You’re probably familiar with the food additive MSG. It’s notorious for its use at Asian restaurants and for giving sensitive people migraine headaches. In fact, the headaches and other symptoms that arise from MSG were previously referred to as Chinese restaurant syndrome.
But MSG appears in more places and under a greater variety of names than you might think. Here’s why MSG has a bad rap, why it’s in food, what it does, and how to avoid it.
What is MSG?
MSG stands for monosodium glutamate. It’s a common food additive made from the amino acid glutamic acid, which occurs naturally in the human body and certain foods. The “sodium” in the middle indicates this ingredient is in its salt form. It’s also used similarly to table salt as a flavor enhancer.
MSG was first isolated in 1908 by a Japanese biochemist named Kikunae Ikeda. He had been working to duplicate the taste of kombu, a seaweed used as a base for many Japanese soups. He named this new flavor enhancer, Ajinomoto, Japanese for “essence of flavor.” In the lab, it’s made by fermenting corn, wheat, sugar cane, sugar beets, molasses, or tapioca.
MSG gives food that “umami” taste, the savory fifth taste of the five basic taste sensations. (The others are sweet, salty, sour, and bitter). Food chemists used it to enhance the savory flavor of high-protein foods like meats and broths. It’s also in seasoned products like crackers, breading, spice mixes, and condiments. You’ll find it in many processed and prepared foods.
MSG is one of the most controversial food additives approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The Chinese restaurant connection was first made in 1968 when a letter was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The Chinese-American doctor who wrote the letter described symptoms he got each time he ate in Chinese restaurants. He mentions in the letter that other well-educated Chinese friends described similar experiences.
Common Sources of MSG
MSG is frequently used to enhance the flavor of foods that may otherwise seem bland. It may also be used in low-sodium foods to compensate for the lack of salt. Here are some common sources of MSG:
- Chinese food (especially restaurants or prepared foods)
- Fast food
- Processed foods
- Prepared foods
- French onion soup mix (make your own here)
- Commercial broths and bouillons
- Bragg’s Liquid Aminos
- Salad dressings
Sometimes monosodium glutamate or MSG will be listed on the label, but not always. It’s often hidden under less obvious ingredient names, like plant protein, natural flavoring, or “spices.”
Other Names for MSG
Food companies try to disguise monosodium glutamate or MSG because they know people read labels before buying. These are some names MSG hides under:
- Autolyzed plant protein
- Autolyzed yeast extract
- Citric acid (when derived from corn)
- Hydrolyzed plant protein (HPP) like in Bragg’s Liquid Aminos
- Hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP)
- Hydrolyzed yeast
- Monopotassium glutamate
- Natural flavoring
- Natural flavors
- Natural meat tenderizer
- Protein isolate
- Sodium Caseinate
- Soy extracts
- Textured Protein
- Yeast extract
This is only the start of a list. Food marketers are becoming more clever in hiding MSG under natural-sounding names. However, just because the words are hidden doesn’t mean MSG won’t affect those sensitive to it. Many people know instantly when they’ve “been glutamated.”
Side Effects of MSG
While MSG has been used as a food additive for a long time, many report people have reported adverse reactions from eating MSG in foods. These reactions are now called an MSG Symptom Complex. (Previously, Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, or CRS). Some potential symptoms after MSG consumption include:
- Numbness or tingling in the face, neck, etc.
- Heart palpitations or flutters
- Increased blood pressure
- Chest pain
- Nausea/stomach upset
- Tight muscles
- Enhanced pain perception/pain intolerance
In a study of MSG side effects, scientists performed double-blind and placebo-controlled trials. They compared MSG to high-dose table salt. Both MSG and salt resulted in muscle pain and/or changes in mechanical sensitivity. However, MSG was also associated with headache and tenderness of the scalp and neck.
The FDA commissioned the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), to study the effects of MSG. The FASEB found that most MSG reactions are short-term and mild. They cite headache, numbness, flushing, tingling, palpitations, and drowsiness in those sensitive. These symptoms, they say, occur only in those who consume at least 3 grams at a time away from food.
Not everyone has an MSG sensitivity and most people don’t experience any adverse effects. However, for some people, it causes pain and other symptoms mentioned.
