The theory of MSG being unhealthy has been circulating for quite some time, and there have been many discussions over the degree of its truthfulness. More recent research even claims that it might actually be good for you (find out more here). MSG is declared safe for consumption by the FDA, and yet, there is still a small minority of people who report having high sensitivity to it (symptoms include headaches and nausea after consumption).
Regardless of your stance, the bare facts are that MSG is found in way more products than you might think, especially processed foods. So, how exactly do we consume it daily, without even realizing it?
What Exactly is MSG?
First things first. MSG is short for monosodium glutamate - the salt of glutamic acid, a nonessential amino acid. It is naturally found in food sources like tomatoes, cheese, breast milk, seaweed and soy. When extracted and fermented, it becomes the MSG food additive.
It is known to be an enhancer of umami, also referred to as the fifth taste. It is the unique meaty, savory flavor associated mostly with broths, soups, mushrooms, fish, etc. Umami flavor is not as easy to enhance as sweetness or saltiness, and MSG is one of the solutions (despite the controversy around it).
Glutamic acid itself does not have a flavor, but MSG in food activates certain receptors in the taste buds. The taste buds, in turn, transmit signals to the brain, causing the characteristic taste.
Many will associate the use of MSG with Chinese restaurants and Asian food in general, but it is certainly more widespread than that, according to nutrition experts.
What Foods Contain MSG?
1. Fried Chicken
One of the most prominent users of MSG is KFC. The fast-food chain is known for its ’11 herbs and spices’ recipe, which gives their fried chicken its distinctive taste. MSG is certainly one of them. It is found in their grilled chicken, gravy, and potato wedges as well. Of course, KFC is not the only fast-food chain to use MSG. There are plenty of others, big and small, especially those who specialize in meat.
2. Theater Popcorn
The reason homemade popcorn doesn’t taste like theater popcorn is that the latter is drizzled with melted butter and sprinkled with MSG. The reason movie theaters can be so liberal about what goes into the popcorn (MSG might not even be your biggest concern…) is that unlike bagged popcorn, they are under no obligation to display a nutrition label.
Research privately conducted by food blogger Vani Hari in 2015 revealed that many big pizza chains pack their pizzas with hidden MSG. Hidden MSG is such that it is not directly listed in the ingredients, but is contained in other ingredients that are listed. Anything with the word "hydrolyzed" is often code for MSG content.
If you’d like to avoid that, you might opt for organic pizza joints or even homemade pizza.
While MSG is a seasoning in and of itself, it is also a part of many packaged seasonings sold in grocery stores. To be sure that your seasoning is free of MSG, you’ll need to check the packages individually for sodium glutamate.
Canned, powdered, or bouillon cubes - the secret ingredient that gives these instant store-bought soups their rich taste is no other than MSG. It is important to note that Campbell's has actually pledget to remove MSG alongside other additives from its products by the end of 2018.
Just about all flavored Pringles contain MSG. In case you’re a Pringles fan who would like to avoid MSG, you might be happy to know the Salt and Vinegar flavor does not contain it.
7. Salad Dressing
Similar to the hidden MSG case of pizza, many bottled salad dressings include spices and seasoning which contain MSG, hidden in the ingredient list on the bottled dressing.