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9 Important Things to Know About MSG

MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is a common ingredient used in many popular cuisines of the world, including American, Japanese, Chinese, and Indian dishes. It’s used for seasoning, flavoring, and as an additive. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) estimates that Americans consume an average of 0.55 g (0.02 oz) of added MSG per day. 

MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is the salt form of glutamic acid, an amino acid that’s also found in our bodies and in many foods such as tomatoes and types of cheese. MSG that is used as an additive in foods is produced by fermenting starch, like sugar beets, sugar cane or molasses.

Although similar sounding, neither glutamic acid (Glu) nor monosodium glutamate (MSG) is related to gluten or has any gluten in them, so MSG is gluten free.

MSG has been a contentious food ingredient due to a few misconceptions about its health effects. However, scientific research, clinical studies, and regulatory authorities like the FDA have debunked all unfounded perceptions about monosodium glutamate. This guide discusses 9 things to know about MSG.

Photo of msg piled up in a wooden spoon set upon a wooden table
MSG has the same white color as table salt. Photo by Greanggrai Hommalai

1. What Does MSG Taste Like?

MSG has a pleasant savory taste, best described as umami. In fact the term umami was coined by the Japanese chemist Dr. Kikunae Ikeda, to describe MSG, which he was the first to extract from kombu dashi, a traditional broth made from kelp, or seaweed.    

Some people associate the taste of MSG with the meatiness typically found in tomatoes, a few kinds of cheeses, soups, broths, and soy sauce.

MSG and umami are synonymous. In 1908, Dr. Kikunae Ikeda, coined the term “umami” to describe the taste of glutamic acid he extracted from kombu dashi, a traditional tofu and kelp-based broth.

Dr. Ikeda used the extract to make glutamate, the salt form of the amino acid. Subsequently, he patented monosodium glutamate or MSG.

In some parts of Asia, MSG is also synonymous with Ajinomoto, the company founded by Saburosuke Suzuki II, who teamed up with Dr. Ikeda to manufacture MSG commercially. The Ajinomoto Group continues to be a market leader among MSG manufacturers to this day.

The MSG taste is savory with a texture of fullness or meatiness that also enhances the flavors of the other ingredients used in a dish. While regular salt enhances the taste of other ingredients in a dish, it doesn’t add the meatiness, fullness, or wholesomeness of MSG.

2. Is MSG Natural?

MSG is a natural salt, and it is found in tomatoes, cheeses, and mushrooms. Also, the amino acid form of the salt MSG, glutamic acid, is naturally found in human bodies. Furthermore, glutamate receptors are found in the human tongue and stomach.

MSG’s savory wholesomeness or meatiness becomes evident when you note its natural presence in the following foods:

  • Mushrooms
  • Tomatoes
  • Cheeses
  • Oysters
  • Meats
  • Eggs
  • Milk and dairy products
  • Seafood

While MSG is natural, not all manufacturers use only seaweed or other foods to obtain glutamate or glutamic acid. Many companies use starch, sugar cane, sugar beet, or molasses to make MSG through fermentation. The process is similar to how you ferment yogurt, wine, or vinegar.

3. MSG Serving Size

There’s no standard MSG service size. Like all seasonings, MSG usage is subject to personal preference, taste, recipe, and health. Also, it’s always healthy and safe to use any seasoning in moderation, including MSG, regular salt, pepper, and other spices or condiments.

An effective and safe approach is ½ teaspoon of MSG for 1 pound (453 g) of meat or up to six servings of soup and vegetables. A ½ teaspoon of MSG should be around 0.09 ounce (2.5 g) if you use standard salt as the guide.

Thus, the intake is about 0.014 ounce (0.40 g) for each of the six servings.

MSG and regular salt don’t have the same sodium proportion. Table salt or sodium chloride has 40 percent sodium by weight. MSG has about 13 percent sodium by weight, depending on the manufacturer. MSG reduces sodium consumption for those with heart conditions and high blood pressure.

Most chefs have their secret mantras to tweak standard recipes.

You may have a unique take on MSG serving size for your dishes. Reduce or increase the safe serving size depending on the quantity of food and whether you have a lot of sauce, gravy, or broth in a recipe.

4. MSG Substitutes

You may explore various MSG substitutes for distinct recipes, as it is available naturally in many foods, including herbs, spices, meats, and dairy. This means you can incorporate one or more of those natural foods in a recipe to enhance the glutamate content of a dish, without using an MSG additive.

If they’re compatible with a recipe, you may use – I’ve included amazon links to my favorite substitute products:

As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

Furthermore, you may consider alternative salts as MSG substitutes if veggies, herbs, and other ingredients are incompatible with a recipe. A suitable option is Korean sea salt or gulgeun-sogeum. The world has dozens of salts, but most don’t have the glutamate content that makes MSG special.

Korean sea salt is used to make kimchi, which is probably the closest you’ll get to replicating the savory umami flavor of MSG. However, it’s a brining salt, unsuitable for many recipes unless you want to use the microorganisms to ferment a significant ingredient.

Truffle salt is a potential substitute but only for finishing a dish, not really for seasoning or cooking. Also, sea salt and varieties like pink, black, red, and grey salts from various countries don’t offer the umami flavor.

Many of these salts are rich in minerals like magnesium, potassium, iron, and calcium, but most are essentially sodium chloride. Besides, the black, pink, grey, and red salts have a completely different flavor profile, which isn’t even remotely the same as MSG’s umami taste.

