November 30, 2011
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MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is an amino acid that was originally isolated from seaweed. It was found to provide a flavor that was neither sweet, salty, sour, or bitter (the 4 traditional basic tastes). This savory taste, called umami, is not really a flavor in itself. Rather, MSG makes food taste better—it is a flavor enhancer. It rapidly gained popularity as an additive in many restaurant and processed foods.
Then came “Chinese restaurant syndrome,” so-called because people would complain of various symptoms after eating at Chinese restaurants, where MSG was a popular additive. Subsequent to this, a raft of scientific studies failed to turn up any shred of evidence for a health effect of MSG, and in fact people who vociferously claimed to be MSG-sensitive have proven unable, in double-blind studies, to reliably tell whether food has MSG in it. Plus, there’s the fact that Parmesan cheese and tomato paste, among other foods, have high levels of glutamate and no one gets a “syndrome” from them. So, stop worrying about MSG and enjoy your lo mein!