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Is MSG Bad for You?

 J.B.

MSG (monosodium glutamate) is the salt of glutamic acid, an amino acid that is naturally present in our bodies and in some foods.  Manufactured MSG, used as a food additive to enhance flavor, is made by the fermentation of starch, sugar beets, sugar can or molasses.

Is MSG bad for you?  The answer depends on who you ask.

MSG is a hot topic of controversy these days, with “experts” unable to agree on much of anything.

The FDA notes that they have received reports of symptoms such as nausea and headache from people after having ingested MSG.  Other reported symptoms of MSG intolerance are flushing, sweating, facial pressure or tightness, numbness, tingling or burning in the face, neck and other areas, heart palpitations, chest pain, and weakness.  The FDA has been unable to determine that MSG was the causal agent of these symptoms and classifies MSG as GRAS (generally recognized as safe).

According to Kathleen Holton, assistant professor in the School of Education, Teaching and Health and Center for Behavioral Neuroscience at American University in Washington, DC, the FDA’s GRAS label on MSG is not an assurance that it really is safe.  Professor Holton explains that the GRAS designation was “simply given to food additives that were in use when the Food Additives Amendment of 1958 was established”.

Professor Holton goes on to say that even though the amino acid glutamate does occur naturally in some foods, when it is in its free form (when not bound to a full protein like meat), it can cause negative reactions in some people.

The consensus seems to be that if you are sensitive to MSG, you should avoid it.  That’s probably good advice but, like a lot of other good advice, is easier said than done. 

The FDA requires that MSG be listed in the ingredient panel on the package if the MSG has been added.  But if you don’t see MSG listed, that doesn’t mean the food doesn’t contain MSG.  There could be other ingredients listed that contain MSG.  The food manufacturers are not required to specify that these ingredients contain MSG.  The only restriction is that they cannot claim “No MSG” or “No added MSG” on their packaging.

MSG has many names and many variations.  Here’s what to watch for if you are MSG-sensitive: 

  • Autolyzed plant protein
  • Autolyzed yeast
  • Calcium caseinate
  • Gelatin
  • Glutamate
  • Glutamic acid
  • Hydrolyzed plant protein
  • Hydrolyzed vegetable protein
  • Monosodium salt
  • Monohydrate
  • MSG monohydrate
  • Sodium glutamate monohydrate
  • UNII-W8IN5U6R6U
  • L-glutamic acid

Many of these ingredients are contained in processed food such as:

  • Bottled and canned sauces
  • Canned meats
  • Condiments
  • Cookies and crackers
  • Croutons
  • Cured meats
  • Diet foods
  • Dry soup mixes
  • Freeze-dried foods
  • Frozen foods
  • Gravies and seasoning mixes
  • Mayonnaise
  • Potato chips
  • Prepared dinners
  • Prepared salads
  • Prepared snacks
  • Salad dressing
  • Smoked meats and sausages
  • Soups
  • Spices and seasonings

Those trying to stay away from MSG will probably have to forego prepared food altogether.  And that might not be such a bad thing. 

In addition to MSG, many prepared foods are loaded with sugar and/or artificial sweeteners such as Aspartame and Saccharine.  They also often contain BHT and BHA (often used as a preservative in some cosmetic products), carrageenan (suspected of causing inflammation, digestive problems, and IBS), high fructose corn syrup, trans fats (trans fats raise the “bad” cholesterol level and lower the “good” cholesterol level, increasing the risk of heart disease), and sodium nitrate (increases the risk of heart disease and diabetes).

Eating what is being called “real food” or “whole foods” such as vegetables, fruit, nuts, whole grains, legumes, and lean meat and poultry will provide you with increased nutrition and, as a bonus, fewer calories!

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