Spar of the Day: Taking on MSG

Now and then, we at MDA like to branch out from our usual shrinking violet positions and journey into the precarious territory of current controversy. Today we venture into the debate over a disputed additive/ingredient: MSG—flavor friend or fodder foe?

Let’s break it down.

MSG: What is this stuff anyway?

MSG Crystals

Monosodium glutamate, or MSG as we commonly know it, is a stabilized, processed version of glutamic acid, which in its unprocessed form, is a common and naturally occurring amino acid found in numerous foods like meats, milk, cheese and certain vegetables. The label MSG is often used to refer to all forms of processed glutamate.

Though originally identified in the 19th Century, MSG wasn’t used until the early 20th Century when it was found by a Japanese researcher in evaporated kombu broth. The researcher recognized the common and appealing taste and patented a large scale production process of MSG in its familiar crystalline form. Today, MSG is produced through the fermentation of molasses, sugar beets/cane, starch or—according to some sources—bacteria. Processed glutamate, according to many non-industry sources, is not chemically identical to the glutamic acid found in unadulterated foods like meat or tomatoes.

What is it used for?

In short, flavor. MSG activates what is now recognized as a fifth taste receptor labeled “umami” (Japanese for savory). MSG has very little taste in and of itself but generally enhances the flavor and general meatiness of many foods.

What types of products have it?

MSG and other free glutamate forms are most often found in traditional Asian dishes and products as well as, more recently, an astounding number of processed foods in the West. Most foods that contain processed glutamate don’t list it as such. Following the first wave of MSG fear in the 1970s (ah, those were the days), the food industry, in its infinite wisdom, chose to simply rename or repackage the ingredient within other substance labels. These aliases continue to exist and have propagated to this day. Examples of MSG-associated ingredients include (but are by no means limited to): gelatin, hydrolyzed/autolyzed vegetable protein, yeast extract, rice syrup, calcium/sodium caseinate, and textured protein.

What does it do to the body?

This is where things start to get decidedly dicey.

According to many non-industry sources, manufactured glutamate isn’t processed by the body in the same way food-based, unprocessed glutamic acid is because of the different chemical composition of manufactured glutamate, which contains different ratios of glutamic acid forms (L versus D) as well as varying, unspecified contaminants. MSG, unlike food proteins that contain glutamic acid, is very rapidly absorbed within the digestive system.

There is also indication that a certain portion of the population is sensitive to MSG and can experience reactions with symptoms like headache, fatigue, numbness, burning or tingling sensations, nausea and abnormal heartbeat.

MSG is thought by some researchers to be an “excitotoxin,” a kind of chemical transmitter that facilitates brain cell communication and overstimulates or “excites” brain cells to the point of their functional collapse. Excitotoxins have produced brain damage in controversial studies and have been linked to a number of chronic neurological diseases, including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

Additionally, a small number of much publicized studies since the 1960s have suggested that MSG can cause retinal thinning and other eye damage, and impaired appetite regulation communication in the brain.

Caveats and Critiques

Critics of these studies contend that administered dosages far exceed reasonable human intake. Critics of these critics respond that “reasonable human intake” doesn’t consider the physical and neurological vulnerability of children and those sensitive to processed glutamic acid.

Additionally, the presumed “reasonable intake” must be continually redefined with the rapidly increasing inclusion of MSG and other processed glutamic acid substances in a larger share of food products.

The original critics then ask why everyone in Asia seems to be doing dandy. And then there’s the response about a larger number of glaucoma cases in that part of the world.

And the squabbling continues….

MDA Observations:

The fact is, unless we’re talking about its straight use as a spice in Asian cooking, MSG (in its varying forms) is mostly limited to processed foods. Y’all know the MDA take on those, right?

We’re all about enjoying food. Flavor rules, we wholeheartedly agree. While the jury is still out on the deleterious effects of MSG, there’s enough brouhaha to beg the question: What’s really the big deal in giving it up?

