EDITOR’S SUMMARY: For years, you’ve sought out Chinese food restaurants that don’t use MSG because you heard it was bad for your health. Whatever was in that mysterious “chemical” wasn’t as important as simply staying away from it. But what if this substance was lurking in places you didn’t know, and making its way into your body without your consent? And now the FDA says … go for it—it might not be that bad after all! Navigating the food processing industry can be tricky, even for an avid “health nut.”
Written by Sarah Campise Hallier
Edited by Nicki Steinberger, Ph.D.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently promoted the food additive, monosodium glutamate (MSG), aka “E621” as a healthy alternative to conventional table salt. MSG, a sodium salt of glutamic acid, is a flavor enhancer, first identified in Japan in the 20th century. It has since become a prominent ingredient in various cuisines worldwide. However, the FDA’s endorsement of MSG as a healthier alternative to salt has sparked debate among nutritionists, health-conscious mamas, and medical professionals, raising many pertinent questions. Most importantly, why is the FDA endorsing MSG? Is it genuinely safe? And do high-quality salts and healthier salt alternatives offer a better option? Though designed with consumer welfare in mind, the FDA's grasp on nutrition initiatives can be confusing.
Standards of identity, known as SOIs, are a set of guidelines that were established by the FDA in 1939. These laws stipulate what may, can't, and must be included in a variety of foods in order for such items to be sold lawfully in the United States. From the FDA, “Standards of Identity for Food”:
“SOIs have been established to ensure that the characteristics, ingredients, and production processes of specific foods are consistent with what consumers expect.”
The FDA’s September 28, 2022 “Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health,” prompted the White House to formulate a national strategy to aid in healthy eating and increased physical activity while helping end hunger. This multifaceted strategic plan focused on ways to address diabetes, obesity, hypertension, and other diet-related diseases.
Piggybacking on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s My Plate initiative in the early 2000s, a visual, user-friendly guide was created to remind consumers to make healthy food choices. Included was the government’s emphasis on decreasing salt consumption. As a result, the FDA took a further step with a proposal to amend the standard of identity (SOI) regulations to permit the use of salt substitutes in standardized foods.
Simultaneously, MSG remains linked to a variety of health concerns worldwide. From headaches, sweating, and rapid heart rate, to chest pain, and breathing difficulties, for those who claim to be sensitive; these symptoms can be frightening and overwhelming. There are also multiple studies claiming organ damage and other physical challenges, along with obesity, reproductive issues, and hepatic damage.
‘“Although several concerns about the safety of food additives, particularly MSG, exist among the general public and health professionals, including the addition of unwanted sodium to the diets of persons afflicted with hypertension, monosodium glutamate has ultimately been considered safe.”’
With the FDA declaring MSG is GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, and the incidence of complaints being relatively low, it is easy to see why you may be left scratching your head at the conflicting information. After all, though thousands of people have spoken up for decades addressing a myriad of symptoms associated with MSG consumption, the data continues to fluctuate.
“Critical analysis of existing literature establishes that many of the reported negative health effects of MSG have little relevance for chronic human exposure and are poorly informative as they are based on excessive dosing that does not meet with levels normally consumed in food products.”
In other words, the FDA does not claim evidence to support that MSG can be unhealthy. However, several recent studies have provided more documentation of the health effects and environmental hazards associated with the exposure to this chemical.
Not surprisingly, similar to other food additives, MSG can tear up your gut, causing gastrointestinal issues. From the National Library of Medicine (NIH), “[Effect of long-term monosodium glutamate administration on structure and functional state of the stomach and body weight in rats]” abstract:
“The influence of prolonged administration of monosodium glutamate (MSG) on basal gastric acid secretion, body weight and gastric mucosa in rats was studied. We found that 10-, 20-, 30-days feeding by MSG in doses 15 to 30 mg/kg (equivalent to I and 2 g/person) leads to erosive and ulcerative lesions of the gastric mucosa and an increased secretion of hydrochloric acid and an increased body weight. It is concluded that the stimulating effect of MSG on the basal secretion of hydrochloric acid in the stomach may be implicated in the pathogenesis of a number of acid-dependent diseases.”
Processed foods, nutritional supplements, cosmetics, personal care goods, medications, and pet food may contain MSG, often in concealed amounts. It’s also incorporated into waxes used to coat newly-harvested produce. You may not know you are ingesting MSG. The best way to avoid it is to source organic produce from local farms/farmer’s markets, read package labels, and consume the least-processed ingredients possible. Additionally, when leaves, fruits, and grains in a variety of plants are harvested and transported to market, the fungicides, fertilizers, and pesticides used to treat the plants may stay in or on the edible section of the plants.
