Eating MSG free in Thailand can be a difficult task. Most restaurants and vendors use it and deciding to cook for yourself can prove to be additionally difficult as most sauces and condiments contain the additive. Few labels list ingredients in English. The following is the result of years of trying to not be poisoned and often not succeeding.
MSG In Grocery Stores
- Assume anything savory contains MSG. Should a food label list ingredients in English, any ambiguous word for flavouring added should be assumed to include MSG. When in doubt, the safest course of action is to only buy savory products (i.e. sauces, potato chips, shredded pork, nori) and other pre-packaged foods that state they are MSG free.
- OTop is a national Thai brand that promotes natural foods geared towards maintaining one’s health. Their products are MSG free.
- Vegan products are safe and are don’t contain MSG. Large grocery stores such as Tesco and Big C generally carry some pre-made vegan meals. To identify them, read a previous post on the subject here.
MSG At Restaurants
It’s incredibly difficult to eat MSG free in a restaurant in Thailand. I have an intense MSG allergy and I can speak Thai – I continued to get poisoned for four years in the country. Some people don’t listen, some people forget, some people don’t care, some people fear the food won’t be delicious so they decide to put in less than they normally would, some people will prepare your food in a bowl with MSG in it from their last customer…the reasons are endless.
- Only go to restaurants where you can watch the preparation of your food (i.e. street vendor and roadside shops).
- Learn how to say the following phrase:
Mâi dtông sài pŏng choo rót nah. Mâi dtông sài Rotdee dûay kráp (for men) kâ (for women).
Essentially translated as, Please don’t add MSG. Don’t add Rotdee (a widely used seasoning powder which contains MSG) as well. Kráp (used by men) kâ (for women) are polite particles. Use them. I’ve been told that some people will add MSG in spite of the person ordering if they think they are pushy and/or high so (high society, which most people assume Foreigners, particularly if you are lighter skinned to be).
Really pay attention to the tones, ideally find someone who can speak Thai to teach you.
- Support Muslim businesses. Thai Muslims are restricted from cooking with MSG – I haven’t been served food at a Muslim eatery, be it a restaurant, a shopping mall stand or a vendor in the market that contained it.
- Be loyal to those that don’t poison you. I’ve found that if someone doesn’t poison you the first few times, there’s a good shot it won’t happen again. They may also enjoy having you as a regular.
- Go vegan. To identify vegan restaurants and proprietors visit my previously written post on the subject here.
- Skip the soup. The broth, the meats (unless raw) and the lukchin are dosed with MSG.
- Anything sweet won’t contain MSG, unless it’s sweet and savory (i.e. the small packets you receive when you purchase sliced fruit.)
- MSG is in a seasoning pack widely used, called Rotdee. The seasoning pack doesn’t have any English language on it (at time of writing). To avoid eating this, use the phrase listed in the post.
- Really pay attention when going to a vendor of any kind for the first time. However, please don’t be obnoxious in doing so, you may really anger the cook. I’ve caught a woman adding MSG to one of my orders who refused to admit she had done so, with a spoon of the remaining additive in her hand.
- Above all, trust your instinct, if you think you saw someone adding MSG in your food, don’t eat it. If you think it tastes too salty, buy another meal from somewhere else. I used to doubt myself, think I was being obsessive and on a number of occasions suffered for it. To give you an example, I lived at a gym in Bangkok for one year where the cook consistently added MSG to my food. She initially told me that she has stopped using both MSG and Rotdee after I mentioned my allergy. I trusted her. She lied. I eventually found out that she had been using less MSG and Rotdee. One of the ways I found out was that she admitted to it, after she informed me that I’m not allergic to MSG, I’m just allergic to a lot of it. Please note, my health suffered for it and my allergy became more acute as this went on for somewhere in the neighbourhood of a year. Looking at old photos from that period, I often have the inclination to delete them – swollen eyes, bad skin, not to mention it effected my stamina in the gym. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what was going on, when all it came down to was a woman who lied. And my faith in her lie. Don’t let this happen to you.
This is great info! There is not much info on this topic out so thank you for the helpful tips! My one downfall is that I just found this 4 months into my trip, with only two months left. But, better late then never!
Laura Dal Farra says
I’m glad it’s been useful to you!
Great article, I’m so glad I found this. I was living under the Illusion that the Thai food I’ve been injecting into my gullet 3 times daily for the past 12 months was better for me than my old American food. Will try this phrase at my regular place tonight. I’m friends with the staff so hopefully things’ll go smooth.
Laura Dal Farra says
Hi James – I’m glad the article was helpful!
Hey, just moved from Bali to Phuket and struggling to maintain the healthy diet I found over there (a lot easier, loads of raw vegan place, juice bars etc). Can you please tell any places around kata / karon / nai harn or even further, Looking for vegan, raw vegam, salad bars, cold pressed juice bars (a lot of the juice bars on the side of the road taste highly processed and sugary). What about som tam? Does that have MSG?
Sorry for the many questions. Do you know which water is the best here (no fluoride and low heavy metals etc). Thanks again!!
JC Andrijeski says
Thanks so much for this! I just moved here a few months ago, too, (a female, moved to Bangkok on my own) so I’m still learning the ropes. Realized I was getting very familiar types of headaches over the last week or so (what MSG does to me) and did a search and found this blog and other info on MSG in Thailand. On the plus side, at least now I can start working to find some safe places to eat. And in the bigger scheme of things, really this is fairly minor…every place has “stuff” so to me it’s just one more thing to learn to navigate in a new country, I absolutely love it here, in terms of the overall. A few little hiccups like this, but otherwise it’s been golden. 🙂
Laura Dal Farra says
Thanks JC! I’m really glad this piece will just add to your time in Thailand!
wow.. Just amazing info based on personal life experience. There is no question in my mind as MSG being the most harmful chemical used so commonly in our daily foods especially in ASIA. I always had problems processing thai food as I love it. Now I know the reasons. Just landed in Bankok. Will try the info mentioned. . THANKS for taking time to write this fantastic article.
Wow! Great article and very useful! My son is living in Thailand and I plan to visit soon. I am highly allergic to MSG. It causes flu-like symptoms in me and I feel seriously crappy for about 24 hours after being poisoned. I will have to be super careful while I’m there. Thank you for the article.
Thank you so much for sharing this! I have SVT (a heart condition) that is triggered about a day after I consume MSG. My symptoms have gone from once every few months in my hometown to about once a day in Thailand. Finding your article helped me understand that I’m not crazy.
In case it helps anyone, my symptoms were significantly lowered after I stopped eating Thai dishes and moved almost entirely to fried chicken. Not the most satisfying diet but at least I’m not getting STV symptoms once a day. After reading your article I might expand my diet a bit and see how it goes.