Photographed by Maria Del Rio.
Monosodium glutamate, more commonly known as MSG, has long been the bane of your go-to takeout hangover-cure's existence. If nothing else, you probably started going out of your way to avoid it only because it suddenly became the thing everyone was proud to not have in their foods (though that hasn't stopped Mission Chinese from offering it up as something to sprinkle on their dishes, right alongside the salt and the pepper). The thing is, though, Science really has nothing to give in terms of proof that MSG is harmful.
Especially popular in Chinese and Japanese cuisines, MSG, at its root, is a simple flavor enhancer. Because it can be added to a dish to intensify its more savory notes, many people overlook the fact that MSG also occurs naturally in foods and in our own bodies. And, the first and main ingredient in MSG is our old friend, sodium. (You know, the thing in common table salt.)
Of course, that has not stopped the steady flow of accusations that MSG is the culprit behind everything from headaches to obesity to infant mortality. Starting in the late '60s, studies implying the dangers of ingesting MSG emerged and began casting doubt on the safety of the additive. One went so far as to describe someone's allergic reaction to MSG as "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome." Since then, however, a more substantial connection between MSG and poor health has yet to be found. This is not to say that people who break out or get a headache after a plate of MSG-laden General Tso's are crying wolf; it's just that there isn't much consistency in when these reactions happen.
So, to bring everything back to those labels that brag about their total lack of MSG, they can go ahead and keep at it. But, they may be the ones crying wolf. After all, the FDA still approves of MSG as an additive and ingredient in our food, officially stating that it is "generally recognized as safe." Of course, this doesn't mean that sodium and its derivatives are fine to consume in excess. But, there's no need to fear for your life the next time you cave into a swimming-pool-sized bowl of ramen. And, if you're really worried about your health, you can always make your own.