Whole30 Now Allows MSG on Their Program—Here's Why That's a Good Thing

One of the most misunderstood seasonings on the planet now gets a thumbs up on this popular diet plan.

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a bottle of MSG on a designed background
Photo: Amazon, Getty Images / GOLDsquirrel

Here at EatingWell, we love to keep tabs on peer-reviewed studies to help share the latest news you need to know to lead your healthiest and happiest life. But we also know that some study designs can be less than accurate (see: self-reported diet studies) and some content that journals published is actually not reviewed by other experts at all.

Take, for instance, a 1968 letter one Robert Ho Man Kwok, MD wrote to the New England Journal of Medicine about some symptoms he alone felt after eating a meal at a Chinese restaurant. His hypothesis was taken as a conclusion by many who read about his "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome" woes, which Dr. Kwok pegged on MSG.

But in the 54 years since, we've learned a lot more about MSG—and even more about how this is total BS. And now, the CEO and co-founder of Whole30, Melissa Urban, is even taking a stand. And now MSG is now allowed as part of the Whole30 diet.

What Is MSG, Exactly?

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) enhances flavor in foods, bringing out the savory, or umami, qualities. It contains about one-third of the sodium as salt, and research (yep, peer-reviewed and published in the journal Nutrients!) proves that opting for MSG instead of salt reduces sodium consumption. The Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) has declared MSG to fall under the generally recognized as safe, or "GRAS" umbrella.

ICYMI, Americans eat around 13 grams of natural glutamate each day, on average, and consume about 0.5 grams of MSG. As we explain in our guide to MSG myths, in addition to being sold on shelves under the product name Accent and Ajinomoto and being added to certain restaurant dishes, glutamate actually occurs naturally in several common foods. These include:

  • Parmesan cheese
  • Tomatoes
  • Mushrooms
  • Almonds
  • Anchovies
  • Scallops
  • Clams

That means if you don't experience any noticeable symptoms after eating those glutamate-containing foods, any potential MSG "side effects" might be a bit of the placebo effect at play. Yes, you can be sensitive to it and if you feel best steering clear from this—or any ingredient—listen to your body. But there is no reliable evidence that MSG has adverse effects on health at normal-sized dose levels to make a blanket recommendation to avoid it.

Still, even today, more than four in 10 Americans still think MSG is "bad for you," according to a survey by the International Food Information Council (IFIC).

The Whole30 and MSG

To make the call to add MSG back to the Whole30 ingredient list, Urban studied up on several reports about MSG and consulted with Michelle Jaelin, RD, a registered dietitian with a focus on healthy Asian cuisine.

"MSG is one of the most misunderstood substances in the food supply. The western media has unfairly attributed MSG to be the cause of negative health symptoms, mostly based on anecdotes, poor science, and anti-immigration and anti-Chinese sentiments," Jaelin tells Urban in the Whole30 announcement. "There isn't enough evidence to say with certainty that MSG causes health problems and the entire concept has roots in xenophobia, or more accurately Sinophobia (the fear or dislike of China and its people)."

Between the "lack of verifiable science to back up any claims about MSG" and all of the conversations she has had with dietitians, Urban declared this week that all Whole30 blog posts, PDF downloads and website information will now remove MSG from the "off-plan" food lists, and all future printings of books will be updated to allow MSG on the menu.

"I've been researching this issue for two years, and started discussing it with my team in 2020. However, any change to the Whole30 rules has to be grounded in the current body of scientific evidence, and the implications for our community have to be carefully thought through," Melissa Urban, the founder of Whole30 tells EatingWell exclusively. "It took time to review the current findings, consult with our dietitian experts, and consolidate our position for the community, but as soon as we had reached a consensus, there was no reason to delay. This rule change isn't suggesting that MSG is a healthy choice for everyone—only that the science does not suggest it's universally problematic enough to specifically rule out for our 30-day elimination program. "

As far as in Urban's own kitchen, she snagged a bottle of MSG to experiment with in recipes in tandem with her scientific research. She and her husband tried shaking it over rice, veggies and eggs, and found that it "adds a delicious umami flavor, kind of like the mushroom powders I've used, without being salty. I've enjoyed adding yet another flavor additive to my repertoire, and found I tolerated it perfectly well," Urban tells us. "If you've ever had a Dorito, Pringle, Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup, or Chick-fil-A, you've eaten MSG. (I don't eat Whole30 all the time, so I've had eaten it plenty times before!)"

The Bottom Line

Urban hopes that this adjustment will send an important message to all who hear about the plan change, even those who don't follow Whole30.

"More than anything, I hope people dig into the racist history of the demonization of MSG, particularly in Chinese food. Folks assume that the recommendations against it have been grounded in substantial medical evidence, but it turns out they were mostly based on anecdotes, poor science, and anti-immigration and anti-Chinese sentiments. That alone was enough to prompt me to dig into more of the scientific research, and examine my own feelings about MSG, particularly in Chinese food," she tells us. "This rule change doesn't encourage anyone to consume MSG, nor suggest it's necessary for good health. It was simply the right thing to do for the scientific integrity of our program, and to support our diversity, equity, and inclusion values."

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