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Is MSG Unhealthy? The Weird Truth + Sneaky Names for MSG Hiding Right on Food Labels

Written by Ali Donahue
Is MSG Unhealthy? The Weird Truth + Sneaky Names for MSG Hiding Right on Food Labels

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We've written about the sneaky names for sugar hiding on food labels, but what about MSG, which makes its way into many packaged foods? Here's what you need to look out for if you're trying to stick with your whole food plant-based diet.

On This Page 

What is Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)?

Is MSG Unhealthy or Not?

How to Spot MSG on Food Labels

Key Takeaways

What is Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)?

Chances are you've heard about the controversial monosodium glutamate (MSG) before, and it's very possible that you've tasted it (probably without even knowing it!). It can be found in many processed and packaged foods from canned vegetables and soups to meats. 

But what is it?

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a flavor enhancer and preservation additive. It used to be a very common ingredient of Chinese food, too. In fact, there was a term for the discomfort and symptoms people used to experience after eating Chinese food, called “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome." Today, it’s known as MSG symptom complex. The symptoms included headaches, flushing, sweating, and bloating. 

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) MSG is "generally recognized as safe," but because of the controversy around its use, it’s required to always be listed on food labels. 

Is MSG Unhealthy or Not?

The jury's still out which I know can be disconcerting for many people trying to eat healthy. Here's what we do know:

Some in the scientific community say it's safe, while other scientists warn of MSG's possible dangers, including its potential ability to accelerate cancer growthMonosodium glutamate is also known to cause mild reactions to the majority of the population, ranging from headaches and sweating, to chest pains, nausea, and weakness, as mentioned above.

MSG has also been associated with weight gain. This is due to its obesity-inducing properties. Also known as an obesogen, it drives weight gain in three distinct ways:

1. It makes food taste really good and makes people want to keep eating more and more.

2. It may make your body resistant to leptin so that your brain never gets the message that you’re full.

3. It is linked with increased insulin secretion, which leads to a drop in your blood sugar, making you feel hungrier and crave junk foods.

How to Spot MSG on Food Labels

MSG food labels

It can be hard to be absolutely certain that a packaged product is free of MSG, as it can be disguised using other names. One of the benefits of a whole food plant-based diet is that you're buying lots of unpackaged foods (from the produce aisle) but there are still times when packaged items make their way into your WFPB cart, and in these cases, learning to read food labels is key!

Since the FDA requires MSG to be on your food labels you'd think it'd be easy to find but food companies are savvy and use more than one name for this additives. Here are some of the other names for MSG to look out for:

  • Monosodium glutamate 
  • Sodium glutamate
  • Sodium 2-aminopentanedioate
  • Glutamic acid
  • Monosodium salt
  • Monohydrate
  • L-Glutamic acid, 
  • L-Monosodium glutamate monohydrate
  • Monosodium 
  • L-glutamate monohydrate
  • Sodium glutamate monohydrate
  • UNII-W81N5U6R6U
  • Flavour enhancer E621

  • Key Takeaways

    • MSG is a flavor enhancer and preservation additive. It's dangers are hotly debated in the scientific community though it's been linked to increase risk for weight gain, leptin resistance, increased insulin secretion, and even cancer growth acceleration in animal studies.
    • Due to the controversy surrounding MSG, the FDA does require all food labels to list it as an ingredient.
    • Food companies do use more than one name for MSG, however so it's important to not only read your food labels but to be aware of MSG's many names if you're hoping to avoid the additive. 



    Rafaela Michailidou is a Vegan Lifestyle Coach, and a freelance health and wellness content writer, with a Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies.


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