MSG: Flavor Enhancer or Health Risk?

Have you ever had a headache after eating Chinese food? In the 1960’s, many patrons of Chinese restaurants started to complain of bad headaches. A review of the cases prompted the designation of a new health condition, “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”. The underlying cause was determined to be a sensitivityto Monosodium Glutamate (MSG).
MSG is sodium salt from a protein known as Glutamate which naturally occurs in our bodies, and in foods. It is commonly found in tomatoes, cheeses, broccoli and walnuts for example. We need Glutamate for proper body function. The level of MSG in protein-based foods is expected and acceptable for most people. MSG can be isolated and removed from the Glutamate, and then added to foods. Food manufacturerslove it because itenhances the flavor of foods, making us want to buy and eat more. MSG is on the GRAS list (Generally Recognized As Safe) which details ingredients/preservatives/additives that the government feels are safe to consume.
The government says MSG is not harmful. It is eaten in greater amounts every year as it is added to many foods bought at the supermarketLook in your own cabinets, fridge and freezer for a lesson in the prevalence of MSG in foods. You will be shocked as you read it in ingredient lists of gravy, salad dressing, deli meats, frozen dinners, Accent meat tenderizer, Goya Sazon, bouillon cubes, canned soup, dry soup mix, taco seasoning packets as well as salty snacks such as peanuts, crackers, and chips. MSG may also be sprinkled on your fries, and added to your chicken nuggets, burgers and “toppings” at the drive thru. MSG is not particular only to fast food joints; fancier restaurants will use meat tenderizers, spices, bouillon cubes, etc. to flavor those favorite dishes.
If MSG is so safe, what’s the problem? Well, according to Medline Plus Medical Dictionary, headache is just one of several symptoms experienced with MSG sensitivity. Other symptoms include:
• Chest Pain
• Flushing
• Numbness or burning in or around the mouth
• Sense of facial pressure or swelling
• Sweating
The list of potential connections between MSG and disease conditions is under great scrutiny. Many people are concerned and question a connection with diseases that range from autism and dementia to obesity but more research is needed to confirm a connection. Despite this, the government contends that MSG is not a threat. In 1995, the FDA had a third party independent group, American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) review MSG and safety. Studies reviewed suggested that there might not be a connection at all with MSG and symptoms, showing similar reactions to MSG as well as a placebo. Their findings were that there might be mild symptoms in those with MSG sensitivities, but that it wasn’t really an issue for the public at large. Tell that to those people experiencing headaches and other symptoms.
The American public has become more health conscious overall, and it has asked for manufacturers to make foods reflect that philosophy. Despite the GRAS listing of MSG, many people are concerned about the safety of having it added to foods. In order to meet the demand for healthier food and maintain customers, manufacturers have heard us and made changes. For example, in the 1970s, MSG was removed from baby foods. In 2008, Progresso removed MSG from most of their soups. Under pressure to maintain their customers, Campbell’s soup followed suit and removed MSG from many of their soups.
But did they? The answer is complicated. Although the isolated MSG was removed, they added ingredients that naturally contain MSG, which is allowable by law. So, when you next read a food label, know that these ingredients mean MSG is in your food:
• hydrolyzed vegetable protein
• autolyzed yeast
• hydrolyzed yeast
• yeast extract
• soy extracts
Each of these ingredients needs to be listed on the label, but the manufacturer does not need to state MSG is in the food. To protect us, the label cannot state “No MSG” or “No added MSG”.
So, how can you protect yourself from MSG if you believe you are sensitive? Since MSG must be listed on the nutrition facts label, take a look at the ingredient list; make sure you extend your word search to include all of the terms that also mean MSG (see list above). Consider home-making your own foods such as gravy, prepared soup, dry soup mixes and taco seasoning. With the availability of Internet, recipes are not hard to come by. You can also try getting a “make it yourself” cookbook at your local library or bookstore. Furthermore, when dining out or calling in for take-out, request that no MSG be added to your meal. It won’t be easy, and will take planning and preparation, but isn’t it worth it to avoid chest pain, numbness and headaches?
Jennifer Giffune, R.D., L.D.N. is a freelance author, professional speaker and nutrition counselor. She currently is providing nutrition-counseling services for Hampden County Physician Associates at their offices in Westfield, Southwick and West Springfield. If you would like to schedule a counseling session with Jennifer, please call (413) 569- 2257.

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