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Is MSG Really That Bad?

Updated on May 28, 2012

When you hear the words monosodium glutamate or MSG many people think of Chinese or Japanese food but the truth is American food has been using it for decades they are just better at disguising it.

What is MSG or monosodium glutamate?

According to World Book encyclopedia monosodium glutamate comes from glutamic acid, which comes from wheat. But I’ve since read that it can also come from seaweed as well as tomatoes or beets. This white granular substance has little flavor of its own but brings out the flavor of other foods. It is not a new additive and has been around for many years. Your grandmother probably put it in her meatloaf and you didn’t even know it. She probably didn’t either because it wasn’t labeled as such. Back then we didn’t have a long list of ingredients and it simply said flavor enhancer on the label.

Some articles have said that food companies will hide this ingredient calling it hydrolyzed food protein, HVP, yeast extract or glutamate. If you have a wheat allergy or sensitive to wheat products you should probably avoid anything with these ingredients in them just in case.

Ac’cent flavor enhancer, a product used in many American homes is glutamate, basically the same thing. You may have a bottle sitting on your shelf right now.

Is MSG or monosodium glutamate harmful?

According to the Mayo clinic there have been no definitive tests showing it to be harmful to everyone however if you are allergic to wheat you should stay away from this additive. If you have had a reaction after eating foods with MSG in it you should stay away from it.

Most people are fine eating it. Like many things you hear about in the news these days a few people have a problem like those with Celiac and the rest of the population becomes overly cautious. Few people have a problem with gluten or other wheat products and few people have issues with MSG.

If you want to discontinue use to be on the safe side that is fine but don’t worry too much if you eat out and find out later the restaurant used it on your beef unless, like I said, you have an allergy to wheat.

Chinese and Japanese restaurants aren’t the only ones using it. It’s an inexpensive flavor enhancer and many use it to make the food taste better, not to harm lives. That would be bad for business.

You’ve been eating it your whole life

Food companies have been using it in foods since Kidunae Ikeda invented it in the early 1900’s. American soldiers stationed in Japan developed a taste for it and brought it home after World War II.

Monosodium glutamate enhanced the flavor of canned foods as well as boxed and frozen entrees. After freezing those TV dinners, so popular in the 50’s, would have lost much of their flavor if not for MSG.

Low fat and fat free foods need something extra to give it taste so they add MSG.

Reported side effects

Most people can eat foods flavored with MSG without any problems but some have reported the following symptoms.

· Headache

· Flushing

· Sweating

· Facial pressure or tightness

· Numbness, tingling or burning in face, neck and other areas

· Rapid, fluttering heartbeats (heart palpitations)

· Chest pain

· Nausea

· Weakness

When you look at these symptoms they could just as easily be the cause of something else such as food poisoning, an overheated room, heart burn, indigestion, a stomach bug, or other common illness. To be on the safe side if you have concerns after eating foods with MSG you should see a doctor.

Better safe than sorry.

Oddly enough this is called Chinese Restaurant Syndrome even more strange is that the first person to ever report any issues was a Chinese American doctor. He wrote a book on the matter.

Nothing like a good disorder to help sell books.

And of course suddenly previously healthy people across the nation were also reporting this same mysterious malady.

In conclusion

I personally love Chinese and Japanese food and using MSG isn’t going to keep me from eating at these restaurants. I’m more inclined to check the restrooms for cleanliness at any restaurant than I am to worry about what seasoning they use. If they are clean, the food and service is good, I’ll be back.

It has been speculated that the use of peanuts, shellfish and other known allergens could be responsible for the symptoms.

Not to sound harsh but some are hypochondriacs and create ailments in their head. The mind is a powerful organ that controls every part of our body.

I am a health food advocate and eat healthy everyday. If someone shows me clear evidence on the contrary I’ll discontinue eating MSG. I don’t buy it or use it on foods at home but when I eat out I’m certain I’ve had it many times.