For the food industry, it’s clear. It’s a cheap and easy way to flavor their pseudo-food without having to use naturally occurring substances (like vegetables and herbs) that might offer actual nutritional value.

For the individual cook at home, it’s a matter of making the choice to spend a few extra minutes chopping some bell pepper, adding some herbs, mincing some onion. Your body will thank you for it.

This option is, admittedly, more work and may cost a bit more than the convenient, all-in-one package. However, there’s a legitimate difference between paying for and preparing real food that will serve your body’s needs and opting for a product that uses flavoring compounds like MSG (in whatever form) as a stand in for the real deal.

Let the critics squabble and bicker. Let the researchers continue to probe. It’s important work, after all. Hopefully, the picture will become clearer if the right folks fund the studies. In the meantime, as we say here at MDA, healthy tastes great. Why mess with an already good thing?

What do you think? No harm, no foul; or better safe than sorry?

Further Reading:

10 Ways to Reduce Salt

Could MSG Make a Comeback?

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29 thoughts on “Spar of the Day: Taking on MSG”

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  1. I’ve seen some Chinese Restaurants Signs that have advertised under daily specials:NO MSG.
    (Now is this saying something in itself) I think so.
    Also, i know some people that will not eat MSG because it makes them feel ill. They stay clear away from it!

  2. MSG makes me a my father extremely sick. I get a severe headache that usually leads to nausea and vomiting.

  3. Better safe than sorry is my motto for any foodstuffs. MSG is sold in little plastic bags right next to salt in Asian supermarkets. If high MSG consumption can trigger Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, then Asians should show very high rates of these diseases.

  4. My sister in law had horrible migraines. It took her awhile to realize that MSG was the culprit. She’s fine now as long as she doesn’t eat it.

  5. I used to use Accent on a lot of foods and never got an migrain or any other semptoms. Maybe it depends if your are senitive to it? Also read about it attacking the nerves, don’t know about that. It did make food taste better.

  6. Healthy definitely tastes best! MSG and aspartame (like Equal or NutraSweet) make me very ill so I’ve learned to read labels, make more nutritious foods at home, and eat out only at restaurants that don’t use MSG. My allergies, jumpy nerves and headaches have cleared up. But even for people who don’t have symptoms, it makes me wonder what these excitotoxins are doing to them? Put it this way: my grandkids don’t get fed MSG. Nuff said.

  7. i was suffering for years,with all sorts of symptoms. after eating at a asian resterraunt i had severe headaches,diarea,hives,dizines to the point i could not stand. the doctors found nothing wrong with me. thanks to my husband we figured out it was M.S.G. thank god for the internet. now i read lables, but you need to know what your looking for. it is hidden in so many things. my reactions to M.S.G. were so bad that my now 12 year old gets afraid when i eat.she has seen what it can do first hand.

  8. Did anyone else notice the angel and devil drawn into the chemical structure of MSG? Very funny…

  9. Thank you for posting about MSG it is the main cause of obesity and I have been writing collage papers on it since I found out that I have what doctors call “high intolerance ” I say I am allergic I get 4 symptoms: 1. vomiting(since I was 14 when i ate food with ‘msg’ in it) 2. Diarhea 3. weight gain 4.headaches

    Since I cut it out of my diet(I DID NOT change my exercise routine) I dropped 5 dress sizes!! in 2 and half months.

    EASY weight loss program!! 8 pounds in a week.

    **Amy food products** are great(especially for mac n cheese lovers)

  10. I’m on-the-go quite a bit, so sometimes it gets hard to find protein sources…I find myself eating packs of tuna and salmon (I know, ew). Some of them contain ‘broth’ as one of the ingredients, and I have recently heard this could be a source of MSG. Does anyone have any input on this? Am I killing myself with packaged meat?

  11. In response to commenters, and the section “What does it do to the body?” – No reputable scientific research exists which suggest MSG is anything but perfectly safe.

    In short, people who suffer from ill effects they attribute to MSG are consistently unable to reproduce those effects in controlled clinical trials.

