A Long Look at MSG
“If MSG is so bad for you, why doesn’t everyone in Asia have a headache?” That headline sure got my attention and the article has me questioning the validity of MSG as a headache or migraine trigger — or its link to any other health problems.
According to the article, current negative attitudes toward the substance, which occurs naturally in many different foods, developed after an article in the New England Journal of Medicine described what has become known as Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. Apparently, the author of the NEJM article didn’t name MSG as the culprit, but because of its common use in Asian food, MSG was assumed to be the cause.
Here’s an excerpt from the recent article that summarizes it’s main points:
Science has still not found a convincing explanation for CRS [Chinese Restaurant Syndrome]: indeed, some researchers suggest it may well be to do with the other things diners have imbibed there — peanuts, shellfish, large amounts of lager. Others say that fear of MSG is a form of mass psychosis — you suffer the symptoms you’ve been told to worry about.
The fact is that, since the eighties, mainstream science has got bored of MSG. Some research continues; in 2002, for example, New Scientist got very excited over a report that MSG might damage your eyesight, after Japanese scientists announced that they had produced retinal thinning in baby rats fed with MSG. It turned out they were putting 20 grams of MSG in every 100g of rat food — an amazing amount, given that, in the UK, we adults consume about four grams of it each a week. (One project took people who were convinced their asthma was caused by MSG and fed them up to six grams of it a day, without ill-effects). However, at no time has any official body, governmental or academic, ever found it necessary to warn humans against consuming MSG.
But popular opinion has travelled — spectacularly — in the opposite direction to science. By the early eighties, fuelled by books like Russell Blaylock’s Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills, MSG’s name was utter mud. Google MSG today, and you’ll find it blamed for causing asthma attacks, migraines, hypertension and heart disease, dehydration, chest pains, depression, attention deficit disorder, anaphylactic shock, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases and a host of diverse allergies.
The author also shared his own anecdotal evidence from a “test” he did with foods that have naturally occuring high levels of MSG:
My friend Nic came round. He told me about a Japanese restaurant he’d been to that gave him headaches and a ‘weird tingling in the cheeks’ – until he told them to stop with the MSG. Then he was fine, he said. I nodded and I served him two tomato and chive salads; both were made using the very same ingredients but I told him one plate of tomatoes was ‘organic’, the other ‘factory-farmed’. The organic tomatoes were far better, we agreed. These, of course, were the tomatoes doused with mono sodium glutamate.
Then we ate mascarpone, parma ham and tomato pizza. Nic felt fine. So did I. I had ingested, I reckoned, a good six grams of MSG over the day, and probably the same again in free glutamate from the food — the equivalent of eating two 250g jars of Marmite.
Even though I find the author’s agrument compelling, I’ll continue to avoid MSG that’s been added to foods and eating little of the foods that have naturally occuring MSG. The problem is that I just don’t know whose arguments I can trust.
Wondering if you eat MSG and don’t know it? The author’s list of MSG-containing foods will probably surprise you.
Some of the names MSG goes under:
- monopotassium glutamate
- glutamic acid
- autolyzed yeast extract
- calcium caseinate
- sodium caseinate
- E621 (E620-625 are all glutamates)
- Ajinomoto, Ac’cent
- Gourmet Powder
The following may also contain MSG:
- natural flavors or seasonings
- natural beef or chicken flavoring
- hydrolyzed milk or plant protein
- textured protein
- soy sauce
Free glutamate content of foods (mg per 100g) — aka “naturally occuring”:
- roquefort cheese 1280
- parmesan cheese 1200
- soy sauce 1090
- walnuts 658
- fresh tomato juice 260
- grape juice 258
- peas 200
- mushrooms 180
- broccoli 176
- tomatoes 140
- mushrooms 140
- oysters 137
- corn 130
- potatoes 102
- chicken 44
- mackerel 36
- beef 33
- eggs 23
- human milk 22