Is MSG the solution to high salt in our food?

Last week we revealed the results of a CHOICE investigation that found a number of the “healthy” burgers offered by popular gourmet burger chains such as Grill’d and Burger Edge have more salt than a McDonald’s Big Mac. In one example, Burger Edge’s Meat Lover contains 174% more salt than a Big Mac. It also exceeds the daily maximum limit set by the Australian Government’s National Health & Medical Research Council.

We’re all prone to the odd indulgence now and then, but at the core of our issue was that many of these burgers were being marketed as healthy. In any case, what if we could have all the flavour while cutting down on the health risks? At least some people think that MSG may be a solution.

Personally, I had always equated MSG to negative health effects, but the research tells a different story. Of course, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence on the negative effects of MSG too. So, is MSG a viable alternative to salt, and would you eat a burger containing MSG? Let us know in the comments below.


Having lived in China where it is very easy to get MSG and table salt confused when shopping at the supermarket (they both come transparent plastic bags and look the same when side by side) unless you know the Chinese characters for both. It is easy to buy the wrong one.

Many Chinese use MSG as freely as we use salt.

Before living in China we were also very careful in relation to buying ingredients that didn’t have any of the flavour enhancers (600 series of enhancers) as we were of the mistaken belief that it was no good for us.

However, after 12 months of eating a wholly Chinese diet where much of the food prepared both in restaurants and homes has MSG added either in sauces etc or through the pinch from the MSG bag, we suffered no ill effects. The Chinese also appeared to be healthy eating the same diet.

The only real concern we had was the amount of sodium we were consuming. We traditionally have a low sodium diet…we don’t add salt to home cooking and rely on the ingredients to add salt if and where they have added salt to the ingredient, and don’t eat fast food which has high amounts of free or hidden salt added.On our return we again picked up our low sodium diet. The ill effects occurred on our return as most foods tasted very bland. It took about 2-3 months for our taste buds to return to their former, pre-China glory, whereby we could enjoy the taste of low salt foods again.

We now have no issue eating MSG in bought foods as we don’t have any reaction to the MSG. We also eat a significant quantity of foods which are naturally high in MSG such as tomatoes and cheeses.

This is also some inform from the US FDA and Wikipedia on MSG which is also interesting.

It is interesting to note that research has shown that glutamate in MSG is chemically indistinguishable whether in the form of MSG or naturally occurring in proteins…and the body metabolising them the same way. It is a bit like a plant not knowing whether the nutrients in the soil solution are from a organic based fertiliser or a chemical fertiliser.

I also assume that it is like fertilisers when you add more than needed, it may result in undesirable consequences.


Wow, that’s some interesting insight @phb, thank for sharing it. I read that MSG has had more focus than almost any other food additive, and yet clearly its use is widespread in other countries.

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In China it is widely used and the supermarket shelves contain about the same quantity of MSG as there is salt. Unfortunately they are often side by side and about the same price which allows them to be easily confused. Chinese characters for MSG are 谷氨酸钠. Salt is 盐 or 氯化钠.

They are also similar colour (possibly MSG a little more translucent but can’t differentiate this under supermarket lights) and same crystal size (MSG possibly slightly more elongated if it has not been milled before bagging).


MSG is not a viable alternative to salt! I represent a community of over 14,000 people that would also agree. I would prefer to take salt over MSG any day! Grill’d are actually trying to provide a healthier alternative and they are going to get slammed on sodium content? I think it is appropriate to look at the bigger picture here.

Most people don’t seem to understand the impact that MSG has on the brain, it is an excitotoxin. MSG is an excitotoxin that shrivels and kills brain cells. An excitotoxin is a chemical that causes a brain cell to become overexcited and fire uncontrollably, leading to cell death. I can’t say that salt does the same thing!

Common adverse reactions resulting from MSG can also include:
mood changes
heart arrhythmia
heart palpitations and the list goes on…

There is a common misconception that MSG exists in natural foods. Low levels of glutamates occur naturally in many foods. If you aren’t allergic or intolerant to MSG, eating MSG at these quantities isn’t a problem. At normal levels in our system glutamates allow cells in the brain to communicate with each other.

The issue is when excessive amounts are consumed, the brain cells die. In these normal foods that contain free glutamate, different amino acids compete to get into the brain, so only a little enters the brain. Manufacturers have worked out that MSG can be produced from any food protein by hydrolyzing vegetable proteins, wheat proteins, or milk protein. These excessive amounts at much higher concentrations gets into the brain causing excitotoxic effects.

In comparison to the alternatives at Mc Donald’s the Grill’d burgers are much healthier, it depends what your definition of healthy is!