    Here are two paper abstracts and DOI citations supporting this.

    71 healthy subjects were treated with placebos and monosodium L-glutamate (MSG) doses of 1.5, 3.0 and 3.15 g/person, which represented a body mass-adjusted dose range of 0.015–0.07 g/kg body weight before a standardized breakfast over 5 days. The study used a rigorous randomized double-blind crossover design that controlled for subjects who had MSG after-tastes. Capsules and specially formulated drinks were used as vehicles for placebo and MSG treatments. Subjects mostly had no responses to placebo (86%) and MSG (85%) treatments. Sensations, previously attributed to MSG, did not occur at a significantly higher rate than did those elicited by placebo treatment. A significant (P < 0.05) negative correlation between MSG dose and after-effects was found. The profound effect of food in negating the effects of large MSG doses was demonstrated. The common practice of extrapolating food-free experimental results to ‘in use’ situations was called into question. An exhaustive review of previous methodologies identified the strong taste of MSG as the factor invalidating most ‘blind’ and ‘double-blind’ claims by previous researchers. The present study led to the conclusion that ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’ is an anecdote applied to a variety of postprandial illnesses; rigorous and realistic scientific evidence linking the syndrome to MSG could not be found.

    Partial Abstract:
    Conclusions: MSG has a widespread reputation for eliciting a variety of symptoms, ranging from headache to dry mouth to flushing. Since the first report of the so-called Chinese restaurant syndrome 40 years ago, clinical trials have failed to identify a consistent relationship between the consumption of MSG and the constellation of symptoms that comprise the syndrome. Furthermore, MSG has been described as a trigger for asthma and migraine headache exacerbations, but there are no consistent data to support this relationship. Although there have been reports of an MSG-sensitive subset of the population, this has not been demonstrated in placebo-controlled trials.

  12. Sorry, I don’t need “reputable scientific research” to tell me how sick I get every time I eat MSG.

    Nor do I need someone who likely works for the food additive industry telling me how safe it is!

  13. I agree. MSG should come with a “Mr. Yuck” sticker, because it acts like a poison to so many people. I know I get migraines when I accidentally ingest it. I never get headaches any other time. I have also learned that it is not wise to just accept what “reputable scientific research” says.

  14. The Food Network did a test with people where they didn’t tell them if their food had MSG or not. All the people complaining they had symptoms of MSG were on the non-MSG side. This is one of the most psychosomatic food ingredients out there (run for the hills, MSG!). Sorry, I don’t buy it. It tastes great when added, though I don’t add it often it really enhances the flavor of a nice grilled steak or chicken.

    If it is the main cause of obesity, then why are there fat people the world over who NEVER eat MSG? Stop the silliness. You all should care what science says, it is why you are eating primal – it is backed by science. Science is fact when it comes to insulin sensitivity, the use of man-made fats, and all the ilk being eaten by millions of people as I write this post. Don’t drop all use of logic to make a silly post.

    Grok on..

    1. Well said George! It is disheartening to see people get so histrionic about something based on hearsay and anecdotal evidence. I think Sisson nails it: Controversial but doesn’t hurt to be safe when there is nothing to lose by eating a more natural diet.

      Anyway, your comment was refreshing and I appreciate it!

  15. George, I know when something contains MSG by the symptoms I get when I eat it – not vise versa. In other words I can tell if something has MSG in it within minutes of eating it because my skin starts to itch, my hair itches, and I feel generally shite. Yes I have done blind tests. You’re debunked. Bye.

    1. Sounds like your sensitive to it, or maybe allergic? The way this got started was a doctor was allergic and had a reaction and thought it would be the same for every or most people. So no he was not “Debunked” I saw that show and more people that did not have MSG said were feeling the signs that they ate MSG then the ones that did eat MSG.

  16. When I was researching the pros and cons of MSG, there was a lot of conflicting information. One “con” writer said, Don’t take my word: Go to PubMed. Type “msg obesity” (or “msg diabetes” or “msg hypertension”)into the search engine, and check out the results. THEN decide if you really want to eat it.

