Monosodium glutamate, also called MSG, is a sodium compound of the amino acid, glutamic acid, that is widely used as a preservative and flavor enhancer. In its pure form, monosodium glutamate is a white crystalline powder with what is described as a “pleasant” taste. It was introduced into the food supply in the 1940's and has been the subject of studies and heated debate ever since.
Foods with MSG
MSG is ubiquitous in processed foods, such as soups, luncheon meats, meat tenderizers, seasoning salt, snack foods, salad dressings, fast foods and frozen dinners. It is estimated that as much as 500 million pounds of MSG are added to the world food supply each year.
According to the FDA
Although the U.S. FDA considers MSG to be “generally recognized as safe,” there is a lot of controversy surrounding this popular food additive. Hundreds of studies have been done by various special interests, without a consensus opinion being reached, that would bridge the gap between the those who believe it is safe and those who do not.
Symptoms of Sensitivity
However, there is no doubt that some people have a sensitivity to monosodium glutamate, and will experience any or all of the following symptoms when they consume it:
Those with asthma seem to be particularly susceptible to MSG sensitivity.
How much is too much?
One study suggests that as many as 30% of Americans experience reactions after consuming as little as 5 grams of MSG, while 90% experience symptoms after consuming 10 grams of MSG. Having said this, 10 grams and even 5 grams is a lot of MSG, since typically, a serving of food will have only a tiny fraction of that amount. This is another good reason not to overeat or overdo on any food.
"Chinese Restaurant Syndrome"
Since MSG is a common additive in Asian food, medical experts coined the term “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” to describe the reactions that many people have after consuming this food additive. There is some evidence that this syndrome may be due to a Vitamin B6 deficiency, since this B vitamin is required to metabolize MSG. Some healthcare providers have found that supplementing the diet with Vitamin B6 may eliminate the symptoms of MSG sensitivity.
Another form of sodium
Aside from the potential sensitivity to MSG, monosodium glutamate in the food supply is another source of sodium in your diet. If you are watching the sodium in your food due to high blood pressure, or other salt sensitivity issues, be sure to include MSG in your list of things to avoid.
Not for babies
It should be noted that, according to FDA guidelines, MSG cannot be added to baby food, since it is considered unsafe for that age group.
Looking for MSG on food labels*
The FDA requires that food companies list MSG on the food label, if it is an ingredient in their product. Although this is may be one way to find the MSG in your food, it also may appear as a component of other ingredients including the following:
-Autolyzed plant protein
-Hydrolyzed vegetable protein(HVP)
-Hydrolyzed plant protein (HPP)
-Soy protein extract
*Even foods that have a "MSG-free" claim on the label may contain these other forms.
Something to keep in mind
One rule of thumb is that, if the packaged food comes with a “flavor packet” it probably contains MSG. Also, most frozen dinners and entrees contain monosodium glutamate in some form, usually as hydrolyzed protein or autolyzed yeast.
There are some health experts that take a very dim view of monosodium glutamate in our food supply, since they consider it an “excitotoxin,” which affects brain health, and a “poison” that is not only addictive but can also be linked to the increased incidence of autism, diabetes, obesity and even ADHD.
The cynical view
If one were a cynic, one might propose that food companies have a vested interest in suppressing the potentially harmful effects of MSG, due to its possibly addictive flavor enhancing qualities which may cause people to buy and eat more of their products.
Whatever you believe about MSG, there is no question that Americans are eating more food, getting fatter, and finding themselves with Type II Diabetes in increasing numbers.
Since we are not scientists and can’t do the studies, and since we know that there are powerful food lobbies that affect what we are allowed to know about our food supply, why not skip the MSG issue altogether? You can do this by avoiding processed foods and fast foods and instead choose fresh, whole foods that are better for you anyway, for more reasons than that they don’t have any monosodium glutamate.
In addition, become an informed consumer by learning to read food product labels so that you know what is in the foods you are buying. Even restaurants have nutrition information available at their websites, so that you can make better choices when you are eating out.
It goes without saying that the more we support those companies that produce and sell healthier foods, the more healthy foods will be available at prices we can afford.