Make mine MSG

by Mai Nguyen

Scientist and MasterChef Canada competitor Mai Nguyen explains MSG. What it is; why it makes Doritos the ultimate go-with and why Chinese restaurant syndrome is a myth.


For decades people have been told that MSG is bad for them. Between sensationalized news headlines and the prevalence of ‘no added MSG’ signs or labels on menus and dishes, diners and cooks were warned away from this simple, found in nature ingredient. And, despite repeated studies which have found that MSG is a safe food additive approved by regulatory agencies around the world, the wariness towards MSG still persists.

MSG is a sodium ion attached to a glutamate anion, both of which are required to carry out biological functions in our bodies. MSG is naturally occurring in high-protein food products, such as meat or fish, in certain types of cheese, and in vegetables (tomatoes, mushrooms, broccoli).

It was first isolated in 1908 by Professor Kikunae Ikeda at the University of Tokyo. He patented the formula for commercial use and now it’s widely used as a flavour enhancer (especially in prepared snacks like Doritos) due to its ability to produce umami—a savoury flavour—just as it does when it is naturally occurring.

The distrust of MSG began in 1968 when Dr Ho Man Kwok wrote a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine describing a syndrome he experienced when he ate at American Chinese restaurants. He described a feeling of numbness at the back of his neck that then spread to his arms and back, as well as general weakness and heart palpitations. The term Chinese restaurant syndrome was added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary the same year, describing symptoms affecting “susceptible persons eating food and especially Chinese food heavily seasoned with monosodium glutamate” (which, according to their Twitter feed, Miriam-Webster is reviewing and revising). After the anecdotal information was widely circulated, MSG has been studied extensively. The conclusions? Time and time again, it’s been found to be safe for consumption. Nor is it found on the list of common food allergens. The few studies that pointed to a problem with the ingredient were found to be unrealistic, both in the methodology of the study and the amounts of MSG used.

Chefs and leaders in the food community are examining the taint. “I began to question the validity of various cultural truths. Who gets to assign value to certain foods?” asked David Chang in an interview in 2018. “What makes something acceptable or not? Why was MSG villainized in Chinese restaurants but fine when it occurred naturally in Parmesan?”

According to noted food scientist Harold McGee, author of On Food and Cooking, MSG is harmless in small and large quantities.

Why did the myth become rooted in popular culture?

Misconceptions about certain ingredients aren’t unique, but the narrative surrounding MSG went deeper and continues to be racially skewed. The easy acceptance of the idea that MSG was harmful was rooted in xenophobia. MSG is primarily associated with ethnic cuisines, specifically Chinese. It was easy to blame it on cultural cuisine, despite MSG being a widely used additive in western foods. Or, as Anthony Bourdain said in 2016, “I don’t react to it—nobody does. It’s a lie. You know what causes Chinese restaurant syndrome? Racism.”

The idea that it’s harmful persists. When I bring it to people’s attention that MSG is safe and delicious seasoning, people recount their symptoms of MSG sensitivities—only apparent when they’ve had cuisine of the Asian variety, yet rarely from any other foods or products that also contain MSG (Doritos, KFC, ranch dressing, Parmesan cheese, etc, etc.).

I’m not here to discount anyone’s lived experiences, I just want to provide facts. MSG is safe and the associated stigma against Asian foods is unwarranted.

MSG can actually be beneficial to those looking to reduce sodium in their diets while adding a bonus umami enhancement to their food. If you replace one third of regular table salt in a recipe with MSG, you’ll get a 25 per cent reduction in sodium. For example, if a recipe calls for three teaspoons salt, use two teaspoons salt and one teaspoon MSG instead.

Mai Nguyen (BSc in Food and Nutrition and Food and Technology) is the genius dumpling maker behind Gourmai Dumplings. She also is a seasoned MasterChef Canada competitor, 2017 and 2021.

Fish Sauce Margarita

2 oz tequila blanco
1 oz triple sec
1½ oz lime juice
½ oz simple syrup or agave nectar
1 t fish sauce (naturally high in glutamates)

Rim a highball glass with 50/50 mixture of sea salt and MSG.

Add one cup of ice into a cocktail shaker. Add in all ingredients and shake for 10 seconds. Fill highball glass with ice and strain the contents of the shaker into the glass. Garnish with a Thai chile pepper (optional).

Izakaya-style Cabbage Salad

2 c thinly sliced green cabbage
1½ t salt
1 t MSG
1 t sugar
2 T sesame oil
2 t roasted white sesame seeds

Combine all ingredients together. Mix well and adjust seasoning if necessary.

Spicy Tuna Poke Bowl

1 lb sushi grade tuna (cubed, 1-inch)
2 T soy sauce
1 T gochujang
1 t MSG
2 T sesame oil
2 t ginger, grated
½ c cucumber, diced
¼ c red onion, thinly sliced
¼ c green onion, thinly sliced

Combine all ingredients together and mix well and adjust seasoning if necessary. Eat it on its own or serve over steamed rice.