Monosodium Glutamate: Is The MSG In Food Dangerous?

Monosodium glutamate, also known as MSG, is a food additive commonly found in Asian cuisine, fast food and many processed foods. The consumption of MSG became controversial in the late 1960s when it became associated with a number of adverse reactions including headaches, nausea, and heart palpitations. Since that time, many establishments that serve Asian cuisine, particularly Chinese restaurants, have been privy to adorning their shop windows with signs that inform their patrons that they do not use MSG.

Rumors, diner myths and the misinformed have all led to MSG's poor reputation. However, after extensive research, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the American Medical Association have deemed MSG to be safe food additive.

What is MSG?

MSG is a sodium salt derived from glutamic acid, which is a non-essential amino acid. MSG is produced from the fermentation of starch, sugar beets, sugar cane, corn or molasses. Alternatively, MSG can also form when glutamate produced by hydrolyzed proteins (utilized as a food enhancer) interacts with free sodium. Eating foods with MSG stimulate the "umami" receptors on the tongue, which is one of the five basic tastes. As such, MSG enhances the savory flavor of food.

While some people may suffer from a hypersensitivity to monosodium glutamate, studies and case reports have shown that most health related incidents that can be possibly linked to MSG were not life-threatening. For the most part, MSG that is consumed in moderation can be considered safe for the general population. According to the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, MSG only contains 12 percent sodium as opposed to the 40 percent found in table salt. The sodium levels found in MSG can be invaluable to those who must closely monitor their sodium intake.

Foods that Contain MSG

MSG is one of the most common food additives utilized today. According to the University of Hawaii, the average American consumes approximately one-half to one gram of MSG per day. Although once associated with Chinese food, MSG is currently used by most fast-food chains and manufacturers of processed foods. Examples of foods containing MSG include:

  • Canned soups
  • Bouillon cubes
  • Salad dressings
  • Soup and dip mixes
  • Cold cuts and hot dogs
  • Salty potato chips

The FDA requires food manufacturers to list MSG on the ingredient's label. Additionally, you should also look for such ingredients as hydrolyzed protein, autolyzed yeast, and sodium caseinate, which are all pseudonyms for MSG.

MSG Related Health Concerns

The "MSG symptom complex" or the "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome" was first described in 1968 and refers to a group of symptoms experienced by patients who had recently eaten American-Chinese cuisine. These symptoms included:

  • Headache
  • Flushing
  • Sweating
  • Chest pain
  • Nausea
  • Weakness

MSG was initially implicated as the cause of these symptoms. However, studies could not show a causal link between MSG and this syndrome. Since then MSG has been supposedly linked with a vast array of ailments including:

  • Migraine headaches
  • Food allergies in children
  • Obesity
  • Hyperactivity in children

Again the FDA concluded that MSG is safe for most people as researchers could not find categorical evidence linking MSG to any of the aforementioned illnesses. However, based on anecdotal evidence the FDA did claim that some people may have an MSG intolerance that may cause the symptoms associated with the MSG complex. These symptoms are usually short-lived, mild and do not require any treatment. The only way to prevent a reaction is to avoid foods containing MSG. The FDA also acknowledged that some asthmatics may experience an onset of asthma symptoms after consuming MSG.

Bottom Line

Monosodium glutamate is one of the most extensively researched food additives throughout the world. Although some individuals may be sensitive to MSG, it is generally regarded as safe to consume. If you are concerned that you may have an MSG sensitive, you should consult your doctor who can administer a challenge test.

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