Why You Should Avoid MSG

Why You Should Avoid MSG

Julian Whitaker, MD

You’ve probably noticed that some Chinese restaurants, canned soups, and other prepared foods boast that they’re “MSG-free.” But you may be hard-pressed to explain what exactly MSG (monosodium glutamate) is—and why you’d want to avoid it.

The story goes like this. In the early 1900s, a Japanese chemist, Dr. Kikunae Ikeda, isolated and identified the flavor-enhancing component in seaweed—glutamate—that made his wife’s soups and broths so tasty. Eventually he figured out how to stabilize this substance by mixing it with salt and water. Thus monosodium glutamate was born.

MSG is a food manufacturer’s dream come true. It works by stimulating the “fifth sense of taste,” dubbed “umami” by Dr. Ikeda and loosely translated as “deliciousness.” This taste is naturally present in savory foods such as meat, broth, soy sauce, Parmesan cheese, tomatoes, and asparagus. And when MSG is added to processed foods, it activates the same umami receptors on your tongue, thereby tricking your taste buds into sensing that these items taste better than they actually do.

Not surprisingly, MSG is added to a wide range of foodstuffs, ranging from canned goods and salad dressings to frozen meals and baby food. It’s even packaged as a seasoning (Accent). Although the FDA has categorized this food additive as “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS), in my opinion this flavor enhancer is anything but innocuous. In fact, MSG may well be a hazard to your health.

Chinese Restaurant Syndrome?

Questions surrounding MSG first became public in 1968, when Robert Ho Man Kwok wrote a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine describing what he called “Chinese restaurant syndrome”—numbness in the neck, arms, and back that developed 15–20 minutes after eating Chinese food and lasted about two hours.

The following year, an article in the journal Science concluded that MSG was indeed the cause of these symptoms and that further manifestations of this syndrome included “burning sensations, facial pressure, and chest pain.” The researchers also noted that symptom severity varied from person to person, suggesting that some individuals may be more sensitive to the additive than others.

Today, the accepted term is “MSG symptom complex,” and it also encompasses headache, trouble breathing, nausea, drowsiness, weakness, and rapid heartbeat. And although the FDA has acknowledged that MSG may cause short-term reactions, the agency has failed to warn the public of this common flavoring agent’s potential dangers.

More Serious Health Concerns

Truth be told, the symptoms above may be only the tip of the iceberg—MSG may injure the brain as well. In his book, Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills, Russell Blaylock, MD, explains that MSG is an excitotoxin, a substance that overstimulates cells throughout the body, particularly in the brain, triggering severe damage and cell death. Dr. Blaylock reports that as a result, MSG may play a role in neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Lou Gehrig’s disease.

MSG also appears to contribute to diabetes and obesity. Lab animals injected with MSG develop problems with insulin sensitivity, which underlies both weight gain and blood sugar control. And human studies show an association between weight and MSG intake as well. In one clinical trial, scientists evaluated the MSG use of 752 Chinese people. After exercise and caloric intake were factored in, they determined that the participants who consumed the most MSG had higher body mass indexes (BMIs) than people with lower intakes. They concluded, “Prevalence of overweight was significantly higher in MSG users than nonusers.”

Master of Disguises

Think your diet is MSG-free? Think again. Thanks to creative marketing and PR campaigns, MSG masquerades as glutamate, monopotassium glutamate, autolyzed yeast, yeast extract, gelatin, hydrolyzed protein, calcium caseinate, and sodium caseinate. (And this is just a partial list!) Some of the most MSG-laden foods include processed chicken and sausage products, Parmesan cheese, soups, fish sauces, ranch dressing, dipping sauces, deli meats, and canned goods. There’s even MSG in such innocent-sounding ingredients as natural flavorings, bouillon, stock, and broth.

So, what are you supposed to eat? Look to Mother Nature for inspiration. That means plenty of vegetables, fruits, and naturally raised meat and poultry—essentially the diet I’ve been espousing for years.

Food writer and critic Jeffrey Steingarten once posed the question, “If MSG is so bad for you, why doesn’t everyone in Asia have a headache?” We may never get a completely straight answer, but as far as I’m concerned, your best bet is to steer clear of MSG.

Recommendations

  • To avoid MSG, cut processed foods out of your diet and limit the number of restaurant meals you eat. You should also stay away from products that have chemically laced ingredient lists a mile long. (Visit msgtruth.org/avoid.htm for a comprehensive guide of foods containing MSG.) Remember, healthy eating is most easily achieved when you choose foods that are as close to their natural state as possible.
  • To schedule an appointment with the Whitaker Wellness Institute nutritionist, call (866) 944-8253.

References

  • Blaylock R. Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills. Santa Fe, New Mexico: Health Press; 1997.
  • Ka H, et al. Association of monosodium glutamate intake with overweight in Chinese adults:
    The INTERMAP Study. Obesity. 2008;16(8):1875–1880.
  • MSGTruth. Web site. www.msgtruth.org. Accessed January 22, 2010.
  • Schaumburg H, et al. Monosodium L-glutamate: its pharmacology and role in the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. Science. 21 February 1969;163(3869):826–828.

Modified from Health & Healing with permission from Healthy Directions, LLC. Photocopying, reproduction, or quotation strictly prohibited without written permission from the publisher. To subscribe to Health & Healing, click here.

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