MSG could also contribute to weight gain over time, as it improves how food tastes. If you have a bag of chips with MSG in the seasoning, you may be more likely to eat the entire bag in one sitting. In that way, it can contribute to overeating and eventually, obesity.
Natural Sources of Glutamate
Glutamate also occurs naturally in certain foods, making them especially appealing and satisfying. These foods are in many of our favorite American comfort foods, like pizza, pasta dishes, corn chips, and sushi:
- Sun dried tomatoes
- Parmesan and other aged cheeses
- Cured meats
- Coconut aminos (unfermented)
- Soy sauce
- Oyster sauce
- Raw watermelon
Naturally-occuring glutamates like you find in food aren’t generally harmful. ; It’s the isolated, free glutamates like MSG that cause problems. Including these food ingredients in your cooking is a way to get that delicious umami flavor without the MSG.
Glutamate Has a Vital Role in The Body
As mentioned, glutamate is an amino acid that occurs naturally in the human body. It’s the most abundant “excitatory” neurotransmItter in the body. It binds to receptors throughout the central nervous system, stimulating nerve cells to send messages to other cells. Other excitatory neurotransmitters are epinephrine and norepinephrine.
There are also “inhibitory” neurotransmitters that block or prevent the chemical message from transmitting to the next cell. Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) neurotransmitter is one example. Serotonin is another well-known inhibitory neurotransmitter. Where glutamate stimulates, GABA calms. The interesting thing is that glutamate is a precursor to GABA.
Glutamate is crucial for learning and memory. But, if it rises too high, it can cause brain cells to die.
So… IS MSG Bad For You?
It depends on who you ask. The big food-regulating agencies like the FDA, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and World Health Organization claim it’s safe in the amounts normally found in foods. Bill Gates-backed Impossible Foods has a blog article to support MSG. It goes on about how glutamates are natural and safe to consume in the small amounts used in prepared foods.
However, that’s in an ideal world where no one’s health has been compromised. Several factors may contribute to glutamate sensitivity. One of them is a genetic tendency to produce excess glutamate. Another cause is a brain injury like a concussion.
Autoimmunity may also play into glutamate issues. Intestinal hyperpermeability (“leaky gut”) can lead to an autoimmune attack on glutamic acid decarboxylase (GAD). This enzyme is needed to convert the excitotoxin glutamate to the calming neurotransmitter GABA. If GAD works as it should, toxic levels of glutamate can build up in the brain.
Other issues like Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS) and histamine intolerance can play a part in MSG sensitivity. These conditions can cause an exaggerated response to select amino acids, including glutamate. Other problematic amino acids may include glutamine, histamine, and other biogenic amines.
If the blood-brain barrier becomes “leaky,” along with a leaky gut, excess glutamate can accumulate in the brain. That can lead to brain inflammation, brain cell injury, and accompanying symptoms.
How to Avoid MSG
Whether you’re officially MSG-sensitive or not, isolating individual compounds from whole foods and altering them is rarely a good idea. Doing so is very much like what the pharmaceutical industry does to make drugs. The best option is to stick with whole foods, herbs, and spices as close to nature as possible.
To ensure your food is free of MSG, first, opt for whole foods without packaging and ingredient lists. This means shopping the outer aisle for fresh produce, clean meats, healthy fats, and natural herbs and spices.
Second, look for prepared foods (crackers, beef sticks, etc.) marked “No MSG.” Be aware these foods will often say “no added MSG” with an asterisk attached. The asterisk leads to a note that says “except those naturally occurring in…” AKA it still has MSG, just in a different form.
The Bottom Line on MSG
Not everyone will get symptoms from MSG, but that doesn’t mean it’s harmless. It’s still a food additive that doesn’t occur in that form in nature like actual spices. Stress, allergies, and inflammation can all increase glutamate levels in the brain. If you’re already stressed and inflamed (who isn’t these days?), food with added MSG may be the last straw. You won’t know until it’s too late, and MSG is causing brain cells to break down.
While it may be hard to avoid 100%, your brain and body will thank you for staying vigilant, reading food labels, and avoiding it when possible.