Monosodium glutamate, more commonly known by the abbreviation “MSG,” is commonly added to prepared and so-called “convenience” foods, particularly those that are frozen. The substance is also notoriously linked to Chinese restaurants in North America and Europe, though many different kinds of fast food restaurants use the substance. It is also common in fermented and aged foods, most notably soy sauce and certain cheeses. In most places consumers can determine whether or not a particular food contains monosodium glutamate by reading the ingredient label, but not always — in some cases, more extensive research is required to find out what is really included.
Fast Food and Restaurant Meals
Foods prepared in chain restaurants and fast food establishments are some of the biggest sources of MSG. Cooks will often add it liberally to a variety of dishes in order to enhance the taste, usually as a way to make the food seem more flavorful than it actually is. Hamburgers that are prepared in a hurry on an assembly line often don’t have much of a distinctive flavor, for instance; the same is true for pizzas, fried chicken dishes, and even French fries. Taking the time to cook these things slowly or add spices or quality ingredients is not usually cost-effective. It is easier — not to mention cheaper — for restaurateurs to simply add artificial taste enhancements to get similar results.
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Chinese restaurants often take the brunt of the media’s attention for the additive. These sorts of establishments are by no means the only players in the game, but they are often among the most notorious. Different restaurants have different policies, of course, but it is very common for cooks to add liberal amounts of monosodium glutamate powder to everything from noodle dishes to stir-fries and soups. This often makes the meals taste delectable without requiring much careful cooking at all. Chefs will almost always leave the additive out if asked, but it is often put in pretty much automatically.
Heavily Processed Foods
Another source is foods that have been processed extensively. Canned soups are a good example, as are pre-packaged deli meats, some bacon products, and things like pepperoni and cured ham slices. Foods that depend on a lot of chemical preservatives to stay fresh often also contain monosodium glutamate in order to keep them tasting good no matter how long they have been on the shelf.
Frozen foods are another place to look. Chicken nuggets, fish sticks, and frozen pizzas often contain at least some of the additive for many of the same reasons that other processed foods do. The freezing and reheating process necessarily strips a lot of nutrients from most foods, which can negatively impact how they taste. Adding flavor boosters is an easy way for manufacturers to make sure that consumers will actually enjoy the flavor of the food as well as its convenience.
Many processed snack foods are sources as well. Potato chips and flavored popcorn products are good places to look, as are some crackers and boxed cookies. Basically any food designed to bring quick, inexpensive satisfaction is a potential candidate.
Fermented or Aged Foods
MSG is also frequently added to things like soy sauce and fermented bean paste, two ingredients commonly used in Asian-style cooking. Some aged cheeses may also contain it, even if in trace amounts. Natural fermentation often leaves a bitter, somewhat pungent aftertaste that is not always desirable. Adding MSG often balances the flavor, adding a savory element that makes the final product tangy without being overpowering.
What to Look For
In many countries, food manufacturers must disclose whether or not they use MSG in their foods. This is particularly true in the United States and throughout Europe. In the US, the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has classified MSG as “generally recognized as safe,” but nevertheless requires that any food marketed for commercial sale list “monosodium glutamate” on the ingredient list. Manufacturers don’t have to say how much they’ve used, but they do have to let consumers know that it’s been included. The European Union’s food labeling laws are very similar, and both Australia and New Zealand also require all additions of the food additive to be noted somewhere on the label.
Canada is a notable exception. That country does not require foods to disclose MSG additions, but rather focuses its efforts on truth in advertising. Foods cannot say they contain “no additives” if they make use of monosodium glutamate, for instance. In most cases, this rule extends to other glutamate-derived ingredients as well. As such, in Canada, any food that is not labeled “no additives” might include the compound — but then again, it might not. Consumers often have to do a lot of the legwork themselves when it comes to researching what, exactly, their food contains.
Things get more complicated when it comes to restaurants, as most establishments never publish comprehensive ingredient lists for their foods. Patrons are always free to ask, but there are rarely any guarantees that the information they get will be accurate. Short of actually testing food samples, there is no good way to be absolutely sure about what served food actually contains.
Most people are curious about MSG additions because of the risk the additive carries when it comes to certain negative health effects. A number of scientific studies have linked regular consumption of the compound to headaches, nausea, and elevated heart rate. Some have also suggested that it may have a mild neurotoxic effect on the brain, which can be particularly harmful in children. Eating only small amounts of MSG-containing foods is rarely a cause for alarm, but people who want to err on the side of caution often try to avoid the substance entirely.
Some people are also allergic to monosodium glutamate, which presents a whole range of concerns and precautions. In the majority of cases, those who react to this compound seem to actually be most sensitive to the glutamate component. There are many other glutamate-based additives that are not labeled as MSG, which can be confusing. People trying to avoid glutamate-based foods should look for these other, related additives on food labels — some of the most common are hydrolyzed yeast, hydrolyzed vegetable proteins, autolyzed yeast, protein isolate, modified corn starch, yeast extract, and modified food starch. These are not technically MSG, but are related enough to cause reactions in most who are truly allergic.