Diet, Triggers

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
  • glutavene
  • glutacyl
  • 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
  • seasonings
  • soy sauce
  • bouillon
  • broth
  • spices

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

15 thoughts on “A Long Look at MSG”

  1. This is an old posting but thought I’d contribute my experience with CRS. For some background information, I am an American born Taiwanese and grew up in the US.

    I used to get these CRS symptoms all the time at certain Chinese restaurants, but not all of them. My parents and acquaintances would attribute it to MSG but I wasn’t sure. I’ve also have doctor friends and others tell me that MSG causing these problems is bullshit.

    Now, from my own experiences I have to agree that MSG as the cause of CRS is bullshit. Why? Because I have never intentionally avoided MSG and I’ve just had my first CRS outbreak in 5+ years (I’ve also moved away from Los Angeles during this time). There’s no way I avoided MSG for 5 years. Rather, I’m sure there is some allergen that is causing these reactions, but it is not specifically MSG. However, it is very possible that some cheap MSG from China or something is contaminated to lower it’s cost (just like milk powder from China a few years ago). So, rather than avoiding specific foods, we should be avoiding specific sources (such as cheap restaurants).

  2. I wrote an article about monosodium glutamate and migraines. It is in the Daily News today. Click on my name above; it is at the link. And feel free to post a comment under the article. Thanks

  3. I have the same problem as Mr. Jamie and Charlotte Laws. Mine started when my dad used the Ajinomoto Sachet in every meal he cooked. I remember taking Medicol(analgesic) almost every two hours down from four hours just to relieve the pain. After 15 years, I started to slowly eliminate msg from my food and my headaches started to go away. I know that I won’t be able to totally avoid it specially if I eat in a restaurant but I try to stay away from it as much as possible. I can usually tell whether my food has msg in it, because I get thirsty.

  4. My experience is exactly the same as Mr. Jamie above. I have had migraines since I was a child, which increased into daily migraines for the past five years… until 45 days ago. I have not had a migraine since I eliminated all MSG from my diet. If any of you, like Mr. Jamie, have had a similar experience and live in the Los Angeles area, could you please contact me? I am taking this issue to my council with a motion to require MSG labeling. I could use speakers at the next meeting just to give a brief testimony. My phone number is (818) 346-5280. Thanks.

  5. As almost any Chinese person (from China) will tell you, the food that they eat there is nothing like the “Chinese” food served in this country. MSG is added to American Chinese food to enhance its flavor and make it palatable to people in this country. It is basically a fast food. So, the argument, “If MSG is so bad for you, why doesn’t everyone in Asia have a headache?” is absolutely absurd.

  6. I have had headaches ,so bad i have laid in the floor in fetal position for hour vomiting and then dry heaving until my body shuts down and then i fall asleep from being wore out for a few hours and the i get up as if nothing happened ,except hungry. I had this kind of headaches every month till i was 36 years old when i found out about MSG and i stop cold turkey everything that had MSG i even stop drinking soda and now i haven`t had a headache in 2 years. Knowing the problem was my key for a my cure.

  7. im not sure that i beleive that MSG is bad for you. The body cant differentiate between it and natural glutamate. I think that doctor who wrote the book is probably playing on peoples fears and ‘minting’ it.

    Although i do think aspartame is bad for you because it metabolises into poisons. I therefore avoid it like the plague ever since i found out about it. I have gone detox from aspartame and its other disguised names for nearly a month now and i feel a lot better. I would feel constantly tired and unable to concentrate but now i feel focused, and im sure i will continue to improve as it depletes from my system.

    Its alot easier to eliminate from your diet than MSG. I just dont beleive the MSG thing. Anyway china is taking over the world so it cant be that bad! hehe.

  8. Hi Kerrie

    I’ve just discovered the MSG connection to my migraines, and I’m glad that you avoid MSG. have you tried completely elliminating it? dont know if anyone has pointed you to but its an excellent site with instructions on how to try a “caveman” diet to see if MSG is the cause. you can buy the book on amazon–written by Deb —check out her story by listening to her interviews. once you’ve been on the diet for a while you detox and can start eating more foods because you can tolerate them. I started having 2-3 migraines a week this winter —and after reading “excitotoxins” (book by a doctor, can’t remember his name offhand) decided to throw away my meds and start this diet. I’ve been on it 2 weeks and have dramatically decreased my migraines. Its a tough diet—-brown rice, eggs, salad and fresh fruit and veg and organic chicken/turkey, but it seems to be working. To make it really work you must give up wheat and dairy too, and potatoes and tomatoes—at first. Thats why Dr Buccholz’s diet in “heal your headache” doesnt work because it doesnt eliminate ALL the sources of natural glutamate (he allows cream cheese and milk and icercream which all contain hydrolysed protein. even some bread has malted barley in it, another source of free glutamate). I strongly urge you to try it out— I know it sounds like a strenuous bland diet but once you get into the rythm fresh veggies start to taste wonderful, and you can add all sorts of spices, make your own fresh juice etc. Cook big batches of rice so you can freeze. wash and peel veggies when you can. even the tiniest amounts of MSG will trigger a migraine for me. theres a great discussion board on the website that gives you moral support and advice. you’ll see me on it! best of luck with your headaches , I too have suffered 10 long years of chronic pain, that i HOPE HOPE HOPE are finally going to go away—Sarah

  9. Freeman M. Reconsidering the effects of monosodium glutamate: a literature review. J Am Acad Nurse Pract. 2006 Oct;18(10):482-6. Review.

