly prized in many part of the world because it gives broths and meats and extra hit of "umami," or savoriness, which is one of the five basic tastes (together with sweetness, sourness, bitterness, and saltiness).
As mentioned, MSG is contained naturally in a whole host of foods and there's no scientific evidence that it causes any of the symptoms associated with Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, let alone fatal cell excitability. In fact, the opposite appears to be true – MSG is good for you.
A Gut-Pleasing Spice
There are, of course, glutamate receptors on the tongue that register that telltale savory or meaty flavor in the brain. But there are also glutamate receptors in the stomach and when they're activated by the presence of glutamate, they stimulate gut motility and improve enzyme secretions.
That equates to increased nutrient absorption. MSG also improves immune function and, perhaps most importantly, it has the highest correlation with appetite and meal satisfaction of any spice. Put in more palatable terms, MSG does more than salt to make a burger or steak taste better.
So rather than shun MSG at a Chinese restaurant, you may actually want to ask for an extra shake or two, and Hannibal Lecter might also want to give that spoonful of brain a little extra umami.
Related: The Ridiculous Truth About Salt
Related: The 10 Dumbest Diet Myths
- Prum, Thalia, "Applications of MSG: From Unsavoury to Flavoury," Pie Hole Blogger, July 3, 2013.
- Williams AN1, Woessner KM, "Monosodium glutamate 'allergy': menace or myth?" Clin Exp Allergy. 2009 May;39(5):640-6.