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Is MSG Unhealthy?

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a flavor enhancer often used in Asian dishes as well as in a wide range of commercially prepared foods. Chemically, it is a salt of glutamic acid, one of the amino-acid building blocks of protein. Glutamic acid and its salts, including MSG, stimulate a particular taste receptor, the one responsible for the so-called "fifth taste" or umami (a Japanese word meaning "meaty" or "savory").

MSG is often suspected of causing health concerns such as flushing, general weakness, and heart palpitations, but studies have produced no evidence linking consumption of moderate amounts of MSG with any serious reactions, and have found no links to short- or long-term health problems, including Alzheimer's disease, Huntington's disease or neurodegenerative diseases. However, people who eat large amounts of MSG (three grams or more per meal) on an empty stomach and people with severe and poorly controlled asthma can develop such symptoms as numbness, burning sensation, tingling, facial pressure or tightness, chest pain, headache, nausea, rapid heartbeat, drowsiness and weakness. (Note that three grams is a lot of MSG - the amount in a typical serving of food to which MSG is added is less than 0.5 grams.)

If you find that you react to foods containing MSG or glutamate, check labels when shopping, and when dining in Asian restaurants, ask that your food be prepared without MSG.

If you want to boost the umami component of foods naturally, try using seaweeds such as kombu and mushrooms such as shiitake in soups and stocks and sauces, or add other foods naturally containing free glutamates: fresh tomatoes, tomato paste and Parmesan cheese.

Try these natural umami recipes using one of my favorite foods - mushrooms - and skip the MSG!

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Reader Comments (4)

I don't have asthma, don't eat it on an empty stomach, don't eat amounts of 3 mg or more, but --

I VERY definitely react to MSG, even to small amounts in foods (such as a small 1 ounce bag of potato chips which have MSG in their flavoring/coating/spices). I get a migraine, and usually nausea, about an hour after ingesting it, and the migraine lasts for at least 6 hours. I have tested this over the years, and it's definitely true in my case.

Monosodium Glutamate and similar compounds have many, many names on nutritional labels in the US, Canada, and Europe. I have a list of about 60 of such names typed out on a piece of paper that I carry in my wallet, so I can tell when I'm food shopping what additives on the ingredients label to look out for. By now, I know most of them by sight, since I've been aware of my reaction to MSG for about 12 years. Some of these MSG-related chemicals sound like they are very innocent ingredients, so you have to be careful if you are trying to avoid them.

Even "organic" food, "natural" food, "healthy choice" food, and on and on, all can have MSG and related chemicals in them. The "organic" or "natural" label does NOT mean "no MSG".

In the US, it's very hard indeed to find foods that don't have some form of MSG or related chemical in them. It is easier in Europe, but it's getting bad all over.

MSG is a cheap, plentiful food additive that adds zing and masking flavor to foods that might taste plain or odd on their own, so of course manufacturers love it.

In my opinion, MSG has altered our society's taste buds and taste expectations so profoundly that it has encouraged overdosing on fast food, sweets, fried foods, and other unhealthy choices. It makes normal, plain, fresh, old-fashioned food taste unpalatable to many.

I am not sure if other websites may be recommended here by name, so I won't name any specifically in my comment, but if you look up MSG and sensitivity and other such search terms on an internet search engine, you will find some websites that give partial lists of the names that MSG is disguised under on food labels.

After I became very careful about avoiding MSG, the frequency of my migraines lessened considerably. I can tell right away now if a food has a good amount of MSG in it, just by the way my taste buds react - even before the nausea and headache start.

I do love the "umami" flavor, the so-called fifth taste, that MSG seeks to replicate, sometimes described as a meaty, earthy kind of taste. I adore olives, parmesan, red wine, and other umami foods. I never have a problem with meals made with those "natural" foods, just with foods that have the chemical additive of MSG added to them.

If you feel that you experience negative physical reactions to MSG but your friends, food manufacturers, and doctors tell you that there is no evidence from research that this happens, don't believe them - some people definitely are sensitive to MSG.

August 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMichele

My father used to have rapid heartbeat and flushing after eating oriental food. He found out that if he ate a roll first (they actually used to serve white bread rolls and butter before the meal in Chinese restaurants in the 60's and 70's!) he'd be fine and then could eat all he wanted.
He doesn't eat oriental food any more, though because they stopped serving bread.

August 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKaren B.

I do like putting a dash of MSG in my dishes because it does make them more "meaty" and "savory". I don't know why some people would get adverse reactions when 0.5 grams is a really small amount. Maybe I'm just used to eating Asian food that's why this flavor enhancer doesn't give me any problem at all.

Jane Darwin
Health News Blog

August 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJane Darwin

Don't believe the promoters of msg when they tell you it's safe. Sure, no studies have conclusively PROVEN it's harmful, but that is meaningless. It may take 20 years to develop neurological problems, and how would you know the cause? MSG is a neurotoxin, just like aspartame.

August 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterStan
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