    [abstract] This article reviews the literature from the past 40 years of research related to monosodium glutamate (MSG) and its ability to trigger a migraine headache… MSG has been described as a trigger for…migraine headache…, but there are no consistent data to support this relationship. Although there have been reports of an MSG-sensitive subset of the population, this has not been demonstrated in placebo-controlled trials. … Despite a widespread belief that MSG can elicit a headache…there are no consistent clinical data to support this claim. Findings from the literature indicate that there is no consistent evidence to suggest that individuals may be uniquely sensitive to MSG. Nurse practitioners should therefore…seek more consistently documented etiologies for symptoms such as headache…

  10. OK–a couple of points.

    From the article: “We now know that glutamate is present in almost every food stuff, and that the protein is so vital to our functioning that our own bodies produce 40 grams of it a day.”

    Glutamate is a neurotransmitter. It has a chemical structure that is different from that of monosodium glutamate. They are not the same thing, although that may not be critical. Glutamate is rapidly absorbed from the GI tract, in whatever form–free glutamate in food, or MSG. Studies have not shown differences in plasma levels of glutamate in MSG users and non-MSG users.

    Is there a difference in brain glutamate? We don’t have good ways to measure that. But at least half the receptors in the brain are glutamate receptors of one sort or another. In fact, one of the most promising migraine drugs in development right now is an AMPA/kainate drug–these are glutamate receptors. And some of the existing anti-epilepsy medications used for migraine prevention act on glutamate receptors.

    This link is interesting:

    Chinese Restaurant Syndrome remains controversial, but has also been attributed to fungi used in some of the dishes.

    As to why there is not widespread migraine in Asia, well…the prevalence of migraine in Asians is much lower than it is in Caucasians–whether or not they live in Asia. This is well-documented in demographic studies of migraine.

    As for the foods listed…there are other components to those foods that might be triggers other than glutamate. I’m not saying MSG is not a trigger, but glutamate itself? Not necessarily a bad thing.

  11. I think it has to do with what my brain chemistry is doing at the time of ingestion of anyone of the food triggers. Some days I can eat aged cheese, peanut butter, chocolate and many other things with no effect. Other days a couple table spoons of soya in a recipe will trigger a migraine. I know my chemistry is whacky during the week of my period. Yet, these are the times I crave the same foods that will trigger a migraine. Dumb huh?
    My first migraine was brought on after drinking a diet soda, full of cyclamates and saccharine. That’s pretty much the only food I totally avoid now. I associate cyclamates with migraine more so than MSG and migraines.

    Another brilliant point! It’s often said that triggers have an additive effect. Aged cheese might be fine on its own, but if the weather and your stress levels (for example) conspire with it, you’ll get a migraine.

    It’s funny that you crave the same foods that are a trigger. It’s common to crave foods before a migraine, but I’d never thought of it this way. I wonder if other people have the same experience.

    Another thought on food cravings: I crave cookie dough — not sugar in general but cookie dough. I wonder if it has something to do with wanting comfort. I’ve always found comfort in baking and have a major sweet tooth. Maybe there’s a link?


  12. “Ripe cheese is full of glutamate, as are tomatoes. Parmesan, with 1200mg per 100 grams, is the substance with more free glutamate in it than any other natural foodstuff on the planet”

    Parmesan is also a well-known migraine trigger (along with all aged cheeses) as are many of the foods he lists.

    I’m sensitive to MSG but I am able to eat it in small to moderate amounts. The big problem is when I get into a situation where I’ve consumed several trigger foods in succession over a time period (a day or more), especially if it’s inadvertent or if I’m just not paying close enough attention, and more often than not that’s what will trigger the migraine (a domino effect, basically) and not a single ingestion of MSG.

    My first full-blown major killmenow! migraine was triggered by eating something saturated with MSG though, so I personally have no doubts about the validity of the claims of its evils.

    Brilliant point! You got me to look over the article, — all of the foods he mentions with high MSG content are known as potential migraine triggers. I never even thought about that possibility. Thanks for pointing it out.


  13. “If MSG is so bad for you, why doesn’t everyone is Asia have a headache?” Catchy title, but I think you could replace “Asia” with any other country and ask the same question, i.e., — “If MSG (and all the other names it goes by) is so bad for you, why doesn’t everyone in the U.S. have a headache?” And the answer is: Because not everyone is sensitive to it. I know plenty of people who consume it with no ill effects. And I consumed it for years until I became a migraineur and discovered it was one of my triggers.

    Prior to reading the article I didn’t know how the bad press about MSG got started, so I found that part quite interesting.

  14. Don’t forget that MSG is also often used as a spray on crops like lettuce as an anti-fungal and anti-bacterial…

    Thanks for adding this. It’s the main reason I switched to organic produce.


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