MSG: Friend or Foe?
Working in the same vein as last weeks post on the perils of HFCS consumption, I wanted to address another oft-neglected food additive that may be interfering with your health. MSG, or monosodium glutamate, has received a considerable amount of scrutiny in the past, but its continued use in the food production and preparation process has seemingly dropped off the radar (my radar at least). But, after completing a recent project where I found MSG in what most would consider a relatively healthy food (kimchi), I thought it might be fun to explore MSG and the guidance as to what harm it may cause.
MSG in Food and Nature
Before we get into MSG, we need to start with the substance found in many foods, which is also naturally produced within the body, glutamate. Glutamate, or glutamic acid, is a non-essential amino acid that serves as a building block for biological proteins and can also be utilized independently as an excitatory neurotransmitter that plays a key role in neurological communication, learning and memory. As mentioned, glutamic acid occurs naturally in many foods, including cheese, tomatoes and walnuts and is responsible for umami, one of the five basic tastes of the human taste profile. Monosodium glutamate, a.k.a. MSG, is the mass-produced sodium salt of glutamate synthesized by hydrolyzing vegetable protein or fermenting starchy foods so that it can be utilized by industrial food manufacturers seeking umami to enhance, balance, and blend flavor and improve the overall taste experience.
Quick Chemistry: A salt is the chemical name for a molecule held together by opposite charges and in MSG’s case, a single (mono-) salt (-sodium) atom with a positive charge is ‘stuck’ to a negatively charged glutamate molecule in order to make it more electrically neutral and, therefore, more stable for use in commercial production.
Producers of MSG and food manufacturers that utilize it claim that the ‘free’ glutamate found naturally in many foods is exactly the same as the ‘bound’ version linked to other amino acids and found in MSG. However, others contest that the artificially produced glutamate found in MSG is altered and often contaminated in the production process so that slight variations in structure have noticeably adverse effects in certain subgroups of people. The same group of people have also argued that consuming foods that contain MSG may lead to the toxic accumulation of glutamate, which is well known to cause severe problems in many diseased states.
Who’s right? Or, maybe more appropriately, more right?
If I had to sum up my research in one sentence, it would go something like this:
“Although MSG is classified by the USDA as generally recognized as safe (GRAS), it has been found that certain people may be more sensitive to a complex of symptoms that result from MSG consumption and include: numbness, headache, migraine, palpitations, tightness, weakness, aching, flushing, sweating, fasciculation, lacrimation, syncope, dizziness, shudder attacks, paresthesias, arrhythmias and tachycardia.”
I know that that’s a long sentence, but I never said I was one for brevity.
The symptoms associated with MSG, also lovingly referred to as ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’, may the result of stimulation of peripheral receptors of the nervous system, the conversion of glutamate to acetylcholine via the TCA cycle, a manifestation of esophageal irritation, excessive sodium intake, B6 deficiency or histamine intoxication. However, it has also been found that human studies failed to confirm an involvement of MSG in ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’ or other idiosyncratic intolerances. Although these studies do not discount the existence of sensitive subpopulations, they assert that, ‘decades of research have failed to demonstrate a clear and consistent relationship between MSG ingestion and the development of…[CRS]…conditions.’
So, what does this mean for you and me? Unfortunately, the scientific answer is essentially the same as in many other matters of diet and nutrition in that it depends on an individual’s food sensitivities and their predisposition for risk. According to the experts, MSG may be harmful to some but most should be okay if foods that contain MSG are ‘eaten at customary levels’.
I know. I know. Not much help.
Although there is a lot of contradictory evidence concerning the effect of MSG on the human body, I think it is safe to say that consuming substances that alter or artificially enhance food are probably not a good idea. Not only is there the possibility that MSG can cause a tremendous amount of damage, but foods that contain MSG are often heavily processed and nutrient deficient, rely upon artificial and highly unstable ingredients that contribute to physiological dysregulation, and directly contribute to the growing health and weight crisis infecting the entire world. I hate to stereotype here, but how many ‘healthy’ dishes are available at the Chinese food restaurants often associated with MSG toxicity?
I think the fine folks at the Mayo Clinic said it pretty summarily with, “the only way to prevent a reaction is to avoid foods containing MSG.”