If MSG is really that bad why aren’t all Japanese citizens walking around with headaches?


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    • Pamela N Red profile image

      Pamela N Red 6 years ago from Oklahoma

      Thanks, LastLegend. I appreciate you stopping by and reading.

    • profile image

      LastLegend 6 years ago

      Hi Pam. Thank for the article.

      You look good :)


    • Pamela N Red profile image

      Pamela N Red 6 years ago from Oklahoma

      Anon, you very likely do have an allergy to it. My point was that MSG isn't harmful to everyone and most people are fine eating it. There are always those with allergies who need to watch what they eat. I wrote this due to the articles I've read that everyone should avoid it. That is like saying since some people have peanut allergies we should all avoid peanuts.

      Unfortunately you'll have a hard time eating out if you do have that allergy because many restaurants use it in some form or other. Even many packaged foods in the market have it in the ingredients.

    • profile image

      Anon 6 years ago

      Hi, I came across this article because someone suggested that my bad reactions to the local chinese food was an allergy to MSG. I was told a long time ago that the "no MSG" movement was just some health scare, and so I had always operated under this assumption. However, since coming to a new town, I have always had "food poisoning" from the Chinese, regardless of the restaurant.

      I'm not saying other people shouldn't eat it, i'm just saying I'm about 80% sure it's the cause of my problems. I mean, i can eat the chinese back in my hometown and other places i've visited. But here in collegetown, USA, i'm most likely not getting a wide variety of Chinese food suppliers, and it seems reasonable to assume that the supplier out here uses MSG. Everyone doesn't report the symptoms i've had, it's just me. And it can't be hypochondria because i've eaten and loved chinese all my life: i had no reason to expect or fear illness.

      So yeah, i'm just saying, i though MSG was harmless, but as far as i can tell, every symptom i've experienced is in your list there, minus the tightness in the face and one or two others. This sounds like i've got an allergy to it.

      Take care, and maybe don't make such broad generalizations! I love chinese just like you, i take care of myself, and i hate the fact that i have to stay away from this stuff. I can eat wheat bread and other wheat-containing products, but the local chinese does me in. :-(

    • Pamela N Red profile image

      Pamela N Red 6 years ago from Oklahoma

      I can't eat any corn products due to allergy. We have to find that balance that works for our own individual bodies.

    • ljrc1961 profile image

      Laura Cole 6 years ago from Michigan

      As a person that has researched food, additives and diet for years, I know from personal experience that foods with MSG (or listed as one of the other names) DOES make a difference to my health. High fructose corn syrup does too, even though you will have some people claim it is no different from sugar on your table. Having taken small steps to gluten free, low carb eating and using only fresh herbs and spices; nothing with salt added (it occurs naturally in so many foods as well as meat), I am finding that I don't crave the "bad" foods like I used to and actually become sick when I endulge in eating a food that has been processed or cooked with lots of sugar, salt or MSG. You CAN find foods that don't have it. I have suffered with leg swelling and leg pain that cardiologists, vein doctors and physicians could find no explanation for. By cutting out salt, HFC syrup and MSG from my diet, and eating natural foods and foods that have a short, specific list of ingredients, my swelling and pain have almost been eliminated. This after 10 or more years of severe pain that made walking impossible. I never ate too much of anything and am not a snacker. I do notice that whenever I eat out, unless I order a salad, I get swelling. All restaurants obviously use MSG in other forms. Otherwise, my body wouldn't react the way it does. Research does show that MSG is like a drug to our brain...Google MSG and its dangers and see testaments that repeatedly pronounce MSG as an antecedent to overeating and a producer of a drug like feeling that makes our bodies crave the foods that are worse for us. Personally, educating oneself and cutting out foods that are processed or have long shelf lives has improved my life immensely.

    • pinto2011 profile image

      Subhas 6 years ago from New Delhi, India

      A great informative piece of article which will definitely go a long way in disciplining us the way we eat.

