MSG: the Good, the Bad, & the Ugly

Posted By on Mar 6, 2014 | 17 comments


IMG_5186MSG. If you like your soup and salad, it's in your soup, your salad dressing, and your crackers. Those frequent trips to the vending machine when you got the munchies for Cheetos? MSG is there too. Too rushed for time and have to get some fast food? You'll be hard pressed to find a joint that's sans-MSG. There's been a lot of talk, hype, and contervosy over this umami flavor enhancer, but does it deserve the bad rap? Here's the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly on MSG.

First the Facts

Monosodium Glutamate, MSG's full name, is practically synonymous with the 5th flavor, umami. The Japanese word for savory, umami is distinct from sweet, sour, salty, & bitter, but when combined with these other flavors, umami can accent and enhance their taste. MSG is the primary ingredient in most of today's food for giving that umami flavor enhancing goodness. The long and short of it is this: MSG is like nicotine for food, it makes it taste better. MSG is why "once you pop, you just can't stop."

The addictive ingredient is a sodium salt isolated from glutamic acid, a non-essential amino acid—which is probably why some companies label MSG as Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein (even though it doesn't contain protein or any macro or micronutrients for that matter). Primarily, companies manufacture MSG from the glutamic acid found in some seaweeds, and it was first produced in Japan over 100 years ago. In that time, MSG has been studied and claimed to have adverse affects ranging from headaches and joint problems to obesity and asthma. Before getting to these nasty allegations, let's look at the, albeit, brief, good side of MSG.

The Good

Unlike my previous the Good, the Bad, & the Ugly posts, MSG really doesn't have much going for it except that it makes food taste better. However, even that could be bad since most of the food it is in isn't that good for you anyways—Cheetos anyone?

The Bad

Over the years that MSG has been around, there have been anecdotal claims that it can cause adverse symptoms including:, nausea; sweating; facial pressure or tightness; numbness, tingling or burning in the face and neck;  heart palpitations; chest pain; headaches; and others. This has been called the "MSG Symptom Complex."

However, all of these anecdotal claims have never been verified in scientific studies. A multi-center clinical trial (controlled & double-blind) did not prove a relationship exists between MSG symptom complex and the consumption of MSG in people who thought they reacted detrimentally toward MSG. The adverse responses were few and inconsistent. Furthermore, when MSG was given with food, such reactions were not observed.

Perhaps all the bad hype MSG has been given is more to blame for these anecdotal claims than MSG itself. Tell that to someone with MSG Symptom Complex, however, and you might be the one experiencing a headache!

The Ugly

Though there is no evidence to suggest that MSG is indeed toxic to the body, it's relationship with obesity is harder to determine. While the the flavor enhancement properties of MSG or Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein could be one reason to blame for it's association with obesity, research has had mixed results in linking MSG consumption with obesity in humans.

Some extra food for thought: Here's one study confirming the relationship with obesity: MSG=Obesity. And here's one that denies it: Not Necessarily.

Some extra food for thought: Scientists use Monosodium Glutamate to make rats and mice fat. I'm not talking about studies on whether MSG makes mice fat, it's actually common procedure to use the umami product to make fat mice and rats before a study is conducted. You want to fatten a naturally lean animal like a mouse up? Use MSG. See here: MSG makes mice fat

Verdict

Despite the lack of evidence to indicate MSG causes adverse symptoms, it's shaky relationship in causing obesity in humans and the routine of using it to fatten rats and mice leads me to believe that MSG is just not worth the risk to put in your body.

Avoid MSG at all costs. If you focus on whole foods and healthy supplements like whey protein and Shakeology while avoiding cuisine that comes out of a can, box, or package, you probably aren't getting any MSG-laiden products anyways.

Put down the lays potato chips and pickup a carrot!

Jed Olson (24 Posts)

Jed is a fitness and travel enthusiast. A beachbody coach and A.C.E. Certified Personal Trainer, Jed has a passion for staying healthy amidst a busy lifestyle. Having travelled to over 50 countries, he knows how rough travel can be on the body and has spent considerable time studying ways to "travel-proof" the body.


17 Comments

    • cityofoaks@gmail.com'

      I understand what you are saying about MSG Symptom Complex but I do know that I will get a horrible migraine if I eat anything with MSG or many of the MSG aka ingredients. (For the sake of typing when I refer to MSG from here on out, I am also including MSG aka ingredients.) Since I’ve been eating less prepared foods but rather cooking my own food (still reading labels on things that I buy outside of the produce and meat departments), it is relatively easy to determine what I am eating. Possibly coincidentally, I do not have migraines when I am vigilant about what I eat and avoid MSG.