Close up picture of msg crystals piled on top of a slate backdrop
Up close you can see the rectangular shape of MSG crystals. Photo by Eevlva

5. How to Use MSG

MSG is available as an ingredient, additive, or flavor enhancer in several products, including soups, sauces, canned and ready-to-cook foods, and snacks. You may use MSG as a regular salt substitute or in any of the other available forms.

Consider the total MSG content in all its forms when you use more than one for a recipe.

For instance, review the MSG salt quantity if a recipe already includes soy sauce or any food that contains glutamate. Most soy sauces, especially the readymade ones, have MSG.

A little goes a long way, so you usually only need a pinch of MSG to add a kick of umami flavor to your dish.

6. When to Add MSG to Food?

You may add MSG to food when marinating, cooking, or seasoning. Recipes have distinct requirements. You can soak many types of meat in an MSG marinade, or you may add MSG when a dish is half-cooked or for additional seasoning. Don’t use MSG as a finishing salt.

You’ll notice that MSG doesn’t look or feel like your regular or table salt, as MSG salt crystals are bigger. Also, it won’t simply dissolve in a dish if it is already cooked, unlike salt. You need to cook MSG salt crystals, which is why it’s not used for finishing or garnishing.

The precise time when you should add MSG to food depends partly on the recipe. For soups and gravies, you can add MSG salt crystals when you have already added the water or any kind of thickener. The salt will impart its flavor and weave the magic as the soup or gravy thickens.

For drier recipes and fried foods, you can add MSG to the main ingredients during marinating, seasoning, or cooking. You may mix MSG in the batter or marinating mix for fried foods. Also, you can crush MSG salt crystals if you want them to be smaller or finer for a particular recipe. 

7. Which Foods Naturally Contain MSG?

The foods that naturally contain MSG include animal products, some dairy foods, and some vegetables. Also, many seaweed are rich in natural MSG. Some processed foods naturally produce MSG when processed.

According to Food Standards Australia, New Zealand, bound and free glutamates are found in:

  • Cow’s milk
  • Human milk
  • Parmesan cheese
  • Eggs
  • Chicken
  • Duck
  • Beef
  • Pork
  • Cod
  • Mackerel
  • Salmon
  • Peas
  • Corn
  • Carrots
  • Spinach
  • Tomatoes

According to the Umami Information Center, the list of foods rich in glutamate includes:

  • Seaweed, such as kombu, nori, and wakame
  • Green tea
  • Beans
  • Green peas
  • Lotus roots
  • Garlic
  • Shungiku
  • Soybeans
  • Fava beans
  • Potatoes
  • Spinach
  • Tomatoes
  • Mushrooms

Furthermore, glutamate is found in:

  • Bamboo shoots
  • Carrots
  • Asparagus
  • Cabbage
  • Onion
  • Broccoli
  • Ginger
  • Scallops
  • Shrimps and prawns
  • Sea urchins
  • Squid
  • Octopus
  • Tuna
  • Oyster
  • Clam
  • Mussel
  • Anchovies
  • Oyster sauce
  • Soy sauce
  • Kimchi

Like salt, pepper, and all seasoning agents, spices, and herbs, using excessive MSG isn’t recommended, and it doesn’t enhance foods beyond a certain extent. Always use MSG in moderation. Balance the use of MSG and other salts if you must include two or more in a recipe. 

8. Where is MSG Regulated and/or Banned?

MSG is regulated as a food additive and flavor enhancer in the United States, Canada, the European Union, Australia, New Zealand, and many other countries. Most countries prohibit the use of MSG in milk and baby foods. Currently, MSG is banned in Pakistan.

According to the FDA, MSG is a “generally recognized as safe” flavor enhancer and food additive. Most countries regulate its quantity by volume or weight of processed and packaged foods.

Many countries’ regulatory authorities require brands to mention MSG on their labels.

MSG isn’t the only glutamate salt that’s regulated by all major countries around the world. Regulations exist for glutamate in general, as well as:

  • Glutamic acid
  • Monopotassium glutamate
  • Calcium glutamate
  • Mono-ammonium glutamate
  • Magnesium glutamate
  • Sodium glutamate

Canada’s Food Inspection Agency doesn’t endorse the “No MSG” or “MSG Free” claims on labels because some products may have glutamate in the natural ingredients used to make those foods. Cheese, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, yeasts, and fermented savory seasonings, such as soy sauce, contain glutamates.

9. Why Do Some Countries Regulate MSG?

Some countries regulate MSG due to the decades-old misconception about its adverse health effects. The origin of this controversy is 1968 when Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok wrote about MSG’s side effects, calling it “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”, now known as MSG symptom complex.

Like Dr. Kwok, many people have associated MSG with China and called it the Chinese salt, including the Supreme Court of Pakistan. ButMSG originated in Japan and is hence actually Japanese.

People allergic to gluten may react to the protein present in many foods due to the use of grains, but this gluten-triggered reaction has nothing to do with MSG. Products containing MSG may have wheat extracts or other grains and thus could contain gluten.

No scientific study, research, clinical data, or medical journal has provided any peer-reviewed evidence of any adverse effects of MSG on human health. Yet, the controversy sustains itself, partly due to the rise in the prevalence of food allergies since 1990.

However, there have been anecdotal reports about MSG inducing migraines or causing other reactions. This might be why people have allergic reactions to seafood, dairy, or eggs due to the naturally occurring MSG. But of course, this is just speculation.

Final Thoughts

Every recipe in any cuisine demands a few staple ingredients. MSG is the staple salt if you want any dish to have a unique umami flavor.