Food & Drink

MSG isn't that bad for you, and other junk food ingredient reveals

bag of MSG
Dan Gentile

If you are what you eat, we hope you're not mechanically separated meat. Ouch. But if you're xanthan gum, high-fructose corn syrup, or the dread pirate of Chinese restaurants that goes by the acronym MSG, you're actually not in bad shape.

To help explain what the hell is going on with the labels of beloved products like Sriracha, as well as slightly less beloved sauces, snacks, and fast-food items, here are seven of the most popular food additives and some fact-nuggets about why you should love them, hate them, or just leave them alone.

Mechanically Separated Meat (aka MSM/pink slime)

What it's in: Chicken nuggets, hot dogs, pepperoni, jerky, canned soups
What it does: This puree of sad meat scraps and byproducts (bone! bone marrow! skin! nerves! blood vessels!) gives cheap meat-products their texture, although much of the flavor comes from elsewhere.
Why it's delicious: Umm, saving money is delicious, right?
Why you should be afraid of it: Bone! Bone marrow! Skin! Nerves! Blood vessels! Also, most fast-food joints have stopped using this, and the beef version was outlawed due to fear of mad cow disease.

Citric Acid

What it's in: Sodas, candy, canned foods, bathtub cleaner
What it does: Derived from citrus fruits, citric acid adds a sour flavor, and serves as a preservative by lowering a food's pH level. It can also neutralize the metals in food processing equipment. And impress your girlfriend by ridding your bathtub of mold.
Why it's delicious: Without it, Lemonheads would just be little balls of flavorless gelatin.
Why you should be afraid of it: A Bristol University study blamed it for decreasing tooth enamel, but otherwise this type of acid should not make you trip out.

Palm Oil (aka Palmate, Palmitoyl Oxostearamide, Vegetable Oil)

What it's in:Easy Mac, crackers, cookies, candy bars, shaving gel, nearly half of all supermarket items, napalm
What it does: Helps in the frying food process. Often serves as an additive of very saturated fat.
Why it's delicious: Did you not read that it helps in the food-frying process?
Why you should be afraid of it: Harvesting the oil from palm trees is displacing a lot of adorable animals like orangutans and sun bears, according to anti-palm oil organizations. Nutritional studies are mixed, as several, like this one from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, claim a link to heart disease, while others say palm oil can actually be a source of good cholesterol.

High-Fructose Corn Syrup

What it's in: Everything
What it does: Sweetens at a fraction of the cost of real sugar and allows farmers to unload crazy amounts of corn. Also functions as a preservative and texturizer.
Why it's delicious: Sweetens both the mouth and the wallet.
Why you should be afraid of it: Because it's cannibalizing American farmland, but also because the Mayo Clinic says that, while it may not be processed the same way, there's not enough evidence to show it's much worse for you than regular sugar.

Sodium Benzoate (aka E211)

What it's in: Salad dressing, sodas, condiments, vinegar, fireworks, medicine
What it does: Preserves food, prevents mold, and helps treat schizophrenia.
Why it's delicious: Because mold isn't.
Why you should be afraid of it: It's mainly safe, except when chemical reactions, like exposure to heat, turn it into regular benzene which can give you leukemia.

bag of MSG
Dan Gentile

Monosodium Glutamate (aka MSG)

What it's in: Soups, snack foods, the orange beef in takeout Chinese food, but definitely not the orange beef at your favorite Chinese restaurant.
What it does: Gives an umami boost to meats and savory snacks.
Why it's delicious: Okay, so while it's clearly not a superfood, MSG puts the pow in Kung Pao chicken and the cool in Cool Ranch Doritos.
Why you should be afraid of it: Although according to the FDA it's never really been proven, MSG is the official scapegoat for "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome", which includes symptoms like numbness, chest pain, weakness, and disappointment at overly generic fortunes.

Xanthan Gum

What it's in: Sriracha, laxatives, ice creams, gluten-free items, processed cheese, mustards
What it does: It thickens, adds viscosity, and keeps ingredients from separating.
Why it's delicious: Despite a bit of a plastic taste, your favorite foods wouldn't be the same without it.
Why you should be afraid of it: It's actually pretty good for you. WebMD says benefits include lower blood pressure and decreased reliance on wheat bran for digestive regulation.

Dan Gentile is a staff writer on Thrillist's national food and drink team. He is thrilled to know that Chinese food won't kill him, but isn't necessarily convinced that it will make him stronger. Follow him to more comforting scientific findings at @Dannosphere.