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The Effects and Dangers of MSG Seasoning: Is It Bad for You?

Is MSG Bad for You?

msg-the-killer-food-additive-allergy

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.

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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

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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.
Ramen soups contain MSG as the second ingredient after salt!

Ramen soups contain MSG as the second ingredient after salt!

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.


Bad MSG

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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

Comments

Jim Laughlin from Connecticut on March 19, 2017:

I think I am allergic to MSG, I get really sick after eating some. I know a restaurant that used it, and I got so sick from there.

Good informative Hub, thank you.

OhZone on June 10, 2015:

Once sensitized to MSG you can have a cascade of sensitivities to other chemicals.

To make matter worse, all your veggies - even Organic- are now grown in fertilizer that contains free glutamate. It is in the form of Hydrolyzed Feather Meal or Hydrolyzed fish or vegetable protein.

Mikko on April 29, 2015:

Accent is still sold in the US... Just saw it in the store...

Hendrika from Pretoria, South Africa on April 17, 2015:

This is scary, even though no research can proof it. The fact that people show signs is enough to say to me that something is wrong here. Avoiding MSG though is very difficult as it is everywhere.

Bill on January 29, 2015:

It is time to fight back against this sort of nonsense article.

MSG is NOT BAD FOR YOUR HEALTH.

After years of scientific testing no one can identify any neurotoxic results from the consumption of MSG.

The author even cites the lack of evidence for harmful effects caused by MSG and then continues to ignore their own research in favour of spurious " anecdotal evidence" because it suits their agenda.

By all means avoid any food additives that suit you, but stop citing urban myths as points of fact.

Lois Ryan from Upstate NY originally from Long Island on September 19, 2014:

Hi great hub. I am using a Betty Crocker Cookbook to make homemade chicken noodle soup and one of the ingredients calls for MSG. Since it gave the longer name I did not realize that it was MSG until I looked it up. I heard so many bad things about MSG and was a little reluctant about using it until I did read further that it is used in many soups. I did check the ingedients of Campbells chicken soup and it does contain MSG, so I am trying it in my recipe since none of us ever had any issues after eating the Campbells brand. I bought the Accent food enhancer for the MSG. I did read in this hub that Accent no longer is sold in the US. But this hub was published in 2010, so maybe the US decided to sell it again.

Empirical Evidence on April 08, 2014:

This article says it early on...there is NO medical evidence to support the MSG myth.

MSG is not bad for you.

Bewildered and bemused on March 11, 2014:

Jane, thank you for approving the comment. Your response, though, highlights exactly why this issue is so bewildering. The science required to understand my comment, and disagree if one feels inclined, is high-school-level. This is not hard stuff to get. One does not need a Ph.D. to process this; the 15-year-old down the street already knows enough to handle it.

The only “components” to MSG are Sodium and Glutamate. It is not a complicated substance. A 90-second google search will confirm this. Sodium is required for proper functioning of your body, and in any event constitutes only 5% of MSG. Yes, it is possible to consume too much Sodium. FDA recommends 2400mg per day, which works out to 6 grams of table salt. If you were to get all that Sodium from MSG, though, you'd have to consume 33 grams of the stuff. There is just not much Sodium in MSG -- it is almost all Glutamate.

Glutamate, in addition to being non-toxic, is already synthesized by your body, as well as in the bodies of every other living, breathing, animal that was ever butchered for a meal. That is why the average person (assuming that person consumes animal proteins) ingests 13 grams of the stuff daily. The average amount of MSG (the "artificial" stuff) consumed in a day is only 0.5 grams. Even 10 packs of ramen noodles daily wouldn't equal the amount that the average chicken, steak, and pork eater already consumes.

I don’t have an answer to your question about why some people provide anecdotal accounts of MSG allergies. I do, however, understand that many people provide anecdotal accounts of all sorts of illnesses without basis in science or medicine. See, e.g., chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, gluten allergies, etc. No amount of actual science will persuade such people, and they will continue to find support in people that echo their anecdotes. I understand that, and I am resigned to that, but I still find it utterly bewildering.

