The Effects and Dangers of MSG Seasoning: Is It Bad for You?
Is MSG Bad for You?
Monosodium Glutimate (MSG)
My family has had more than a passing acquaintance with MSG. For years my father woke up with splitting headaches unaffected by Ibuprofen or Asprin, lasting for at least 24 hours. Some foods seemed to give my sister an instant, tingly headache. Friends complained of nausea, migraines, dizziness seemingly uncaused by anything they could figure out.
MSG has been defined as the sodium salt extract of the non-essential amino acid of glutimate. Other research has revealed MSG to act as an excitotoxin of the highest degree. It overstimulates the brain cells which are associated with tasting glutamates until the cells die. This causes a momentary "addiction" to MSG, because it creates a tongue-tingling craving for another bite, stimulating more cells as the old ones die. Often added to salty, zesty, or creamy foods, MSG gives a hearty boost often associated with the adjective "savory." My family did research to figure out what foods MSG was in and did a few cause-and-effect experiments in our home to figure out if MSG was causing the intense headaches my family members were suffering from. My sister found that her instant, tingly headache happened only when eating foods that contained strong amounts of MSG. Once she could warn my dad about which foods triggered her headache, he began to avoid those foods too, and for the most part, his worst migraines stopped, though we began to realize that his sensitivity to MSG required abstinence from several other lesser-known food ingredients also related to MSG (see Foods Containing MSG below).
Long-Term Effects of MSG
Though migraines are bad enough, much of the serious damage happens in the long run to people who have been consuming MSG-containing foods for years with no noticeable allergies, sensitivities, or side effects. My family realized this when we read the book, Excitotoxins: the Taste That Kills, by Dr. Russell Blaylock. Dr. Blaylock explored the lasting damage MSG gives to the brain, and found MSG was an initiator or encourager of Alzheimer's disease, Lou Gehrig's Disease, Epilepsy, Multiple Sclerosis, ADD and ADHD, Parkinson's disease, strokes, autism, learning disorders, memory loss, nerve damage, and hormonal imbalance. MSG is also said to mobilize cancer cells. From this perspective, ultra sensitivity to monosodium glutamate is a blessing because it forces the people who have it to stop eating MSG, which could be inflicting lasting damage on their systems without them ever knowing.
According to Gailon Totheroh (science and medical reporter interviewed in the videos, below) MSG gives a "drug effect to the tongue," causing people to want to eat more and thus being a major cause of obesity in America. This is partly because of the taste, but also because of what it does to the brain cells --triggering an insatiable desire for more. Babies still in the womb are highly endangered by MSG, as the MSG that is eaten by the baby's mother instantly goes into the baby's system, Gailon Totheroh says. Pregnant mothers should avoid all forms of it. Totheroh attributes the learning disorders and slow mind function we see in schoolchildren today to the effect of MSG consumed while these children were in the womb. Even those who don't notice after-effects from MSG should seriously consider a diet change to stop this harmful additive from causing lasting harm.
Scientific Studies on MSG
Evidence for MSG's toxicity is mostly anecdotal, scientists say, though this anecdotal evidence is enough to have given itself a name, "The Chinese Restaurant Syndrome," because of the high amounts of MSG found in nearly all types of Chinese food, and the many adverse reactions that this food seems to produce. MSG remains the most-tested food ingredient, but scientists have not produced any results that back up the anecdotal evidence. People who claimed they were sensitive to MSG were given pure MSG and showed little to no signs of sensitivity different from those given a placebo. Those given MSG with food showed no signs of sensitivity.
Challenges in subjects who reported adverse reactions to MSG have included relatively few subjects and have failed to show significant reactions to MSG. Results of surveys and of clinical challenges with MSG in the general population reveal no evidence of untoward effects. We recently conducted a multicenter DBPC challenge study in 130 subjects (the largest to date) to analyze the response of subjects who report symptoms from ingesting MSG. The results suggest that large doses of MSG given without food may elicit more symptoms than a placebo in individuals who believe that they react adversely to MSG. However, the frequency of the responses was low and the responses reported were inconsistent and were not reproducible. The responses were not observed when MSG was given with food. (From the abstract of "Review of Alleged Reaction to Monosodium Glutamate and Outcome of a Multicenter Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Study")
MSG: a Bad Way to Make Food Taste Good
Chips Without MSG
Recently, Frito-Lay has come out with some great chips without MSG or preservatives. Regular and flavored Lay's potato chips no longer contain MSG. Also, Sun Chips are now MSG-free. However, they do still contain "yeast extract" and "natural flavors," which are code words for a less-dangerous form of MSG, and sometimes affect people who are very sensitive to Monosodium Glutamate. Those who love the taste of MSG will find no taste difference between the new and the old Frito-Lay's chips.