The research that you have referenced appears to be a little skewed and very little reference is given to Russell Blaylock’s findings (a neuro surgeon in Excitotoxins the taste that kills). This leads me to question who has funded all the studies referred to in this research paper.


MSG is hardly a substitute for table salt, the S in MSG stands for Sodium, and it has about 1/3 as much Sodium as Sodium chloride, common table salt. A much better substitute is Potassium chloride.

The Wikipedia page has plenty of useful info, including the results of double blind tests on its effects.


Yes, the sodium is one of the issues with MSG, and like table salt (in the form sodium chloride) can contribute to sodium intake

It is worth noting that glutamate is one of the commonly occurring non-essential amino acids.

Excessive glutamate consumption can cause problems, like overconsumption of many other things.

As @Additive_Free_Kids outlined some people claim/have negative reaction to excessive glutamate consumption.

Fortunately, we are like many in the community who have no such reactions at normal consumption levels,


Not sure about these days, but many many years ago Dad had a heart attack and stopped breathing after consuming red wine with chinese food. The Dr in the hospital said it was a common/known issue combining them. Thanks to a friend present who kept doing CPR till the ambos arrived dad was fine. Mum threw every single thing in the pantry out the next day that contained msg haha


I am a firm believer that fewer additives are more healthy most of the time, but some additives are more beneficial than not in the “right” amounts.

But, at the end of the day people are living longer, sometimes also better but not always, and the main cause of death is life. I don’t intend to be flippant, but the complex causes and effects of most nutritional issues and their outcomes to the human include facts, alternative facts, and statistics, and which is which is often in the eye of the beholder and sometimes tainted by the sponsor or an ulterior agenda, as you suggest.

The complex cause and effect relationships where it is almost impossible to exclude “3rd party” contributions are so difficult to conclusively demonstrate, the “healthy food discussion” has become noise to many of us. It seems that almost everything has protagonists and antagonists stoking fears that might or might not be valid even though it is mostly done in good faith.

Conclusively linking smoking to cancer took years and was a rare political win to boot, but there are still heavy smokers that implies that instant gratification can be more important to some people than their health since “it won’t happen to me”. And so it goes.

Would I be fatalistic? Perhaps. But worry is bad for one’s health too.


Interesting @gordon. According to this article from the HSPH, “Our bodies need far more potassium than sodium each day, but the typical US diet is just the opposite”. So seems like it could work, but also Consumer Reports has warned it may not be viable for those with kidney issues so perhaps this would just be another issue in the long run.

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I guess for those who may have problems with KCl and need to limit NaCl salt due to high blood pressure etc, there is always the option just using a tiny amount or not adding any sort of salt, which of course also means staying away from processed foods.

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Any form of added MSG or flavour enhancers is a no no in our household. Our food intolerances don’t allow it. There’s a lot of food on the shelves at the supermarket that we simply can’t eat because there are flavour enhancers of some sort in the ingredients. When we do manage to find a flavour enhancer free product it usually gets discontinued after a few months and we have to go without again. Salt doesn’t affect us. MSG and other added flavour enhancers do though. MSG makes life very difficult for our family.


Worry yes, concern, no. I don’t believe in worrying about things I can’t do anything about, but do concern myself with things I can change, or at least affect. Especially the misuse of apostrophes.

As someone who has an intolerance to MSG, no no NO. Msg makes me breathless, very lethargic, bloated and headachey. I do not like feeling like this at restaurants, and hate always havig to ask. The lethargy can take a day to disappate. How can that be considered safe?


Interesting proposition from @brendan. In my Uni days I was a hardened anti-MSG’er and found myself in a debate with my fellow pharmacology students about the harmful effects of salt vs MSG. Unfortunately l lost that argument. I did no know that more people have an allergic reaction to salt than to MSG. Needless to say I did not go into further MSG debates without having the full facts. (I can probably dig up this research if anybody is interested.)

Like @phb, after my conversion to the much maligned MSG, I not only tried MSG, but completed taste tests of salt vs MSG. Albeit in the safety of ones own home … and, yes kids you can try this one at home! You can easily find MSG in Asian grocery stores in Australia for those of you who dare try this “forbidden fruit”. I must say that taste tests all proved positive. Friends who dared to be entertained by this radical chef were amazed that they found his creations flavoursome yet sans any negative reaction. I even had some converts.

I know that this is anecdotal evidence, however I am just stupefied at how many of my friends and colleagues are “allergic or hypersensitive” to MSG through self diagnosis (… and when it comes to self experimentation and ingesting MSG, are completely amazed at my laissez faire attitude to scientific fact.)