    PubMed is a clearinghouse for medical journal abstracts. After reading the articles, that was it. We no longer eat processed MSG.

  17. MSG is what scientists use to fatten up mice to study obesity because mice don’t naturally get fat. Just google “msg-induced obesity in mice”. If you want to be a fat lab rat, go ahead and eat it.

    1. Except they must be talking about field mice and regular rats. There are rats in New York that are quite fat and then there are banana rats and Amazon river rats that too are fat. There is more then just one type of rats oh and btw my male rat of fatter then the female. Its bad reporting to say that “rats” don’t naturally get fat. Some do. If you don’t like don’t want to eat any that’s fine. I like it and will continue to enjoy it in my food.

  18. If it weren’t for MSG I might never have found the primal world. I used to get headaches every week or 2 and they’d last up to 4 days. THEN I read Heal Your Headache (by David Buchholz), where I learned about headache triggers, esp. MSG. I learned to pay close attention to what I was consuming, eliminating processed foods. So thank you, MSG and all your aliases. If it weren’t for you, I might still be eating processed poison. And now that I am eating primally, it has taken my health to a new level. I feel terrific. Like a well oiled machine is how I might describe it. Life is good.

  19. I added some gelatin to a broth after reading that bone broth is healthy. Soon after eating this delicious broth both my arms began to itch and burn. I have also eaten kim chi with added MSG and my heart was doing flip-flops for the next day. I will certainly be more careful when it comes to my ingestion of this chemical. I am interested in knowing more about the difference between naturally occurring MSG, as in a traditionally made bone broth, nutritional yeast, seaweed, etc. as opposed to a manufactured product. I have not had any similar noticeable symptoms when I eat natural umami foods.

  20. I’ve perused these allegations in the past, coming to my own determination that there wasn’t sufficient evidence for any MSG-alarm, although definitely blunders have been made for both sides of the argument.

    Recently I had 4 cans of low-sodium meat and veg canned soup in one day (let’s just say it was not one my greatest health accolade). Throughout the night I received the strongest migraine I have ever had, to the point where the agony was jolting me awake and I considered an aneurysm being a very real possibility. I did not consider it was related to what I had eaten because my digestion was fine and I have had this soup in single-quantity many times. It only dawned on me now that it might’ve been linked to some preservative, and after looking up the caveats of canned soup I can only suggest that maybe MSG does have effects that correspond to sensitivity.

    I am well-aware of the indisputable neurological effects of various amino acids, and this one appears to be in that same category. I would propose that a skeptic do a self-test by consuming controlled amounts of MSG-rich foods at their own risk, however, from my own experience and my concern with a potential for neurotoxicity, I can only advise awareness of some possible threshold. From one skeptic to another

    1. I also think that people can be sensitive to MSG and it could vary from person to person. I think I have a low or very low sensitivity to it as I’ve used a lot on steaks and in soups and I don’t remember getting a headache from the use of that.

  21. MSG is harmless especially in the amounts it is used by the average person.
    You guys are treating it the way the majority of the population treats Cholesterol and Saturated fats. There is a social scare about it that has no evidence from actual causation studies.

    1. MSG and other 600 number flavor enhancers effect me negatively, without doubt. I believe I am simply intolerant/sensitive to the stuff. Possibly, MSG can be tolerated without issue by the majority of people, but not those sensitive to it. I get irritable and fatigued from MSG, as I do from excess sugar and simple carbs (pre-diabetes), 600 number flavour enhancers, caffeine, coconut oil and cream, artificial sweeteners and most foods with stimulant properties. MSG is mainly used in stale, snack and cheap foods to make them palatable. Also, MSG makes me feel like the hair on my head is pricking up and creates a tightness around my jaw, basically putting me into a a state of anxiety and irritability. I have done elimination diets to pin point all my intolerances/sensitivities, well worth doing for those struggling for years trying to pin point intermittent type health problem triggers.