Identifying Foods Containing MSG
The research done by Dr. Blaylock was enough to convince my family that we needed to cut monosodium glutamate entirely out of our diet. However, there was much more to stopping my family's MSG headaches than just avoiding blatantly "MSG" labeled ingredient lists. We found that many foods which do not contain the chemical MSG contain naturally created ingredients that mirror MSG in taste and effect. These are especially harmful for those people who are hypersensitive to MSG from many years of exposure to this harmful additive. Below is a list of the foods or labels that we have found that contain MSG, as well as a list of the other names of MSG.
On-the-Shelf Seasonings Containing MSG
The highest concentrate forms of MSG have largely been banned since they first came out, because of the increasing allergies to it. Indeed, in several of these seasonings, the only ingredient is MSG.
- Accent enhancer: no longer sold in the US because of the growing number of people allergic to it. Accent's only ingredient is MSG. It is flavorless on its own, but stimulates glutamate receptors in the tongue to give meats, soups, and dressings a savory, augmented taste.
Ajinomoto enhancer: translated "essence of taste;" this was the original MSG flavor enhancer, first marketed in Japan. Accent is the Western equivalent. Another Japanese brand is Kyowa Hakko.
- Ve-Tsin: the Philippine food enhancer, also just pure MSG.
- Spike seasoning and food enhancer: has many other spices and ingredients, but one of its top ingredients is Hydrolyzed Yeast Protein, which is subtle labeling for MSG.
- Maggi seasoning or sauce: contains wheat gluten and guanylate, which often gives MSG-like symptoms to people allergic to MSG.
- Beef Bouillon Cubes: nearly every brand and every flavor is chock-full of MSG. All-natural or claimed "MSG-free" beef bouillon cubes may have less dangerous forms of MSG.
MSG as an Ingredient
Be Cautious of:
- Ramen soups, noodles, and soup packets. Known as the staple dorm-food of campuses all across the US, Ramen soups have one of the highest concentrations of MSG found in any food item.
- Flavor-dusted chips, snack mixes, and crackers such as the seasoned flavors of Doritos, Cheez-Its, Pringles, Lays, Chex-Mix; also look out for all barbeque, lime, salsa, parmesan, or sweet onion flavored chips and crackers. We have found that usually the "Original" or "Plain" flavor is without MSG, but check the label just in case.
- Canned soups, especially Campbell's, Kraft, and other name brands.
- Soup broths, such as the kind you would buy in a carton or can off the shelf.
- Salad dressing, especially if it is not labeled "natural."
- Meat cuts, lunch meats, hotdogs and bratwursts, frozen meats. Again, read the ingredient labels; any type of meat could have MSG injections, but you should also be able to find the same kind that does not.
- Soup mixes, salad dressing mixes, flavor packets, rice mixes, hamburger helper mixes, "just add water" mixes, etc. Anything that you would buy mostly for the flavor packet probably has MSG unless it specifies "all natural" or "no MSG."
- Frozen Asian stir-fry, frozen dinners and entrees, frozen finger foods. Not all in this category contain MSG, but enough do to make checking the labels worthwhile.
- Salsa, tomato/spaghetti sauce, guacamole, barbeque sauce, Worcestershire sauce, steak sauce, marinades, etc. Get used to making these things from scratch at home, or buy all natural!
- Beef jerky; unless bought at an all-natural supermarket, you will rarely see this without MSG.
- Salted and honey-roasted nuts. Store brands are usually great; Planter's Peanuts are loaded with monosodium glutamate.
Other Names for MSG
Though not as strong or as concentrated as Monosodium Glutamate, these other food additives have a smaller amount of MSG and will cause the same problems. Be especially cautious of food labels that have more than one of the ingredients listed below, because that could be more potent than MSG. Read ingredient labels carefully, keeping in mind that there are many disguises for MSG, the killer food additive. Some other names for MSG include:
- Any kind of hydrolyzed protein or hydrolyzed/autolyzed yeast extract
- Glutamates, glutamic acid
- Natural flavors, flavoring, seasonings
- Modified food starch
- Soy protein, soy protein isolate, soy sauce, soy extract
- Amino acids
- Broth, beef bouillon
- Anything that is protein flavored, also modified or fermented protein
Be cautious about your soy and modified protein intake if you have been extremely sensitive to MSG in the past. I have known soy sauce, unsalted peanuts, and even plain tomato sauce to cause headaches because the amino acid structure of soy and tomato is similar to MSG.
The sheer quantity of foods we eat every day that contain MSG is staggering. However, don't let the list above discourage you. There are many food options for each category and many food production companies that don't use any MSG. Store brand foods, amazingly enough, are often flavored without MSG. This is especially true of the fresh meat cuts from the butcher's department in your grocery store. As the awareness of the after-effects of MSG spreads, more and more companies will be forced to make a decision about including or rejecting MSG in their products. In the past three years we have seen MSG go from being virtually unheard of to appearing in bold on labels advertising "No MSG!" or "MSG free!" Until MSG becomes more widely shunned, be an ingredient detective. This is one dietary change that will pay off in the moment as well as in years to come.
© 2010 Jane Grey