The evidence presented by @phb is all valid and supports the studies that I have come across in my pharmacology days as well as recently. The “facts” against MSG appear to fall into three categories:

  1. anecdotal
  2. pseudo-science
  3. deliberate misinformation

Unfortunately there will always be naysayers when it comes to MSG. The truth is often lost in the mire of myth and misinformation and the fog is deep when it comes to MSG.


Hi @ChiVe,

I just did some quick searches for journal articles or academic papers (see below) and was surprised that they concur with your assessment. I has always thought the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome (MSG allergies and reactions) was real as it has been something often discussed and handed down from parents and friends. Until doing a little bit of research I thought that it was still real and proven.

This is possibly why going from a low MSG/sodium diet prior to living in China and then consuming higher levels for a year had no affect. One would think we would have been at risk to the sensitivities of added MSG/consuming higher levels than usual in China, especially coming from a diet of avoidance (we were also in the anti-MSG camp). I can recall however feeling thirstier (especially in the mornings) and drinking more water/tea. This could be possibly linked to the high salt/sodium intake. It could also be due to drinking baijiu which we were not used to and higher consumption of pijiu with meals, something we were also not used to.

Some of the journal articles debunking the MSG myth are as follow (and there are many more if one does their own searches):

Single and double blind studies with oral monosodium glutamate in man

The MSG Controversy

Review of Alleged Reaction to Monosodium Glutamate and Outcome of a Multicenter Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Study

It appears that the origins of the China Restaurant Syndrome myth started in 1968 and came from here. A quick scan indicates that this article has been debunked by research since.

I wonder if ones reaction to eating particular foods is not the MSG consumed are normal levels but potentially some other effects. For example, foods using MSG can also be relatively high in salt and sodium. Maybe the real effects are from the effect of the salt or sodium on the human body which is well researched and documented. It is also worth noting that MSG is also a salt (it is the salt of glutamic acid) which would also contribute to the salt effects…

I have also ‘learnt something today and will be able to sleep well tonight’.

So maybe @BrendanMays post is a possible solution if the resulting MSG/salt mix causes lower salt/sodium consumption. This may be a research project for Choice to carry out to determine taste of foods of various salt/MSG concentrations compared to salt by itself…and whether equivalent taste can be achieved with combined lower salt/MSG levels.


Yes, great evidence based articles there @phb,

I dont want to sound too harsh on the anti-MSGers nor am I an advocate for MSG. I do however have a preference for reasoned arguments based on logical information and fact based conclusions. In relation to the MSG debate, the evidence is not there for any arguments against using MSG.

Bringing this back to @BrendanMays original question, I would definitely like to see some studies associated with salt replacement. Western diets are heavily laden with salt, so providing an alternative (as we currently have with sugar alternatives) should be an avenue that is looked into.

I for one would gladly offer my taste buds up for any studies that may involve MSG - especially if it involves restaurant quality (ie Sepia, Tetsuyas etc) foods, of course.


My childhood was spent in Indonesia and I remember the large MSG tin on a shelf in the kitchen. MSG was treated as a worthy additive to the Javanese and other meals that our cook prepared.
I am now 71 years of age and very fit and well (on no medication) and do not considder MSG a health threat.


Of course, then there’s the issue of whether salt is even really a problem. Evidence is mounting that the current salt restrictions recommended by most major health organisations is too low. This is after results from the PURE study were published:

In this study in which sodium intake was estimated on the basis of measured urinary excretion, an estimated sodium intake between 3 g per day and 6 g per day was associated with a lower risk of death and cardiovascular events than was either a higher or lower estimated level of intake.

Guidelines on cardiovascular disease prevention recommend a maximum sodium intake of 1.5 to 2.4 g per day.

Low potassium is probably a bigger problem and high salt foods are typically associated with junk food. Therefore, it’s not a surprise that health organisations may have got this wrong and are typically slow to revise recommendations. Heck, it took them forever to revise their recommendations on egg yolks (they’re healthy for nearly everyone) and many doctors are still unaware of this.


(Additive free kids) Hi, thank you very much for putting out there what you know about MSG. I am one that suffered very very nasty pain in the form of migraine type pain. I have had my share of pain with different surgeries, broken bones, hormonal headaches, giving birth and painful sinus problems, but non of them, could not even come close to any or a combination of the other ailments when it came to MSG, the pain for the people that react to MSG it is indescribable and very real.

My parents used it, I left home and used it, having no idea it was MSG that was a main problem. I was in my 40 when a friend found out how bad I had it and shared that maybe go to an allergist, so I did and “way to go” was intolerant to MSG. so for the wrong people trust me they are not putting it on. It is so,so much better, life for me with out MSG. I wished I were dead when that pain came, just so I would not be around to feel it. God bless my friend Heidi.

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