    • Pamela N Red profile image

      Pamela N Red 6 years ago from Oklahoma

      Hypochondria is a real disorder and not an inflammatory word. A psychologist or psychiatrist must diagnose these patients and not a family physician. It's one of those words that is overused but is most definitely a real disorder, I've seen it in action.

      Vitamins occur naturally in foods too but they add more in all of the time. If a person is sensitive to these foods they should avoid them but most people do not have any issues.

    • msviolets profile image

      msviolets 6 years ago

      I think there are people who have bad reactions to glutamates in general, such as MSG, and then there are reactions caused by using isolated MSG. Which is why I think naturally occuring MSG (like seaweed) is okay, but adding MSG as a flavor enhancer isn't. Just because it's a naturally occurring substance doesn't make it safe to have without the compounds it naturally occurs with. Glutamate is an amino acid and it stands to reason that out of balance with other amino acids it might cause physical reactions.

    • mbwalz profile image

      MaryBeth Walz 6 years ago from Maine

      I agree with KimmiS about the hypochondriac comment. Many people, especially women, get labeled as hypochondriacs because the medical practitioner has not been able to identify the problem. Remember when PMS was "all in your head?" or breast cancer was rare because only men were included in studies? Even now women are much more likely to get labeled with anxiety disorder or called hypochondriacs than men are. People who suffer with chronic pain or other invisible illnesses are often called hypochondriacs. It has a very negative connotation and should be used very carefully. I believe the instances of clinical hypochondria are very rare. My mother actually wondered if I was a hypochondriac. Come to find out, I just had a rare genetic disease called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, not diagnosed until I was 47.

      This is a good hub, but use of inflammatory language can detract from the good information of a hub - unless it's an editorial piece.

      A problems with MSG is actually not a food allergy but a food sensitivity, just as Celiac - Sprue is not an allergic reaction to gluten, but a sensitivity to it.

    • Pamela N Red profile image

      Pamela N Red 6 years ago from Oklahoma

      Kim, I mentioned those that have food allergies. Most definitely some have real allergies and should stay away from those foods. The mention of hypochondriacs were meant for those who don't really have anything wrong with them but imagine they do. That is also a real condition.

    • KimmiS profile image

      KimmiS 6 years ago from Vancouver, Canada

      Pamela, ribonucleotides are different than MSG (and other glutamates). They are synergistic meaning that they enhance the MSG so manufacturers can use less and get the same effect if they mix it with ribonucleotides. Some people have severe allergies to these ingredients.

      Wikipedia on ribo's

      A story on ribo rash

      Her photo's and the stories of her and her readers don't seem like hypochondriacs to me! I believe you that some people overreact about illness, but consider that some people are just more in tune with their bodies and can feel when they eat things that their bodies disagree with. Also some people may react strongly to these types of chemicals, even though you don't.

    • Pamela N Red profile image

      Pamela N Red 6 years ago from Oklahoma

      Thanks for reading, teaches.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 6 years ago

      Thanks for the informative hub and the explanation on MSG. We have been exposed to this over the years and it is in lots of food products. I do experience headaches and nausea after eating food containing MSG and avoid any foods that have it as an ingredient. Thanks for sharing this interesting subject. Voted up.

    • Pamela N Red profile image

      Pamela N Red 6 years ago from Oklahoma

      Msviolets, natural is always best and we can only insure we get that if we grow our own food.

      KimmiS, MSG has many names and some disguise it in foods by giving it another name. I suspect it doesn't come up in an allergy test because there is no allergy.

    • KimmiS profile image

      KimmiS 6 years ago from Vancouver, Canada

      Sometimes when things are labelled as 'no MSG added" or "low sodium/salt", what they are actually using now are chemicals called ribonucleotides. If you research, you can learn more about 'ribo-rash'. These compounds greatly enhance the effect of natural and added MSG (cost effective to use), so you will often find them in the same foods. Some people have severe reaction to these chemicals. They also don't show up in a routine doctors exam, when they check you for food allergies.

