You might have seen the sign at a Chinese restaurant declaring "No MSG." There seems to be a lot of controversy surrounding the white crystalline powder known as MSG, the initials stand for Monosodium Glutamate. Since that is a quite a mouthful we shall stick to calling it MSG.
MSG has been used in Asian cooking for centuries to enhance the flavor of food. Originally made by brewing a broth from seaweed, the chemical properties were isolated in the early 1900s. Today MSG is made from fermented sugar beet or sugar cane molasses, in a process quite similar to the way soy sauce is made. Found predominantly in Asian cooking, MSG has wheedled its way into the North American food industry where it is used to add flavor to packaged foods such as soups, sauces, seasonings, and instant snacks. It is also sold in the U.S. under the brand name Accent (Ajinomoto in Japan).
While the FDA has classified MSG as a food ingredient that is "generally recognized as safe," the use of MSG remains controversial. "Generally safe" in this case means asthmatics should avoid food containing MSG, since it might cause MSG syndrome. Once known as "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome," the symptoms of the syndrome include: headaches, dizziness, heart palpitations and bronchospasm (this is the side effect worse for asthmatics). There is serious debate in the scientific community if MSG is the culprit. On the other end of the spectrum some folks of the alternative medicine community believe that MSG contributes to Alzheimer's and other long term health problems, but there is no evidence to support these claims.
If you are trying to avoid MSG, it is important to know it has many aliases and here are a few: glutamic acid, hydrolyzed protein, autolyzed protein, textured protein, yeast extract, autolyzed yeast extract, calcium caseinate, and sodium caseinate.