Monosodium Glutamate (MSG): From A to Umami


Has there ever been a taste that you enjoyed, but couldn’t quite explain? Perhaps you are noticing what has been coined as the fifth taste, “umami”; a taste attributed to foods containing glutamate, an amino acid that is one of the building blocks of protein. Think about a bowl of hot pasta with tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese, a freshly grilled steak with a rich mushroom sauce, or stir-fried seafood and chicken with crisp vegetables in a savory soy sauce. In all of these dishes, there is a common flavor denominator that may be surprising to many: monosodium glutamate, also called MSG. This fact sheet provides everything you need to know about MSG and its umami favor.


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Fast Facts

  • A natural fermentation process is used to produce MSG.
  • MSG is composed of simply sodium and glutamate.
  • MSG contains only one-third the amount of sodium as table salt.
  • Glutamate and MSG are gluten-free.
  • MSG is safe to consume, according to scientific research and several large regulatory authorities.
  • MSG is not an allergen, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
  • There is no scientific evidence for “MSG sensitivity”. Some individuals have reported symptoms (similar to symptoms of a food allergy) after consuming MSG, but no scientific research has been able to reliably show that consuming MSG causes these symptoms. 


What is glutamate?

Glutamate is an amino acid (the building blocks of proteins) that is naturally abundant in both plant and animal proteins. Hence, protein-rich foods contain sizeable amounts of glutamate as part of the protein. In addition, many foods also contain small amounts of “free” glutamate, usually in the form of sodium glutamate (monosodium glutamate or MSG). This free glutamate gives an umami taste to such foods (e.g., ripe tomatoes and Parmesan cheese).


How is glutamate used by the body?

Almost all of the glutamate present in food is used to produce energy by the intestinal cells, never making it past the intestinal lining. The small remaining amount is used by these same cells, along with other amino acids, to make proteins and the antioxidant glutathione, both essential for optimal intestinal function.


How is Monosodium glutamate (MSG) made? 

MSG is comprised simply of sodium and glutamate, and is produced by natural fermentation. Natural fermentation is a process that that has been used for centuries to make common foods such as beer, vinegar, and yogurt. MSG is often produced through the fermentation of sugar cane or tapioca, but in the U.S., it is primarily produced through the fermentation of corn.


Is it possible for people to be sensitive to MSG?

According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, MSG is not an allergen. Some individuals have reported symptoms resembling some of those experienced with a food allergy after consuming MSG, but no scientific research has been able to reliably show that consuming MSG causes these symptoms. For example, a clinical study conducted in people who had reported a perceived sensitivity to MSG found no clear, reproducible reactions to MSG. Nonetheless, individuals who are still concerned about food allergies or sensitivities to MSG can consult their healthcare professional or a certified allergist, who can evaluate symptoms and, in cooperation with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), recommend any appropriate dietary changes.


What do credible health and scientific authorities have to say about MSG? 

In the U.S., the FDA has reaffirmed the safety of MSG, based upon a report from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, of which the American Society for Nutrition is a member. Globally, the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) of the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food & Agricultural Organization (FAO) designate MSG as safe and place it in their safest category of food ingredients. Likewise, the European Community’s Scientific Committee for Food, as well as Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) have reviewed and confirmed the safety of MSG.