What makes Chick-fil-A's classic chicken sandwiches so delicious?
Some may swear that it's the perfectly crispy coating. Others point to the tangy pickles. And plenty of people have alluded to the fact that the chain uses peanut oil to fry up its filets.
The truth is that all of these sandwich components (and, yes, there are a lot) likely play into why it's been so popular for years, but there's one ingredient that Chick-fil-A uses in its sandwiches and nuggets that is not found in comparable items at McDonald's, Wendy's and Burger King.
That ingredient is monosodium glutamate, more commonly known as MSG.
While many people think MSG is only found in Chinese (or Americanized Chinese) cuisine, it's prevalent in dozens of all types of food items, including snacks like Doritos and powder mixes like Hidden Valley's ranch dressing.
But what is it anyway?
MSG is the sodium salt derived from an amino acid (glutamic acid), which is naturally present in our bodies and is also found in foods like Parmesan cheese, tomatoes and mushrooms. Chefs and food companies love it because MSG isn't just a salt, it's a flavor enhancer that provides the umami-like quality (also known as the fifth taste beyond sweet, sour, salty and bitter) to dishes, giving them a heartier, richer kick that lingers in the mouth.
Over the years, MSG has gotten a bad rap, with many people claiming it causes symptoms ranging from headaches and sweating to nausea. The backlash it received in the late 1980s and early 1990s has been hard to shake — several food writers have attributed this in part to racist, anti-Asian sentiment as different cuisines grew more popular — and many people continue to avoid MSG today in the same way that people assume all preservatives are bad.
But, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), MSG is "generally recognized as safe," and aside from anecdotal reports, there are no reputable scientific studies that have been able to conclusively prove that it was actually MSG that caused those reported symptoms. A spokesperson for the FDA tells TODAY.com via email that "MSG is not a true allergen in that there has been no evidence that substances in MSG cause immune mediated food allergic reactions."
Think of MSG like peanut oil (or any other type of food or additive): MSG will be dangerous if you are allergic to peanuts or have a natural intolerance to it. Unlike peanuts, however, MSG is not a known common allergen. Just like any other type salt, MSG should not be consumed in massive quantities.
Nutrition and wellness expert Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, tells TODAY.com that it can be difficult to pinpoint the origin of some food sensitivities, and that's especially true when you're eating a dish that has a lot of ingredients. "I think that people can legitimately feel bad after eating a meal that is very high in sodium, whether that sodium comes from [plain] salt or MSG," Largeman-Roth said. "That doesn’t mean that MSG is harmful. Also, they may have a sensitivity to gluten or another food additive that could be in their meal."
Though MSG occurs naturally, to make the flavoring agent, it was first extracted and crystallized from seaweed broth. Today, it's created during a fermentation process similar to making yogurt or soy bean paste.
MSG is just one of many FDA-approved food additives, like monocalcium phosphate, sodium bicarbonate and sodium acid pyrophospate, which are used for different purposes, such as leavening. Many of these are also found in other fast-food items, too.
But MSG shouldn't just be considered as a cheap way to enhance flavor. Award-winning chefs like David Chang of the Momofuku restaurant empire and Grant Achatz of Chicago's Alinea use MSG in their dishes. The enhancer is also available online and at grocery stores.
In the same way that Chipotle tried to appeal to more health-conscious eaters by promoting its all-natural food (though few nutritionists would ever consider a 1,000-calorie burrito to be a health food), many restaurants today still proudly advertise that their food is free of MSG — even if other menu items are still filled with lots of other additives, fat and calories.
When reached via email about whether its breaded chicken contains any MSG, a Burger King spokesperson tells TODAY.com, "Burger King has made substantial changes to its menu to embrace and promote 100% real food — fresh produce, beef and vegetables — and this will increasingly become part of our core marketing for our guests. Part of this important commitment is fully removing MSG from our menu and we’re proud to say that our plan is to have this complete by the end of this year."
Burger King does still use MSG in the current recipe for its Chicken Fries.
As for the beloved chicken-first chain?
A spokesperson for Chick-fil-A tells TODAY.com that the company is aware some customers may be sensitive to MSG and while its classic chicken sandwich, spicy chicken sandwich and chicken nuggets all contain MSG, the chain is "researching the removal of MSG from these menu items." The spokesperson did not provide a timeline for this potential transition but noted that many items on the menu, including the chain's grilled items, do not contain MSG.
If Chick-fil-A does end up removing MSG from its menu altogether, there may actually be an unintended consequence. Along with its ability to make food taste more potent, MSG is also considered as a tool to help lower the total sodium count of processed foods or recipes. Says Largeman-Roth, "You can lower the sodium in a dish by [up to] 25% using MSG because it boosts flavor so well."