MSG or Monosodium Glutamate is comprised of two ingredients, sodium (a mineral) and glutamate (a negatively charged ion in glutamic acid that serves as a neurotransmitter or chemical that nerve cells use to send signals to other cells.). It is made through a natural fermentation process, similar to how cheese and yogurt are made.
MSG is a flavor enhancer commonly added to Chinese food, canned vegetables, soups and processed meats. What most of us don’t know is that it is also used in most fast foods, such as Kentucky Fried Chicken. MSG is sometimes synthesized in the body, and also exists naturally in tomatoes, cheeses, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, autolyzed yeast, hydrolyzed yeast, yeast extract, soy extracts, and protein isolate.
The 5th Taste – Umami
MSG is one source of the savory Umami flavor, the fifth taste identified in Western medicine. The first four tastes are sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Contrast this with six tastes in Ayurveda, which adds the pungent and astringent tastes. Umami, translated as delicious in Japanese, is really more of an experience rather than a taste. It stimulates the appetite and leaves you satisfied and happy at the end of the meal.
Yummy Glutamate 🙂
The unique flavor profile of umami is thought to be due to glutamate, the most abundant neurotransmitter in the brain (and one of the two ingredients in MSG). Glutamate serves many functions in the body. It supports a healthy gut, healthy digestion and normal brain processes, such as memory, cognition and learning. Obviously, glutamate is a yummy and emotionally supportive addition to a meal.
While we can get glutamate by adding MSG to a meal, there are many naturally-occurring food sources for it. They include meat (especially when cured or matured), seafood (including tuna, fish, mussels, oysters, scallops, prawns, and clams), aged cheeses, seaweed, tomatoes, carrots, mushrooms, soy and soy products (including tofu, edamame and soy sauce), green tea, potatoes and chinese cabbage).
How Safe is MSG?
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has classified MSG as a food ingredient that’s “generally recognized as safe.” However, certain people seem to have greater sensitivity to this food ingredient. Reported side effects include headache, flushing, sweating, facial pressure or tightness, numbness, tingling or burning in the face, neck and other areas, heart palpitations, chest pain, nausea and general weakness.
Personally, I never had any problems eating MSG until one business trip a decade ago. I had eaten Chinese food at the airport and then embarked on a stressful business day running an event with an untried staff. That night, I woke up at 3 am with my heart pounding so hard I could not go back to sleep for two hours. I had never had heart palpitations before or since. The combination of an intense day, high frustration and MSG was akin to a “perfect storm.”
From an Ayurvedic perspective, there are three takeaways:
- First, it’s always best to get our tastes and minerals from real food. Anytime we try to consume isolates like MSG, we miss the balance that nature naturally builds into her bounty. According to Brittany Wright on The Chopra Center blogpost, “Glutamate in food, or bound glutamate, is present alongside other food components, including fiber and various nutrients. This whole package of nutrients naturally occurring in foods enables the glutamate to be absorbed slowly and in quantities our bodies are built to metabolize.” Include tomatoes, mushrooms and meats in your diet to capture that savory umami deliciousness in the most balanced way possible.
- Secondly, follow an Ayurvedic diet plan for your body type and current imbalances. Vatas do better with salty and umami tastes. Pittas have the highest sensitivity to glutamate and salt, particularly under pressure and in the heat. And Kaphas do better with less salt and savory umami as the salty taste leads to swelling, and the savory taste builds more tissue, which is not a need of most Kaphas. Therefore, Pittas and Kaphas won’t do as well with MSG and foods high in glutamate as people with lots of Vata or Vata imbalances.
- And know that sometimes you just have to trust your gut (and any other symptoms you might be experiencing). If you notice a typical MSG side effect after eating at a restaurant several times, chances are they use MSG, and you are sensitive to it at this time. You may want to request no MSG in future meals there or eat elsewhere.
If you desire to avoid MSG, you may be surprised at just how many foods contain it. Far beyond Chinese restaurants, most fast food and table service restaurants use it to keep customers happy. And the service staff may not even know it due to the variety of names it may be listed under on the label. If you find this list overwhelming, choosing restaurants that cook fresh or organic food should cover you nicely, as well as the best overall option–cooking fresh at home.
In general, MSG may not be harmful to you, but too much of it, particularly if you are sensitive, is not good for anyone. As with everything else we eat in Ayurveda, it’s best to know your body constitution, eat in accord with it, and maintain balance in everything. Namaste.
Umami and MSG
The sole purpose of this article is to provide information about the tradition of Ayurveda. This information is not intended for use in the diagnosis, treatment, cure or prevention of any disease. If you have an acute or chronic health concern, please consult a trained health professional who can fully assess your needs and address them effectively. If you are seeking the advice of a trained ayurvedic expert, call or email Karen Callahan at info@positivelyayurvedic.