Chick-fil-A's popular chicken sandwich contains a controversial ingredient

What makes Chick-fil-A's classic chicken sandwiches so delicious?

Some may swear by the perfectly crispy coating. Others may point to the tangy pickles. And plenty of people have alluded to the fact that the chain uses peanut oil to fry up its filets.

The truth is that all of these sandwich ingredients (and yes, there are a lot) likely play into why it's been so popular for years, but there's one ingredient in particular Chick-fil-A uses in its sandwiches and nuggets that is not found in comparable items at McDonald's, Wendy's and Burger King.

And that ingredient is monosodium glutamate, more commonly known as MSG.

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Chick-fil-A secret menu items
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Chick-fil-A secret menu items

Buffalo Chicken Sandwich

This is simply the Spicy Chicken Sandwich plus the signature Zesty Buffalo Sauce. You end up with a crispy buffalo chicken sandwich that’s loaded with dill pickles chips, and it’s delish!

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Spicy Char

The Spicy Char, which is a grilled version of the Spicy Chicken Sandwich, is one of the most famous of Chick-fil-A’s secret menu items. In fact, this one is most likely available just by asking for it by its full name: the Spicy Char-Grilled Chicken Patty.

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Fried Chicken Club

So the Spicy Char is the grilled version of a fried sandwich, and the Fried Chicken Club is the fried version of a grilled sandwich. It’s a tasty twist on the classic Grilled Chicken Club Sandwich. If it’s not available by name, ask for fried chicken instead of the grilled patty in your usual Club sandwich.

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Chicken, Egg & Cheese Biscuit

The regular menu includes a Chicken, Egg & Cheese Bagel, but you can also ask for it on a biscuit to make a buttery Chicken, Egg & Cheese Biscuit.

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Spicy Chicken, Egg & Cheese Bagel

If your local Chick-fil-A has Spicy Chicken during the breakfast shift, you’ll be in luck! This sandwich is well-known enough that you can ask for it by name.

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Chicken on Anything at Breakfast

We’ve heard from Chick-fil-A employees and former employees that because chicken is on the chain’s breakfast menu, you can customize pretty much any breakfast sandwich by adding chicken. For any locations that (secretly) have Spicy Chicken during the breakfast shift, make that a Spicy Chicken plus the Bacon, Egg & Cheese Biscuit!

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Bacon on Anything at Breakfast

You also can customize pretty much any Chick-fil-A breakfast sandwich by adding bacon. Hello, Hash Brown Scramble Burrito with Bacon!

Seeing a trend? You can pretty much ask for anything that’s on the menu to be added to anything else, and if it’s not too complicated, and your server’s not too busy, there’s a good chance you’ll get exactly what you want. Woo! 

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Grilled Cheese

For a no-meat meal, the bun from any sandwich can be toasted with sliced cheese. Think you might want pickle chips, lettuce and tomato, too? Order a Chick-fil-A Deluxe, hold the chicken.

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While many people think MSG is only found in Chinese food, it's prevalent in dozens of everyday food items, including snacks like Doritos and mixes like Hidden Valley's ranch dressing powder.

But what is it anyway?

It's the sodium salt derived from the amino acid glutamic acid, which is naturally present in our bodies and is also found in foods like Parmesan cheese, tomatoes and mushrooms. Chefs and food companies love it because MSG isn't just a salt but it's also a flavor enhancer that provides an umami quality (also known as the fifth taste beyond sweet, sour, salty and bitter) to dishes, giving them a heartier, richer kick.

Is MSG dangerous?

Over the years, MSG has gotten a bad rap, with many claiming it causes symptoms ranging from headaches to nausea after consumption. The backlash it received in the late 1980s and early 1990s has been hard to shake — several authors have attributed this in part to racist, anti-Asian sentiment — and many people continue avoid MSG today in the same way that people assume all preservatives are bad.

But, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), MSG is "generally recognized as safe," and there are no reputable scientific studies that have been able to conclusively prove that MSG caused those reported symptoms. A spokesperson for the FDA told TODAY Food via email that "MSG is not a true allergen in that there has been no evidence that substances in MSG cause immune mediated food allergic reactions."

Think of MSG like peanuts: It will be dangerous if you are allergic or have a natural intolerance to it. And, just like any other type salt, MSG shouldn't be consumed in massive quantities.

Nutrition and wellness expert Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, told TODAY that it can be difficult to pinpoint the origin of some food sensitivities, and that's especially true when you're eating a dish that has a lot of ingredients. "I think that people can legitimately feel bad after eating a meal that is very high in sodium, whether that sodium comes from salt or MSG," Largeman-Roth said. "That doesn't mean that MSG is harmful. Also, they may have a sensitivity to gluten or another food additive that could be in their meal."

Though MSG occurs naturally, to make the flavoring agent, it was first extracted and crystallized from seaweed broth. Today, it's created during a fermentation process similar to making yogurt or soy bean paste.

MSG is just one of many FDA-approved food additives, like monocalcium phosphate, sodium bicarbonate and sodium acid pyrophospate, which are used for different purposes, such as leavening. Many of these are also found in fast-food items, too.

But MSG shouldn't just be considered as a cheap way to enhance flavor. Award-winning chefs like David Chang of Momofuku use MSG in their dishes. The enhancer is also available online and at grocery stores. It's also found in foods meant to further enhance the flavor of any dish, like McCormick's Culinary Flavor Enhancer.

In the same way that Chipotle tried to appeal to more health-conscious eaters by promoting its all-natural food (though few nutritionists would ever consider a 1,000-calorie burrito to be a health food), many restaurants today still proudly advertise that their food is free of MSG — even if menu items are still filled with lots of other additives.