    • msviolets profile image

      msviolets 6 years ago

      I have no problem with naturally occuring msg. But I do feel it's overused as a flavor enhancer. And there are reported connections for people with migraines.

      I think we play too much with our food supply. Natural foods, natural flavorings is my motto! (Although, I must admit, when I can use canned beans or frozen veggies I often do.)

    • Pamela N Red profile image

      Pamela N Red 6 years ago from Oklahoma

      Jenobouka, this ingredient goes by many names and I only listed a few of them. People eat it all the time and don't realize it.

      MBWalz, some are more sensitive to certain foods than others.

      AEvans, you eat it in many foods and just don't realize it. Monosodium glutamate occurs naturally in many of the foods we eat.

      Vincent, I have to have my Chinese food. I also cook it at home.

      Timmathison, it's just a spice like salt and pepper.

      Susan, they put a tremendous amount of salt in all restaurant food, much more than I do at home. I am always very thirsty after eating out.

    • Just Ask Susan profile image

      Susan Zutautas 6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      I always laugh when a friend of mine eats at a Chinese restaurant and then the next day complains they must have used MSG in the food, because her hands and feet are so swollen. I always say to her no it wasn't the MSG that caused this it was all the salt in the food.

      Most of the Chinese restaurants that I go to say they do not use MSG in their food. Not sure if this is true or not.

      Interesting article.

    • profile image

      timmathisen 6 years ago

      Great, informative hub. Although I respect those who choose to eat food with MSG, I shun it because I can't see why an additive is needed.

    • profile image

      Vincent Moore 6 years ago

      AEvans, you can enjoy Chinese food without MSG. Many are substituing msg with oyster sauce that does not contain it. I have a Chinese friend who owns his own restaurant and he does not cook his food with MSG at all. So don't give up on oriental food, MSG is easy to replace. Great hub Pam, enjoyed it very much.

    • AEvans profile image

      Julianna 6 years ago from SomeWhere Out There

      Great article! However I do not eat anything that contains MSG it has been known to cause cancer and other health issues. However all of the warnings will not eliminate anyone from eating the foods that contain it. Next time you have Chinese food please enjoy it for me too. I just can't eat it anymore. ! Thumbs up and shared! :)

    • mbwalz profile image

      MaryBeth Walz 6 years ago from Maine

      I think the most conserting thing to people is that we like to know what we are eating and that it is safe. Both of my parents had severe reactions to msg. Neither had celiac disease nor wheat intolerance. I do have a reaction sometimes, but not others (frankly I experience much worse problems from barley malt.) I feel it's important to label thing consistantly and allow the consumer to choose for themselves - even if they hypochondriacs.

      If your food is flavored with good quality ingrediants, the chemical is not funtional nor necessary, where as salt is often an actual funtional ingredient and so can not be left out many times.

    • profile image

      jenubouka 6 years ago

      Very interesting outlook on MSG, I loved the facts especially the T.V. dinners. It also has many other names as well on the food labels, hydrolyzed...on so on. I think it is alright in moderation as everything we do in life. I think I would be lost with out it when I need my Chinese gut bomb fix, however I do notice the after effects of it, I go to a buffet and get carried away, that is def. on me!

    • Pamela N Red profile image

      Pamela N Red 6 years ago from Oklahoma

      Electro, most of what we eat have been treated with chemicals even organic produce you buy in the store. It's difficult to get away from all chemicals since air and water are considered chemicals.

    • Electro-Denizen profile image

      Charles 6 years ago from Wales, UK

      Maybe one of the main things about it is that it's rather addictive as an enhancer, even though it doesn't taste of very much, and drives us to eat more of those things that have been given the MSG treatment. Hypothetically, the only real reason to add MSG to foods is that it increases revenue... clever.

      As to the health aspect of it, it's a bunch of chemicals that have no real place in human food. Given the choice, best to do without imho.


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