We all occasionally crave a good cup of instant ramen. But what often holds us back from enjoying one is a combination of factors that make ramen unhealthy: processed ingredients, preservatives—and MSG. We generally know MSG as the menace, the unhealthy additive that makes cheap Asian food distinctively enjoyable but also makes us extremely thirsty afterwards. So what exactly is MSG?
When added sparingly, monosodium glutamate, or MSG, can create a satisfying, savory flavor that salt fails to mimic. However, MSG has built up a rather notorious reputation for causing headaches, stomachaches, and just general feelings of discomfort. Scientifically, though, studies have not been able to prove a direct link between MSG and these negative reactions, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration claims that MSG is safe1.
On the other side of the spectrum we have umami, the recently discovered fifth taste that has sparked a wave of trendy new restaurants such as Umami Burger and Koja Kitchen. Natural umami is known to have a savory flavor commonly associated with things like soy sauce, meat, and seaweed. But let’s take a step back—what’s the difference between the guilty-pleasure MSG flavor in instant ramen and the umami that fashionable Asian restaurants love to promote?
The reality is, MSG and umami give us the same taste experience. While MSG has a negative connotation and umami has a largely positive one, they actually use the same molecule—an amino acid called glutamate—to activate our taste receptors.
When we take a sip of that flavor-packed ramen soup, glutamate molecules bind to specific taste receptors in our taste buds. This triggers a second messenger inside the receptor cell to notify nearby calcium channels—which act as gate-keepers that determine the amount of calcium inside the cell—about the presence of glutamate. Calcium then flows into the receptor cell, setting off a chain reaction that eventually allows the cell to release neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are small molecules that tell subsequent nerve cells to relay a message; in this case, the message is that there is glutamate in our delicious ramen.
Once the message leaves the taste receptor, it navigates a complex highway of nerve cells, also known as neurons, to its destination in the brain stem. From there, the message is relayed to the gustatory cortex and ah—now we taste the delicious, savory flavor of noodle soup (see diagram).
Whether it’s a fancy Asian restaurant with promises of rich umami or a cup of ramen from the convenience store, our taste buds see the same thing: glutamate. Of course, it’d be a bit of a stretch to say that MSG-packed ramen and a meaty umami burger have identical flavor profiles; after all, flavor is a combination of many factors including both taste and smell. But in terms of the savory taste that keeps us coming back for more, MSG and natural umami trigger the same reaction in our brains. The difference between MSG and umami is merely contextual: MSG is analogous to a vitamin gummy, while natural umami is like a vitamin-filled fruit2.
Although it’s easy to point to MSG as the culprit behind the malaise following a cup of instant ramen, we can alternatively dig a little deeper and stay open-minded about the foods we eat. While I’m not encouraging you to eat ramen all day every day, MSG shouldn’t necessarily be the thing that holds you back from slurping a warm bowl of noodles after a long day.
 10 Things to Know About MSG. (n.d.). Retrieved February 19, 2017, from http://www.glutamate.org/benefit/10_things_to_know_about_msg.html
 Geiling, N. (2013, November 08). It's the Umami, Stupid. Why the Truth About MSG is So Easy to Swallow. Retrieved February 19, 2017, from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/its-the-umami-stupid-why-the-truth-about-msg-is-so-easy-to-swallow-180947626/