When reached via email about whether its breaded chicken contains any MSG, a Burger King spokesperson told TODAY, "Burger King has made substantial changes to its menu to embrace and promote 100% real food — fresh produce, beef and vegetables — and this will increasingly become part of our core marketing for our guests. Part of this important commitment is fully removing MSG from our menu and we're proud to say that our plan is to have this complete by the end of this year."

Burger King does use MSG in the current recipe for its Chicken Fries.

As for the beloved chicken-first chain?

A spokesperson for Chick-fil-A Inc. told TODAY that the company is aware that some customers may be sensitive to MSG and while their classic chicken sandwich, spicy chicken sandwich and chicken nuggets all contain MSG, the chain is "researching the removal of MSG from these menu items." The spokesperson did not provide a timeline for this potential transition but noted that many items on the menu, including the chain's grilled items, do not contain any MSG.

If Chick-fil-A does end up removing MSG from its menu altogether, there may actually be an unintended consequence. Along with its ability to make food taste more potent, MSG is also considered as a tool to help lower the total sodium count of processed foods or recipes. Said Largeman-Roth, "You can lower the sodium in a dish by [up to] 25% using MSG because it boosts flavor so well."

13 PHOTOS
Chick-fil-a through the years
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Chick-fil-a through the years
UNITED STATES - 2008/09/01: Chickfila fast food restaurant. (Photo by John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images)
(cm ) BZ22CHICK_CM03 Chick-fil-A Inc. president and COO Dan Cathy, son of the chain's founder Truett Cathy, sounds the trumpet while visiting one of his franchises in Littleton, 9976 W. Remington Place, on Monday, April 20, 2009. Later in the week on Thursday, April 23, Cathy will help open the 1440th nationwide franchise at 4090 River Point Parkway in Sheridan. Cathy an avid trumpet player belted out a happy birthday rendition to customers who were visiting the Littleton restaurant. Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post (Photo By Cyrus McCrimmon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Chick-fil-A team member, Lierin Patterson, loads up orders at the restaurant near Southlands Mall in Aurora recently. The ReturnMore company had partnered with this Chick-fil-A, presenting flyers with a QR code on them, right, that once scanned on a smartphone, will connect you to the Chick-fil-A facebook page and will then offer coupons for special discounts, in this case, a free sandwich. Andy Cross, The Denver Post (Photo By Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
A man packs up a tent in the parking lot before the grand opening of the Chick-fil-A Inc. restaurant in Costa Mesa, California, U.S., on Thursday, April 26, 2012. 100 lucky customers who camped out for over 24 hours received coupons good for a year's worth of free meals. Costa Mesa's first Chick-fil-A restaurant is one of 96 locations the chain plans to open across the country in 2012, creating nearly 7,000 new jobs according to the company. Photographer: Patrick Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A Chick-fil-A logo is seen on a take out bag at one of its restaurants on July 28, 2012 in Bethesda, Maryland. Chick-fil-A, with more than 1,600 outlets mainly in the southern United States, has become the target of gay rights activists and their allies after president Dan Cathy came out against same-sex marriage last week. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/GettyImages)
A Chick-fil-A restaurant August 1, 2012 in Manassas, Virginia on Chick-fil-A Day of Appreciation. The ongoing controversy over an interview with Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy has grown during the past two weeks and now involves an Appreciation Day, to be followed by a counter-Appreciation Day and a 'Kiss-in.'' Comments by Cathy over same-sex marriage went viral, and several entertainers, musicians and politicians condemned Cathy for being 'hateful and bigoted.' AFP PHOTO/ Karen BLEIER (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/GettyImages)
A man carries he drink outside a Chick-Fil-A fast food restaurant in Hollywood, California August 1, 2012. Thousands of Americans turned out Wednesday to feast on fried chicken in a politically-charged show of support for a family owned fast-food chain which opposes same-sex marriage. Long lines and traffic jams were reported throughout the American heartland after 630,000 people declared on Facebook they would take part in a Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day. AFP PHOTO / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/GettyImages)
CHICAGO - JANUARY 12: Chick-fil-A restaurant, in Chicago, Illinois on JANUARY 12, 2013 (Photo By Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
An original chicken sandwich and waffle fries are arranged for a photograph at a Chick-fil-A Inc. restaurant in Bowling Green, Kentucky, U.S., on Tuesday, Mar. 25, 2014. The U.S. economy grew more rapidly in the fourth quarter than previously estimated as consumer spending climbed by the most in three years, showing the expansion had momentum heading into this years harsh winter. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 2: The interior of Chick-Fil-A, a day before its opening, on 37th Street and 6th Avenue, on October 2, 2015 in New York City.. The fast food chicken restaurant is set to open its first store in Manhattan. (Photo by Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images)
The Chick-fil-A mascot rides an elevator during an event ahead of the grand opening for the restaurant in New York, U.S., on Friday, Oct. 2, 2015. Chick-fil-A, the Southern chicken-sandwich chain that has drawn both controversy and copycats over the years, has finally arrived in New York. The company will open a 5,000-square-foot (465-square-meter), three-level restaurant in Manhattan's Garment District that will be the chain's largest location in the nation. Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg via Getty Images
NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 2: The exterior of Chick-Fil-A, a day before its opening, on 37th Street and 6th Avenue, on October 2, 2015 in New York City.. The fast food chicken restaurant is set to open its first store in Manhattan. (Photo by Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images)
A employee picks up a fried chicken sandwich during an event ahead of the grand opening for a Chick-fil-A restaurant in New York, U.S., on Friday, Oct. 2, 2015. Chick-fil-A, the Southern chicken-sandwich chain that has drawn both controversy and copycats over the years, has finally arrived in New York. The company will open a 5,000-square-foot (465-square-meter), three-level restaurant in Manhattan's Garment District that will be the chain's largest location in the nation. Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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