How Safe is MSG?
Monosodium Glutamate, commonly abbreviated MSG, is one of the most controversial food-additives around today. Most people know MSG as the chemical that has historically been added to Chinese Restaurants to improve flavor, but it is also found in a variety of other foods. One of the ironies regarding MSG is that its use in Chinese food has declined significantly as a result of bad press, but other restaurants, especially fast food restaurants, have frequently begun to make use of the additive.
What is MSG?
Monodium Glutamate is a food-additive which is popularly used in high-volume meal production in order to boost the flavor profile of many foods. MSG activates the parts of the tongue associated with Umami, which makes foods taste meatier and more savory. Some foods contain some MSG naturally, including cheese and tomatoes. Natural MSG is what gives meats and stews a lot of their mouth feel and flavor. MSG was first isolated in 1908 by a Japanese researcher, and was first used in Eastern cuisine, which is why there is such a strong association between MSG and Chinese food.
Specifically, Monosodium Glutamate is a combination of L-glutamate, an amino acid, and a salt molecule. MSG acts as a preservative as well as a flavor-enhancer, because it stabilizes the Glutamate molecule, preserving its effect on the flavor of the food. MSG can extend the “freshness” of a soup or other food product by a year or more, which makes it very popular in packaged foods.
Unfortunately, as with any additive, MSG is often abused, as it classically has in Chinese Restaurants and other places where food is sold to the public. There is some concern that high levels of Monosodium Glutamate can have unfortunate side-effects.
Of course, much of the concern regarding MSG is anecdotal, and there is a lot of research that needs to be done in order to entirely assess the health impact of Monosodium Glutamate. There have been enough reports to the Food and Drug Administration regarding MSG that the organization recognizes a condition known as MSG Symptom Complex. The following are the symptoms of the condition:
It's important to note that, although MSG Symptom Complex is recognized, there has been no definitive connection made between the condition and the consumption of MSG itself. To date, the FDA considers Monosodium Glutamate as Generally Recognized as Safe, though many health specialists believe that there is sufficient evidence regarding the downside of MSG to warrant patients to minimize their consumption of foods known to contain MSG.
What Potentially Makes MSG Harmful?
Nutrition scientists hypothesize that if MSG does cause health issues, it could be because it leads to an increase in Glutamate in the blood stream. Glutamate, like other Amino Acids, has the ability to pass through the blood-brain barrier and influence neurological activity. It is thought that excess consumption of MSG causes Glutamate levels to increase in the brain. When levels of a particular neurotransmitter elevate to a high level, those normally productive neurotransmitters become Excitotoxins.
Neurotransmitter levels can get so high that they overstimulate neurons designed to interact with the excitotoxin, which can damage or even kill the cells. There is evidence that when Glutamate levels are too high in the brain this impacts the normal function of neurons in such a way that it can lead to the death of neurons. Of course, the main question with regard to MSG's impact on Glutamate Levels and neurological function is: How much MSG is too much? It is possible that most people never consume enough MSG for it to have a major negative impact. It's also possible that certain individuals are more sensitive to the potential negative effects of MSG.
These are factors that we simply don't have enough information to understand, but for patients concerned for their health, it would be a wise choice to limit sources of MSG in the diet. Even if MSG turns out to be relatively benign, MSG tends to be in foods that we should eat sparingly or rarely in the first place.
How to Avoid MSG
Avoiding fast food restaurants will reduce your exposure to MSG. Many casual, family, and fine dining restaurants also have foods that contain MSG. Almost all chain and franchise restaurants have online menus which can show you MSG Levels in their food. Use this data to your advantage. The two types of restaurant that commonly abuse MSG are Fast Food Restaurants and All You Can Eat Buffets.
You can also limit your intake of MSG through conscientious shopping and by avoiding certain processed foods such as canned soup without checking the label first. Other foods that commonly contain Monosodium Glutamate as an ingredient are salad dressings, pasta sauce, barbecue sauce, crunchy snacks, commercial stock, and canned foods.
MSG is often used to create a sensation that the food that you are eating is more filling and more satisfying, in order to mask the fact the food is of lesser quality. These foods are also frequently loaded with high levels of sodium or sugar as well. It's a good idea in general to opt for fresh food over processed food whenever possible, although there are healthy packaged food options increasingly available in grocery stores and supermarkets across the country.
Other Names for MSG
Most restaurants that post their nutrition information online will list MSG honestly as a primary ingredient. Unfortunately, MSG goes by other names that can be misleading, especially in the grocery store. Naturally sourced MSG is often found under the names Sodium Caseinate, Hydrolyzed Plant Protein, or Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein.
Should I Avoid MSG?
The current medical literature shows little evidence that MSG is particularly harmful, but it is frequently an ingredient in foods you should limit your consumption of in the first place, due to high sodium, high sugar levels, or food that is highly processed. The rule of thumb is, if you feel that MSG is impacting your health and wellness, you should limit your exposure, and set up an appointment with a doctor to discuss your symptoms, in order to get to the root of your problem, and to preserve your well-being.