ask the nutritionist: MSG

I received a question regarding MSG and I thought it would be a great topic for ask the nutritionist series. We always hear that MSG is the worst thing for us and we should avoid it at all costs. But what about my beloved pho? And the other dishes that are most commonly thought to use MSG as a flavor enhancer? Should we stop eating them?

What is MSG? MSG, or Monosodium Glutamate is the sodium salt of glutamate. Glutamate is an amino acid that is produced in the body and essential for many bodily functions. Glutamate is found in fish, meat, poultry, milk and some vegetables.

Is it harmful? The glutamate in MSG is metabolized just as natural glutamate is in our bodies. There have been no definitive studies between MSG and adverse side affects, although, like any foods, some may experience reactions to MSG. MSG actually contains a third of the sodium of salt, so for those looking to add flavor without as much sodium, it can actually be a good savory flavor enhancer.

The Verdict? Like everything, moderation is key. Since MSG was shunned upon, many restaurants and food products do not use it anymore but don’t panic if it is in some of the packaged foods you buy (like soup) or used at a restaurant. Just keep it in moderation and make sure to enjoy that bowl of Pho, I know I will!


Duyff, Roberta Larson (2006). American Dietetic Association Complete Food and Nutrition Guide (3rd ed.). Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.


  1. says

    Thanks for the info!! Like many things, the second someone says it’s bad for you, it gets the stamp of death. (ie “eggs raise your cholesterol”) On the flip side, it’s hilarious how much companies can make off of health fads. Kombucha? Wow.

    AND. Pho!! We will definitely have a Quang trip planned, as soon as it’s cool enough to eat that massive bowl of deliciousness. :)

  2. says

    I’m with you on the “everything in moderation”. Does that mean a bowl of pho every day? Prob not. But once in a while is ok.

    Not sure if you’ve seen Teen Girl Squad cartoons on Homestar Runner — but there is an episode where one of the girls gets “MSG’ed” — you’ll either know what I’m talking about or not, and don’t feel bad if this makes no sense :)

  3. says

    I’m surprised by your answer. MSG is one of those things that I always heard was harmful so I sort of dismissed it. Do you think the fact that it’s a processed derivative it’s not as healthy as salt, which is generally minimally processed?

    • Emily says

      Well, MSG is essentially the salt of glutamic acid, so they are probably processed in a very similar manner. I’m not trying to say, go search out MSG, most food companies and restaurants have stopped using it but I also wouldn’t panic if you have some.

    • Emily says

      It is thought that the savory, umami flavor is very desirable in certain foods and MSG gives things that savory flavor. That would be my guess?

  4. Frank says

    phew! Thanks for doing the research on this, Em!

    It’s settled a long-running domestic dispute between Natalie and I. Some of the best Asian soups I’ve had have been ruined when a given restaurant tries to make it “MSG Free.” I’ve also heard mushroom stock can be a quality (albeit pricy) substitute for MSG, but haven’t tried it myself.

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