by Deb Powers
You’re an informed consumer, right? You read all the labels because you know that what you put into your body is vital to your health, wellness and — let’s be real — how good you look. Chances are, monosodium glutamate is on your, uh, “No, thanks” list. After all, we’ve known for decades that MSG can cause uncomfortable symptoms ranging from headaches and flushing to heart palpitations. Food companies, though, are still finding ways to sneak MSG into the foods you love. What is MSG, anyway, and why is it bad for you?
What Is MSG? A Short History of the Flavorful Food Additive
Monosodium glutamate is a flavor enhancer derived from glutamate, or glutamic acid, one of the most abundant amino acids in nature. Our bodies contain about 4 pounds of glutamate, mostly in the muscles and organs, including the brain. Glutamate occurs naturally in many foods, including tomatoes, broccoli, peas, and walnuts.
Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda created MSG while trying to figure out what made his wife’s soups taste so good in 1908. He identified glutamic acid from kelp as the ingredient that enhanced the umami — savory — flavors in just about anything, making them more intense and satisfying. Keep that in mind, because it’s important in understanding why food companies are so determined to keep on using MSG in their products.
Ikeda found that if he dissolved glutamic acid in a solution of water and common table salt, he had a stable white powder that he could sprinkle on anything and presto intensity! Flavors seemed to just bloom on the tongue. He packaged his new discovery as Ajinomoto, a flavor enhancer that hit the Japanese market in 1909 and made him a very wealthy man.
Over the next two decades, MSG made its way across the oceans, growing in popularity until today, it is one of the most widely used food additives in the world.
MSG Stirs Up More Than Flavor — The Controversies Begin
In 1969, a Chinese-American doctor wrote a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine describing a set of symptoms he experienced whenever he ate at a Chinese restaurant. He termed it “Chinese restaurant syndrome” — a name that has been replaced by “MSG symptom complex.” Within a year, a team of researchers released a study showing that large amounts of MSG caused “dead areas” in the brains of newborn mice, along with obesity and stunted growth. That research, along with investigations of anecdotal reports of symptoms associated with consuming MSG, was widely publicized, prompting many people to call for a ban of MSG — or at least for food companies to be required to list MSG on their ingredient labels. Chinese restaurants and food manufacturers began calling consumers’ attention to the absence of MSG in their products with the declaration on menus and labels: “Contains No MSG.”
Why MSG Is Bad for You — The Facts and the Theories
Research — much of it funded by large food companies — has been back and forth on the actual dangers of MSG. The FDA considers it a GRAS — generally regarded as safe — ingredient, and other food regulatory bodies give it an equivalent rating. Researchers, however, have found that MSG does produce uncomfortable symptoms in a “subset of otherwise healthy people,” suggesting that some people are naturally sensitive to high levels of MSG in their food, while most people should have no fallout from eating foods containing MSG. Conventional medical authorities advise caution. If you’re one of the people who experience symptoms when you eat foods containing MSG, they say, avoid those foods as well as those that are high in naturally occurring glutamate.
A large group of doctors and nutritionists, however, suggests that the dangers of MSG extend far beyond temporary, mild symptoms when you eat too much at once. In his 1996 book, “Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills,” Russell Blaylock, MD, listed MSG as one of the excitotoxins — food additives that excite the neurons so much that they overload, triggering nerve damage, brain damage and cell death. The nutritionists at Leaves of Life, an integrative health care practice in Columbus, Ohio, use a handy analogy to explain the effect of glutamates on the body. Think of your brain as a race car, they say, and the neurotransmitters — which is what MSG is — as the brakes and gas pedal. Glutamates are like the gas pedal, pushing gas into the engine to make things go faster. The right amount of glutamates keeps you alert and focused and active. Give your body too much, though, and your body goes into overdrive. Over time, high levels of glutamate may cause neurological inflammation and damage through oxidative stress. While the results aren’t entirely conclusive, research suggests links between MSG and neurodegenerative diseases, obesity, diabetes, and other common disorders.
Why They Hide MSG on Their Labels
In recent years, the food industry has been working overtime to rehabilitate the reputation of MSG, but most are still shy about listing it on their labels. The why is no real surprise: A recent study in Korea found that 60 percent of married Korean women have a negative view of MSG despite the efforts of big food companies. So, instead of listing MSG as an ingredient, they take advantage of a little loophole that lets them get away with hiding the MSG content of their foods. They’re required to list MSG only if they add pure monosodium glutamate to their products, and the vast majority of MSG in our foods is part of other ingredients or a by-product of processing other ingredients.
If you’re trying to avoid MSG and excessive glutamate in your food, it’s not enough to just look for monosodium glutamate. You must also look for ingredients that either contain MSG or may trigger similar reactions because they include free glutamate — glutamic acid unbound to a protein.
Red-Flag Ingredients for MSG
- Hydrolyzed vegetable protein (and anything hydrolyzed)
- Textured vegetable protein
- Anything with the word “glutamate”
- Yeast extract
- Yeast food
- Yeast Nutrient
- Soy protein isolate
- Whey protein isolate
- Soy or whey protein concentrate
- Pretty much anything “protein”
These ingredients often indicate the presence of free glutamates.
- Natural flavor
- Citric acid, citrate
- Barley malt or malted barley
- Malt extract
- Brewer’s yeast
- Soy sauce or soy sauce extract
Anything fermented or protein-fortified
These ingredients are similar enough to MSG that they may trigger similar reactions in people who are sensitive to MSG.
- Modified food starch
- Corn syrup
- Rice syrup
- Brown rice syrup
- Lipolyzed butter fat
- Milk powder
- Reduced fat milk
- Most things labeled low fat, reduced fat or vitamin-enriched
If you looked at that list and thought, “But what’s left to eat?”, here’s the good news. The best and easiest way to avoid excessive free glutamates and MSG in your food is to avoid processed foods. Base your diet on whole, natural foods grown and raised without harmful pesticides, fertilizers, and fortified foods. As you cut out all the “flavor-enhanced” foods, you’ll find that you don’t need enhancers to truly enjoy the taste of natural, healthy foods.
Deb Powers is a freelance writer with extensive experience writing about natural foods and wellness. Part of her work with a local food policy advisory council focuses on truth in labeling and food origin labeling laws.