Let’s have a quick chat about monosodium glutamate or MSG. This flavor enhancer is something you’ve probably heard of – and most of the news ain’t so happy – and eaten before, whether or not you know it.
It’s most commonly found in Chinese food, so be wary next time you order takeout. It’s also found in a lot of processed foods like tinned soup, crackers, frozen meals and TV dinners.
You might not even recognize it on the ingredient label, if it’s even listed. This man-made additive isn’t like salt or pepper. Known for its umami flavor (“the fifth taste”) like seaweed, it doesn’t quite boast the same laundry list of health benefits!
One of the most pressing problems with MSG is the lack of research. I personally sourced much of my information from a source that I trust very well in terms of nutrition, and that is the book ‘Nourishing Traditions’ by Sally Fallon.
We can’t really come to many strict conclusions on the dangers of it, though we’re fairly certain in saying there are no benefits beyond the taste. Even then, the taste is one of its major downfalls, even if it’s not outright harmful to our health.
Let’s dig a bit more into some of the symptoms you might not react so well to MSG, how to identify and avoid it and some of the potential risks related to consumption.
Why MSG is potentially dangerous
While the FDA has deemed MSG as GRAS or generally recognized as safe, we’re not so sure we trust their standards. After all, modern nutrition standards are a bit skewed when stacked up against real food nutrition!
Glutamate makes food taste more robust, and it tricks you into thinking you’re eating better tasting food and notably, more protein. While this seems like a benefit at first, we can see MSG’s link to obesity, because it’s commonly found in hyper-palateable foods.
In other words, MSG makes food addictive.
MSG is an excitotoxin. Basically, this is a toxic substance that’s also highly excitable to the cells. When we consume it, these cells face damage or death. This drives home the notion that too much of a good thing is bad.
Potential manifestation of cellular death or damage includes brain damage, the worsening of Alzheimer’s and other neurological disease like Parkinson’s, the triggering or worsening of disability or weakened neurological functioning overall. These can be linked to glutamic acid.
On its own, it’s merely a non-essential amino acid, and it naturally occurs in quite a few foods including miso and meat stock. In MSG’s unique case, though, the acid becomes an unnatural isomer that leads to the aforementioned diseases.
MSG symptom complex
Otherwise known as Chinese restaurant syndrome, this is basically the set of symptoms you’ll want to look for after MSG consumption. While these are mostly anecdotal reports, you will find that many individuals – perhaps including yourself – are sensitive to MSG.
Studies from the 1970s determine that around 25% of the U.S. population is intolerant to MSG! While migraines are the most common indicator of this intolerance, and one of the most severe reactions includes anaphylactic shock, you should also be aware of other common and sometimes mild symptoms including:
- Numbness or tingling
- Burning sensation in skin
- Chest pain
- Rapid heartbeat
- Pressure in the face/eyes
The bottom line regarding how much you should worry about MSG is that it depends on symptoms.
Being mindful of foods that often contain MSG and avoiding them as much as possible, not using MSG in your own cooking for extra precaution and symptoms that may exist after contact with MSG should be good enough in keeping you safe from potential dangers.
Addressing MSG sensitivity
If we look deeper into the issue of MSG sensitivity, it’s safe to assume many individuals with highly adverse reactions could undergo some further nutritional therapy. It’s rather common for children to have no reaction to MSG, but for the sensitivity to develop later into adulthood.
This could be due to personal health or simply a higher need for the convenience of processed foods, thus increased exposure overall.
High sensitivity or intolerance is indicative of a need for liver detox and an increased need for methyl donors.
Methyl donors are any substance that can transfer a methyl group to another substance. Basically, our bodies rely heavily on methylation – including the metabolism of lipids and DNA – in many vital biochemical processes.
MSG sensitivity can also point out an underlying deficiency in vitamin B6.
Proper phase two liver detox should emphasize adequate protein intake, foods like onions, garlic, scallions, and citrus fruit, cruciferous veggies, turmeric, and supplementation with milk thistle and/or SAMe.
Adding more choline, vitamin B12 and vitamin B9 (folate) to the diet can help with methylation, so include more foods like fish, meat, leafy greens, eggs, and citrus.
Foods with MSG to avoid
It’s good to know exactly what you should be on the watch for. Many foods with ingredients like natural flavoring or spices are hiding MSG and should be avoided, unless you trust the brand.
Many bottled salad dressings contain MSG alongside refined oils, soy and sugar, so make your own healthy dressings at home.
Foods that almost ALWAYS contain MSG:
- Calcium and sodium caseinate
- Hyrolyzed and textured protein
Foods that sometimes contain MSG:
- Choose organic! Some GMO crops contain MSG as the growth enhancer Auxigro contains up to 30% MSG.
- Many processed foods. Sometimes, that is when MSG is formed – it isn’t always intentionally added.
- Most soy foods, especially non-organic soy products.
- Protein powders
- Meat broth substitutes and bouillon
- Malt flavoring and extracts
- Gelatine – always opt for grass-fed, and avoid entirely if you have extreme MSG sensitivities.
- Milk-based commercial formula for babies.
Natural flavour enhancers to use instead
Instead of using MSG to enhance the taste of your food and bring in those meaty, umami tones, you can opt instead for natural non-harmful flavor enhancers instead.
Here are a few with similar properties, or naturally occurring glutamate.
- Organic & GMO-free fermented soy like miso
- Bone broth or homemade meat stock (lower in histamine)
- Tomatoes which have natural glutamate
- Fresh or dried mushrooms like shiitake, reishi or chanterelles
- MSG-free fish sauce
- Gluten-free soy sauce like Tamari or soy-free varieties like coconut aminos
- Seaweed like dulse or nori
Hopefully you’ve found this information about the harmful effects of MSG useful. If you did, please consider sharing it!
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