SEP 22, 2016 3:13 PM PDT

Why Do We Hate that We Love MSG?

WRITTEN BY: Xuan Pham

Have you ever had a hankering for bacon or perhaps a bowl of brothy ramen? Beyond salt, these cravings are a sign your taste buds want something rich and savory - umami, in other words.

As it turns out, MSG (monosodium glutamate) is a compound that is very good at activating the receptors responsible for that much sought-after umami taste. A quick look through your pantry will reveal that many packaged foods contain this compound. It's there to enhance the taste of a food that would otherwise be less tasty.

But while this seemingly miracle compound can fix many food woes, there's a stigma attached to MSG. In particular, Chinese foods seem to have earned a terrible reputation for their MSG content.

Why do we hate that we love MSG? The compound has been linked to a slew of unwanted side effects, from headaches, to heart palpitations, to even cancer. However, many of these claims have been unsubstantiated, as the small quantities in food don't seem to be potent enough for those types of adverse reactions. Even in people who have glutamate receptor sensitivities, the side effects are mild and appear to go away quickly.

So, should we embrace MSG with reckless abandon? Like most things in life, it's probably best to practice moderation - even if that means sacrificing just a little bit of umami.
About the Author
  • I am a human geneticist, passionate about telling stories to make science more engaging and approachable. Find more of my writing at the Hopkins BioMedical Odyssey blog and at TheGeneTwist.com.
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