MSG vs. Aspartame: Different, Individualized Perceptions

14 Mar

Above: MSG use is more prevalent than many people believe or know. Many processed foods such as chips contain MSG.

I have a habit of crunching on snack foods periodically while working on a very long homework assignment for a very long time; eating snacks seems to give me comfort and relieve my stress. So while working with a friend on such an assignment “requiring” the periodic consumption of, on that day, Pringles, I came to register the fact that I was actually ingesting monosodium glutamate or more commonly known as MSG when I informed my friend of the “unhealthiness” of my choice of junk food snacks. This fact bothered me a little, not because I didn’t know most chips contained MSG but because I realized for the first time that I was ingesting this potentially harmful substance willingly and without caution. I was surprised at myself, who is strictly opposed to any consumption of aspartame, to not be also banning MSG from my diet. I became intrigued by the question of why I eat MSG-containing foods so often while abstaining from aspartame. What makes these substances so different to trigger such different responses? Could my reaction to MSG explain why so many others continue to consume aspartame? These are the questions that I will attempt to answer through this post entry.

Although MSG and aspartame have very different chemical structures and pharmacological actions in the body, MSG and aspartame resemble each other in several ways. For example, both MSG and aspartame are food additives that enhance the flavor of food, both are approved by the FDA as safe for consumption (MSG categorized as a Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) substance by FDA and a comprehensive review of aspartame research by Magnuson et al in 2007 shows that aspartame consumption at current level is safe), and the safety of both have been supported and challenged over the years. While both the proponents and opponents for the use of either substances come from all over the world, it seems to me that aspartame is more accepted in the United States while MSG is more accepted in Asian cultures.

Growing up in a Chinese household, I’ve consumed meals cooked with MSG ever since I was able to eat solid food. Although my parents only used MSG occasionally in soup, my grandparents cooked almost every dish with MSG. To my grandparents, adding MSG is as normal as adding salt. After eating this chemical almost every day for their entire lives, my grandparents remain healthy to this day. Myself of course continue to each this substance, albeit much rarer after moving to the United States. So far, I have not had any side effects from previous MSG use or current consumption of MSG containing food.

Although my grandparents and I did not experience immediate side effects or long term health consequences from consuming MSG, I understand that, like every chemical substance, a portion of the population do react unfavorably to this substance. Thus, knowing this, why do I still feel comfortable consuming MSG and not aspartame? Similarly, why is it more acceptable to consume aspartame than MSG in the United States? The answer, I believe, is the “got used to” factor. Every since I was young, I have consumed MSG with my family and relatives, and therefore MSG doesn’t seem dangerous at all. However, with all my relatives around me opposing the consumption of aspartame, citing its toxic effects and the danger it poses to health, I have grown up viewing aspartame as a very dangerous substance that I should never consume. In contrast, many of my peers growing up in more Americanized home environments (this include all ethnicity and nationalities, even Asian Americans, etc) are much more comfortable consuming aspartame, but they are as against consuming MSG as I am against aspartame consumption!

It is very interesting to me how despite the similarities between MSG and aspartame mentioned above, people developed opposite perceptions on their relative safety. This make me wonder whether many other such food additives and food by themselves (processed food most likely) are consider healthy or not healthy only because we have been exposed to them for such long periods of time that they’ve become an integrated part of our lives so we no longer question their safety? (i.e. food coloring).

Above: Some claims about the dangerous effects of MSG on health.

For fun…food for thought:
Cartoon of MSG usage in Chinese food
Above: Cartoon about MSG from an original artist on


Posted by on March 14, 2011 in In our food...


Tags: , , , ,

5 responses to “MSG vs. Aspartame: Different, Individualized Perceptions

  1. Chris

    March 19, 2011 at 8:44 pm

    I always see foods marked with “No MSG added” or other descriptions of the sort that make me think there must be some negative effects of the substance. I saw some studies that it might be implicated in migraines, but do you know what the substance actually does?

    I think we probably consume chemicals or other compounds that are unhealthy for us daily, so at some point you just have to draw a line for yourself in terms of what you will consume and what you want to avoid. It is interesting, though, to see where we draw that line.

  2. Joe Harris

    March 20, 2011 at 7:57 pm


    I was struck by this post, since it made me realize that one of the few chemicals that I do try to regulate in my diet is MSG. I know it gives me a kind of head-achey, blurry feeling, so I always ask for “no MSG” and avoid chips and such.

    But that makes me wonder: How many other chemicals am I ingesting that, for one reason or another, I just don’t pay much attention to? Maybe we only pay attention to those additives that we happen to be sensitive to—while we should actually be more alert to all of them?

    BTW, I really like the changes you’ve made to your template and format.


  3. Margaret

    March 21, 2011 at 6:08 pm

    Hi Peiying,

    I had no idea such mainstream food items like Doritos have MSG in them. It’s strange because most people claim they can tell when food they’ve eaten in restaurants has MSG in it, but I’ve never heard anyone complain about an adverse reaction from chips. I think you did a good job of combining a personal narrative with factual information and research (something I strive for in my own blog), but I would have liked to know a little bit more about the specifics of why MSG is dangerous.

    I also enjoy the cartoons at the end of all your posts–they add continuity and humorously summarize the topic of your posts. One thing I might do is make the font a little bit bigger so its easier to read but that’s a personal preference.

    I also like the changes you made to the format!


  4. Bessie Zhang

    March 21, 2011 at 6:13 pm


    This was a really interesting post. I generally avoid both MSG and aspartame, because I’ve heard bad things about the long-term effects of both substances. I wonder if Americans’ acceptance of aspartame is linked to its use in diet foods and beverages. Perhaps the “anything to be skinny” mentality has given aspartame its edge in American markets.

  5. Christina Pena

    March 21, 2011 at 6:16 pm


    This was a really thought-provoking post. Like Margaret mentioned I had no idea that so many mainstream “junk food” items contained MSG. The first thought that came to my mind were signs in my high school cafeteria warning that some items may contain MSG.

    I also found it really interesting that you discussed cultural differences between effects and perceptions of substances like MSG. I think that personal perspective really made the post enjoyable to read.

    I really like the new format of your blog. I think it is very clean and focuses more on your text. However, I found the length of your post a bit daunting. I might try to break up the text a little more to make it easier on the reader’s eyes.

    I look forward to reading more!



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