At the end of the day, I'll continue to trust scientific, double-blinded, controlled studies, before a collection of anecdotes. I guess I'm just crazy that way.

Ann Leavitt (author) from Oregon on March 11, 2014:

Dear "bewildered and bemused" and "delete this comment." I must have double-clicked "approve" and accidentally clicked on "deny." I certainly am grateful for all your research and knowledge, and appreciate you informing my readers of your opinion. I have approved the comment now that you have brought this to my attention, and you should be able to see it and feel gratified.

I do not have the scientific knowledge to address all your facts, but I do have anecdotal testimonies connecting the consuming of MSG to the causing of headaches and dizziness, if not nausea and things worse. If you can figure out why all these people commenting with similar symptoms are experiencing these symptoms, if it is not related to MSG (or an allergy to one of the components of MSG) then I will be glad to hear it.

For the truth,

Jane

Delete this comment on March 10, 2014:

You deleted my prior comment explaining the science behind MSG, rather than allowing your readers to view it and, if they chose, state their disagreements.

So hurry up and delete this comment before your readers have a chance to view it.

Ana Maria Orantes from Miami Florida on March 10, 2014:

Miss Annie . Thank you for the information about the MSG. It is true about some food can make you sick to pass away. When I was younger. I used to eat Chinese food with no problem. I am older. Chinese food does not agre with my body. The cooks told me that was going to happen. If I eat food with MSG.

Bewildered and bemused... on February 24, 2014:

This website, and the countless others like it, are absolutely ridiculous.

Here's a chemistry lesson that I hope is simple enough even for the people that subscribe to this type of hysteria to understand. MSG is an abbreviation for Monosodium Glutamate, which is just the sodium salt of glutamate. You could write it as Na+ Glu- where "Na+" is the positively charged sodium ion ionically bonded with "Glu-", the negatively charged Glutamate ion. When you dissolve it in water (which is what happens when it enters your body), it dissociates into free roaming Na+ and Glu-. They don't hang around together in your body -- they're "summer camp friends" that don't talk to each other anymore once they leave the cozy confines of the seasoning container and enter the wilderness of your body.

Glutamate is found *naturally* in just about every type of meat or other animal protein that will ever make it onto your plate. This is because glutamic acid is a "non-essential" amino acid (which this web posting acknowledges, but apparently to imply that one's body does not need it, which is not true). Non-essential amino acids are those that your body can synthesize on its own, and therefore are not required to be consumed in your diet. All those delicious organic, free range, farm fresh, hormone-free animal proteins that end up on your plate come from animals that naturally synthesize so much of the stuff that the *average* person consumes 13 grams of glutamate every day. At least, that's if you trust the FDA, and the published scientific research on which the FDA relies, which I know may be a tall request on this site... (http://www.fda.gov/food/ingredientspackaginglabeli...

The average amount of non-naturally occurring MSG, added to foods as a seasoning, that a person consumes in a day is 0.5 grams, or less than 4% of the naturally occurring amount in the organic meats that I'm sure everyone hear swears by. Now, I know what you're thinking: "well it's that extra 4% of the *chemical* version that I'm allergic to!" No, it's not. Back to the chemistry lesson -- the only other "chemical" in MSG is the positive sodium ion (Na+). Guess where else you find Na+? Table salt. That's good old NaCl, which even people here must recognize from high school chemistry. Now, there are all kinds of health issues with consuming too much sodium, including high blood pressure, water retention, etc. But *nobody* -- literally no single person who is alive -- has an allergy to Na+. This is because Na+ is an indispensable ion that your body uses to regulate water content in cells and blood, and to maintain the electrical gradients that power your nerves. Without it, you die (more accurately, without it, you would never even survive the first few cell divisions after fertilization).