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Q&A: What is MSG? And how can I avoid it?

Each week, "Today" food editor Phil Lempert responds to your questions about ingredients, cooking and shopping.

Q: Why are more and more food companies, particularly those making soups, adding MSG for flavoring? And what exactly is MSG? I am allergic to this ingredient and want to find commercially produced soups that are low in sodium and do not contain MSG or other artificial ingredients.— Julie N.

A: Your question about MSG is one I receive constantly. The good news is that many food companies are eliminating this controversial ingredient.

MSG, short for monosodium glutamate, has been used in processed foods for many decades. In technical terms, it is the sodium salt of glutamic acid, an amino acid present in all protein. It has been around for nearly 100 years, having been isolated from seaweed by Professor Kikunae Ikeda of The University of Tokyo in 1908. Being both a salt and an acid, it acts as a flavor enhancer in similar fashion to salt and lemon.

As with beer, vinegar and yogurt, MSG is made through fermentation. Corn, sugar, beets, or sugar cane is fermented and the result is a white crystal that dissolves easily. Glutamate is found naturally in our bodies and in protein-containing foods like cheese, milk, peas, and mushrooms. Glutamate is in “free” form in some foods and can enhance flavors. This gives the unique flavor to tomatoes, certain cheeses and fermented or hydrolyzed protein products (soy sauce). Hydrolyzed proteins are used in the same manner as MSG in products such as canned vegetables, soups, and processed meats.

MSG received the Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) status from the FDA in 1959. Since then, many studies have continued to evaluate the safety of its consumption and the quantities that are tolerable. In the 1980s, it was shown the glutamate plays a vital role in the normal functioning of the nervous system. This spawned much questioning of glutamate in food and whether that could affect the nervous system and contribute to neurological disease. There are many reported cases of adverse reactions to MSG and hydrolyzed proteins. Typically, these are headaches, palpitations, vomiting, nausea and aggravated asthma.

The FDA regulations state that MSG added to food must be identified as monosodium glutamate; however, hydrolyzed proteins do not fall under this regulation. In 1993 the FDA proposed adding the phrase “contains glutamate” to any product that uses free glutamate or hydrolyzed proteins. Meanwhile, a government report in 1995 reaffirmed that MSG consumed at normal levels is safe for the general population and that there was no connection to any serious long-term reactions. (A normal serving contains 0.5g of MSG and a large dose is 3g or more per meal.) MSG Symptom Complex, a short-term reaction, was identified in people who consumed large quantities and in asthmatics.

The best bet to avoid this or any other artificial ingredients would be to use organic soups. There are dozen of brands available both in supermarkets and health food stores. Some of the leading brands of organic soups to consider are Amy’s Kitchen, Health Valley, Imagine Foods, Organic Gourmet, ShariAnn’s Organic and Walnut Acres.

Phil Lempert is Food Editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to If he uses your question in one of his columns, it may be edited for length and clarity. (Your full name and e-mail address will not be used.) You can also visit his website at