Salt consumption: Regardless of the conflicting research regarding the “side effects” of monosodium glutamate, it’s your choice to include it in your diet or not. However, the question of whether you need to reduce your salt intake does not have a one-size-fits-all answer. Additionally, it’s possible the real culprit is salt quality, not quantity.
Instead of focusing solely on salt reduction, consider studies that reveal salt substitutes aren’t the only answer. With high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease on the rise worldwide, substituting regular table salt with high-quality sea salt and other whole food options may be safer and healthier. While excessive intake of iodized salt, depleted of natural minerals, is known to carry health risks, pure sea salt and pink Himalayan salt contain essential trace minerals, and belong in the category of “health food.”
Environmental Impact: The manufacturing of monosodium glutamate has far-reaching implications on the environment, yet these effects are seldom considered. Over the last century, the process by which MSG is created has changed. Although initially produced commercially from seaweed, “it is now produced using a bacterial fermentation process with starch or molasses, as carbon sources [in which the carbon footprint can be huge], and ammonium salts as nitrogen sources.”
From ScienceDirect: Journal of Cleaner Production, “Life cycle assessment of cleaner production measures in monosodium glutamate production: A case study in China”:
“The production of MSG requires the input of various chemicals (sulphuric acid, liquid ammonia, liquid alkali, activated carbon) as well as other general resources such as raw material, energy and water (Ji and Han, 2017). The MSG production process also has a significant influence on the environment (Yang et al., 2005). The fermentation process generates a large amount of high concentration organic wastewater, which is challenging to treat due to the high values of COD (30–70 g/L), ammonia nitrogen (NH3–N) (5–7 g/L), suspended solids (SS) (12–20 g/L), and the very low pH (Jiang et al., 2019).”
From Research Square, “Assessment of Life Cycle Environmental Benefits in Monosodium Glutamate Production in China”:
“The MSG industry has long attracted the attention of environmental protection authorities because of the high pollution rate and high water consumption. However, the implementation of CP technologies has significantly mitigated the environmental pollution from the MSG industry in China over the past decade. However, with the increasing requirements of environmental protection, further improving the environmental status of the MSG industry remains a problem.”
While the taste of salt on your food may be desirable to you, there are a wider variety of ingredients that can be incorporated into your diet to add a diversity of tongue-popping flavors. Consider these creative options:
Spices: Experimenting with different spices is a sure way to add a tasty kick to any dish you prepare. Trying out an array of distinct spices, such as rosemary, nutmeg, cardamon, chili, and hundreds of others, is the greatest method to determine which flavors your palette appreciates the most.
Anything wild from the sea: Love seafood? The use of seaweed and dried anchovies may significantly boost the taste of a wide variety of foods. Both are often used to offer a zing of flavor that lingers in salads, casseroles, soups, or stews; alternatively, they can be used as toppings on dishes.
Organic nutritional yeast: This is a fantastic non-dairy option that also has the potential to provide vitamin B12 to your diet. The fact that nutritional yeast is rich in both protein and fiber makes it an ideal complement to a wide variety of dishes.
Coconut aminos: Depending on the brand, coconut aminos are a low-sodium condiment that has the potential to improve the flavor of savory dishes such as stir-fries, marinades, salad dressings, and sushi. Additionally, tamari (there is a wheat-free version) and miso paste may be used in a similar way.
Beef stock: Surprisingly, this bone and meat “broth” has a similar taste to MSG. Purchase grass-fed/finished, or make it from scratch. Loaded with nutrients, this “soup” is savory enough to fool even the most seasoned foodies at your dinner table.
Kosher, Celtic, and Himalayan salts: These high-quality salts are minimally-processed, and include a plethora of electrolytes and trace minerals, including magnesium, calcium, and potassium.
From Dr. Axe, “Sea Salt vs. Table Salt: Benefits, Types, Uses, Side Effects & More”:
“By consuming sea salt in moderation each day, you also ensure that you maintain sufficient sodium levels, which helps balance your sodium-potassium ratios. Sodium and potassium are two electrolytes — often featured in electrolyte drinks — that work together to ensure that there is proper fluid balance in your body’s cells as well as your blood plasma and extracellular fluid.”
Regardless of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration promoting monosodium glutamate as a better option than salt, it is evident that concerns around MSG's health repercussions and environmental ramifications warrant careful consideration. Before monosodium glutamate can be recommended as a salt alternative, further study into its long-term impact on health is required, as the research to-date has shown contradictory results.
Focusing on naturally-sourced sea salt and whole foods, supports a balanced and environmentally-sustainable diet. Since there are many organic, GMO-free, non-preservative options available, you don't need to go any further than your local farmer’s market to begin discovering delectable ways to meet your salt consumption needs.
Published on October 12, 2023.
To contact A Voice For Choice Advocacy, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you would like to support the research and health education of AVFC editorial, please consider making a donation today. Thank you.