- The new chicken sandwiches at McDonald's, Popeyes, and Chick-fil-A all contain the MSG flavor enhancement chemical.
- Experts say MSG can enhance the so-called umami flavor of a food.
- The ingredient is found in everything from Chinese food and pizza to prepackaged sandwiches and table sauces.
McDonald's wants to get in on the chicken sandwich war currently being waged between Popeyes and Chick-fil-A.
And the fast food chain is reportedly looking to a controversial ingredient most commonly associated with Chinese food to give its sandwiches a flavor boost.
Monosodium glutamate, or MSG, is a key ingredient in a pair of chicken sandwiches being test marketed by McDonald's in 230 restaurants in Texas and Tennessee, according to CBS News.
The rival chicken sandwiches from Popeyes and Chick-fil-A also contain MSG.
The news represents something of a comeback for MSG — a flavor enhancer commonly found in Asian food — that's been the subject of health concerns going back decades.
"The consensus, according to the [Food and Drug Administration], is that MSG is generally recognized as safe," Jackie Elnahar, a registered dietitian and founder of TelaDietitian, told Healthline. "However, there are a small minority of people who tend to be more sensitive to MSG and they can experience headaches, flushing, and nausea."
That includes Alan Watson, 65, a retiree from South Carolina, who told Healthline that he's had severe reactions to MSG for more than 15 years, most commonly after eating Chinese food or hot dogs.
"If I have even a little bit of MSG in food it starts as a headache in the base of my neck and moves up to the top of my head," said Watson. "It's almost like a full-blown migraine that can last all day."
"There's really no purpose for MSG other than flavoring, so I wish restaurants would stop using it completely," he added. "At this point I will only eat Chinese food if the restaurant assures me there is not MSG anywhere in the building."
MSG is perceived as an "artificial ingredient," but Anju Mobin, managing editor of BestofNutrition.com, told Healthline that MSG is "a common amino acid naturally found in foods like tomatoes and cheese, which people then figured out how to extract and ferment — a process similar to how we make yogurt and wine."
While people like Watson may experience headaches, nausea, flushing, and other symptoms after consuming MSG, it remains a popular food ingredient particularly because of its ability to enhance "umami," a category of taste (such as sweet, sour, and salty) in food that corresponds to the flavor of glutamates.
"It makes food taste good even with less salt and fat," said Mobin.
"Monosodium glutamate is naturally occurring in many foods and adds a wonderful burst of umami flavor to dishes," said Ellie Golemb, chef of Culinarie Kit and Ghost Vegan.
Heloise Blaure, a chef and blogger at HomeKitchenLand.com, calls MSG the "best source of umami flavors."
"Making something taste sweet or salty is easy. All you have to do is add some sugar or salt to your recipe," Blaure told Healthline. "But enhancing the umami flavors in your food can be far more difficult."
"High-quality meat like wild elk and grass-fed beef have a strong umami flavor, but the stuff you buy on sale at the grocery store usually doesn't," Blaure continued. "Sprinkling a bit of MSG on your dish gives it a much meatier, more savory appeal."
Blaure said the reason it's hard to duplicate the flavor of movie theater popcorn at home is because the stuff they sell in theaters contains MSG.
"You can have theater-quality popcorn at home [by] drizzling melted butter over plain popcorn and topping it with a sprinkle of MSG," she said.
Other foods that commonly contain MSG include fried chicken, pizza, sausage, cheese, canned and packet soups, seasonings, powdered gravy granules, stock and bouillon cubes, cold meat cuts, table sauces like soy sauce, salty snacks, prepackaged sandwiches, and instant noodles.
"MSG has seamlessly worked its way into pretty much every crack and crevice of the food industry," Paul Jenkins, a chemist and nutritionist, told Healthline.
"Although it is typically associated with Chinese cuisine, this is no longer the case. MSG can be found in many different foods and is especially prevalent in canned and processed foods," Jenkins said.
Natural Alternatives Are Available
Basil Yu, chef owner of ramen popup restaurant Yagi Noodles in Newport, Rhode Island, told Healthline that he avoids using MSG because of the stigma associated with the ingredient.
"I honestly have no issues with it and find it's an amazing ingredient, but I know that some people may have adverse reactions," he said. "I use natural products like kelp and shiitake mushrooms for my umami and find that the flavors are more complex and nuanced."
Yu said that he's seen MSG used less frequently by chefs despite its umami-enhancing properties.
"I have never seen it in the professional kitchens I have worked in and my family's Chinese restaurants pride themselves on not using MSG," he said. "I think the public has a sense that MSG usage is related to lesser-quality food, even though that may not be true."
That said, "Even though it's not used much in commercial kitchens, I see it more and more everywhere in processed foods," added Yu.
He predicted that chefs will continue to seek whole-food sources of umami flavor rather than turning to MSG.
Jenkins said there are pros and cons of MSG consumption and that consumers should be informed whenever the flavor enhancer is added.
"If MSG is added to a food, this should be glaringly obvious to the consumer, enabling them to make an informed decision of whether or not they wish to buy that food," he said.