MSG vs Sodium: What’s the Difference?

Most people have at least heard of MSG, or monosodium glutamate, and everyone has heard of sodium, or table salt, but how many of us know the difference between the two? There are more differences than just salt occurring in nature and whether or not MSG may or may not be guilty of its reputation for causing health problems.


Sodium has been so vital to humans throughout history that salt was even used to supplement the pay of Roman soldiers. All animal life has to have salt in their systems to survive. MSG was discovered when a kelp broth was evaporated and it was identified as glutamic acid. Most  people are surprised to learn that a substance called free glutamate exists in the human body naturally. While this is a different form than the bound glutamate MSG it does mean that MSG is not so unnatural after all. 


MSG is used as an additive in foods to bring out the sweet, salt, sour and/or bitter flavors to make them more tasty. Because MSG enhances flavors so much it is possible to reduce the amount of some other flavorings such as salt. Salt has been used as a food preservative since ancient Egypt and has been mined since around 6000 BC in China. It is still used as a preservative but many Americans have developed a “salt tooth” and overuse salt to the detriment of their health.

Health problems

MSG has previously had a bad reputation of causing nausea and headaches. Some Chinese restaurants, which have been thought to use a lot of MSG, now proudly proclaim “no MSG” in their advertising. One of the problems with MSG was that it was previously made from wheat gluten, which can make people with Celiac disease extremely sick. Now that MSG has no gluten in it there are fewer instances of people getting sick. Over consumption of salt has long been known to increase the risk of stroke and heart attacks by causing water retention and high-blood pressure.


Debate has raged for years because some doctors have accused MSG of possibly being able to cause brain damage from rapidly rising glutamate levels overstimulating the brain. Research has determined that there are no findings of harmful effects from MSG consumption. In addition, it is possible to reduce salt in foods by up to 40 percent when MSG is added to the foods instead of salt. Research has also shown that Americans consume more than double the four grams of salt per day that is considered safe.


With the results of research indicating that MSG has no long-term harmful effects it now becomes an issue of personal tolerance. So, if you do not have headaches or nausea from foods with MSG you can dig in with no fear. When it comes to salt, it is a safe bet that all of us would benefit from reducing the amount we consume since there is no debate about the harmful side effects of too much salt.


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