Hundreds of ingredients are added to foods during processing to enhance the flavor of the final product.
Monosodium glutamate, commonly known as MSG, is one of the most controversial food additives approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
While it’s “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) to be used in the food supply by regulatory agencies, some research suggests that it may negatively affect health (
This article explains what MSG is, what foods it’s typically added to, and what the research says about possible health implications.
Aside from being used as a food additive, MSG occurs naturally in certain foods, including tomatoes and cheeses (3).
It was first identified as a flavor enhancer by Japanese researchers in 1908 and has since become one of the most widely used additives in food production (3).
Today, it can be found in a number of processed products, from fast food to canned soups.
MSG boosts the flavor of foods by stimulating taste receptors and has been shown in research studies to increase the acceptance of particular flavors. Adding MSG to foods results in an umami taste, which is characterized as savory and meaty (
This popular additive has been deemed GRAS by the FDA. Some experts argue that it can have potentially dangerous side effects, particularly when consumed on a long-term basis, though there is a lack of supporting evidence for this (
The FDA mandates that MSG must be labeled by its usual name of monosodium glutamate when used as an ingredient in food. Foods that naturally contain MSG, such as tomato products, protein isolates, and cheeses, aren’t required to list MSG as an ingredient (6).
In the European Union, MSG is classified as a food additive and may be listed by the E-number E621 (7).
Here are 8 foods that commonly contain MSG.
One of the best-known sources of MSG is fast food.
Some restaurants add MSG to a number of popular dishes, including fried rice.
MSG is also used by franchises like Kentucky Fried Chicken and Chick-fil-A to enhance the flavor of foods.
Many manufacturers use MSG to boost the savory flavor of chips.
Aside from being added to potato chips, corn chips, and snack mixes, MSG can be found in a number of other snack foods, so it’s best to read the label if you want to avoid consuming this additive.
Seasoning blends are used to give a salty, savory taste to dishes like stews, tacos, and stir-fries.
In fact, MSG is used in the production of low sodium items to increase flavor without the addition of salt. MSG can be found in many low sodium flavoring products, including seasoning blends and bouillon cubes (13).
Frozen meals can be a convenient and cheap way to put food on the table, and they often contain MSG.
Many companies that make frozen dinners add MSG to their products to improve the savory flavor of the meal (
Other frozen products that often contain MSG include frozen pizzas, mac and cheese, and frozen breakfast meals.
Canned soups and soup mixes often have MSG added to them to intensify the savory flavor that consumers crave.
Many other soup products, including canned soups, dried soup mixes, and bouillon seasonings, can contain MSG, making it important to check individual product labels if intending to avoid eating any foods with MSG.
Aside from being used to enhance taste, MSG is added to meat products like sausage to reduce the sodium content without changing the flavor (
One study found that replacing sodium with MSG in pork patties enhanced the salty flavor and acceptability of the product without negatively affecting taste (
In addition to MSG, many condiments are also packed with other additives like added sugars, artificial colorings, and preservatives. These added ingredients can contribute to poor health, therefore it’s best to limit these and instead purchase products made with whole food ingredients whenever possible.
If you’re concerned about using MSG-containing condiments, consider making your own so that you have complete control over what you’re consuming. For starters, you can try out these delicious and healthy salad dressing recipes.
A staple for college students around the world, instant noodles provide a quick, filling meal for those on a budget.
Some manufacturers use MSG to boost the savory flavor of instant noodle products. Many popular instant noodle packages are often of low nutritional value as they are made with refined carbs and are high in sodium and preservatives which could harm your health.
Instant noodle consumption has been associated with increased heart disease risk factors, including elevated blood sugar, cholesterol, triglyceride, and blood pressure levels (
While research is far from conclusive, some studies have suggested that consuming MSG may lead to negative health outcomes.
In fact, MSG symptom complex is a condition characterized by symptoms including headache, hives, swelling of the throat, itching, and belly pain experienced by some people shortly after consuming MSG-laden food (
For example, MSG consumption has been linked to obesity, liver damage, blood sugar fluctuations, elevated heart disease risk factors, behavioral problems, nerve damage, and increased inflammation in animal studies (
Some human research has demonstrated that consuming MSG may promote weight gain and increase hunger, food intake, and your risk of metabolic syndrome, a group of symptoms that raises your risk of chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes (3).
For example, a study in 349 adults found that those who consumed the most MSG were much more likely to have metabolic syndrome than those who consumed the least, and that every 1 gram increase of MSG per day significantly increased the chances of being overweight (
However, larger, well-designed studies are needed to confirm this potential link (
There’s also some evidence that MSG increases hunger and may lead you to eat more at meals. However, current research suggests a more complex relationship between MSG and appetite, with some studies finding that MSG may even decrease intake at subsequent meals (
Although research is mixed on how MSG may affect overall health, it’s clear that consuming high doses of 3 grams or higher of MSG per day is likely to lead to adverse side effects, including headache and increased blood pressure (
For reference, it’s estimated that the average consumption of MSG in the United States and the United Kingdom is around 0.55 grams per day, while intake of MSG in Asian countries is around 1.2–1.7 grams per day (26,
Although it’s possible, consuming 3 grams of MSG or more per day is unlikely when eating normal portion sizes.
However, certain individuals who have a sensitivity to MSG may experience side effects like hives, swelling of the throat, headache, and fatigue after consuming smaller amounts, depending on individual tolerance (
However, scientists have not been able to confirm if MSG is the true cause of these adverse side effects (
A review of 40 studies found that, overall, studies that have linked MSG with adverse health effects are of poor quality and have methodological flaws, and that strong clinical evidence of MSG hypersensitivity is lacking, highlighting a need for future research (
If you think you may have a sensitivity to MSG, it’s best to avoid the products listed on this page and always check labels for added MSG.
Furthermore, even though the safety of MSG is debated, it’s clear that foods that commonly contain MSG, like chips, frozen meals, fast food, instant noodles, and processed meats, are not very nutrient dense.
Therefore a diet that consists primarily of these foods can increase risk for chronic disease and promote overall poor health. In general, it’s best to aim for a balanced diet with whole foods like fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains and heart-healthy fats.
The FDA has recognized MSG as GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe), and the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on food additives did not define an Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) value as they deemed it was very unlikely for people to obtain hazardously high levels of MSG from food (
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has set an ADI of 30 mg per of kg body weight (or 13.6 mg per lb of body weight), so for a 150 lb person this is around 2 grams of MSG per day. Again this is a far larger amount than a person would consume in food (31).
Some studies have associated MSG with negative health outcomes, including obesity and metabolic syndrome. However, this may be more a result of the kind of foods that tend to contain MSG than the ingredient itself, and more research is needed to substantiate these findings.
MSG is a controversial food additive that’s found in a wide variety of products. It’s commonly added to chips, frozen dinners, fast food, instant noodles, and many other processed foods to enhance flavor.
Although some studies have linked MSG consumption with negative health outcomes, the FDA recognizes it as safe. More research is needed to fully understand the potential effects that consuming MSG may have on both short- and long-term health.
If you feel that you’re sensitive to MSG, it’s best to avoid products that contain it. Be sure to always read food labels to ensure your items are free of MSG.