      Since you indicate that the anecdotal claims of MSG causing symptoms is not to be trusted, can you possibly shed some light on why you believe migraines might be triggered when I consume MSG? For ~35 years, through trial and error (on my own and with my doctor’s help), the only migraine association I have been able to determine is MSG or certain artificial sweeteners (I don’t knowingly consume them). Migraines truly are horrible and I will do whatever is necessary to avoid them.

      Post a Reply
      • I’m not saying anecdotal claims aren’t to be trusted, but for whatever reason, scientific studies have yet to pinpoint a reason for MSG Symptom Complex (herein MSG-SC)to move it from an anecdotal claim to a considered fact. There could be a lot more at work here than what current studies have shown, meaning that there could be some similarities between people that have MSG-SC that science hasn’t discovered yet. If you have narrowed down MSG as the culprit to your migraines, then there must be a reason for that. Current studies just haven’t found the reason why MSG is causing your migraines. My philosophy is to stay away from super processed ingredients as often as possible, and MSG is a exemplary reason why I do.

        Post a Reply
      • cityofoaks@gmail.com'

        Thank you for that clarification. I apparently misunderstood that section of the article.

        I find it interesting that artificial sweeteners do not seem to bother my mother, who also had migraines. A maternal cousin however experiences severe gastrointestinal problems if she consumes artificial sweeteners. I suppose we all just have to determine what, if anything, bothers us and avoid it/them.

        I agree that focusing on whole foods and avoiding processed foods is the way to go.

        Thank you for your research and articles.

        Post a Reply
      • david.nesting@gmail.com'

        The fact that no study has shown a correlation between MSG consumption and the symptoms is a strong reason to believe that there is no causal relationship between MSG and those symptoms. The symptoms do exist, but their cause is probably not MSG. Any of the following may be more likely:

        1. You are seeing a pattern where no pattern exists (a common human tendency, we all do it)
        2. The use of MSG correlates with *something else* that is causing your symptoms. Maybe the headaches are caused by excessive salt intake (to make something up), and foods that you tend to eat that are high in salt are also foods that happen to contain MSG. Or maybe MSG makes you thirsty, and your drink of choice during dinner causes headaches only when you drink twice as much of it as you normally do, which you never do unless you’re eating something with a lot of MSG.

        There are a million possible explanations for this, but the explanation that MSG is causing it seems unlikely.

        If you want to be truly scientific about it, eliminate yourself from the equation: Avoid MSG, and have your partner add MSG to meals randomly (flip a coin). Don’t let yourself find out whether MSG is in the food. Keep a diary and record (a) if you think MSG is in the food; and (b) how you felt after eating. After a month, share your diaries and see which correlates better: belief that your food had MSG or the reality that it has MSG. Don’t underestimate our own ability to influence our feelings based on what we believe or fear is true. Good application of the scientific method is all about eliminating our own natural biases.

        Post a Reply
        • animeworlduk@hotmail.com'

          That is a good suggestion but it is quite easy to tell if MSG is in the food even if you did not add it. I mean i love MSG but unfortunately am allergic to it and lots of things. My family didn’t believe my allergy and used to add it to food but say it wasn’t there.

          I could taste it and immediately after i would get an allergic rash too.

          Post a Reply
          • leahrandall@yahoo.com'

            I get horrible rashes when I eat MSG or any diluted version of it. I burned out pigment on my arms before I figured out and stopped binging on Doritos. I can’t eat anything these days for avoiding it. 🙁

        • mcarrasculpture@gmail.com'

          I did just that, in fact, most of us arrived at the conclusion that MSG was making us sick through process of elimination. It is easy to be cocky about things if you’re not the one fighting to survive each day, reduced to a diet of 5-12 “safe” foods because you have become so sensitive to just plain glutamate, even naturally occurring glutamate, because of MSG overload throughout your life. There are more of us all the time and you yourself may face the same problem some day.

          We’re told additives and chemicals in our lives are “safe” in certain quantities, but when you add those “safe” additives to all the others that you consume, bad things can happen. Not everyone responds the same and so of course those who aren’t sensitive to MSG etc are going to doubt the rest of us.

          I was one of them… yes. I really did think people like me – the way that I am now, I mean – were malingering or were just susceptible to suggestion. Then I got sick. And sicker. And now I wear an ID bracelet that warns of MSG and artificial supplements sensitivities, and my doctors do NOT think I’m nuts. They are seeing too many like me to doubt the truth. If I should ingest MSG I could go into a coma and die. I was almost there at one point. I slept for three weeks solid without moving.

          Please… keep your mind open to all possibilities in life. Truth may not always be true.

          Off my soapbox and thanks for listening.

          Post a Reply
    • tarajnolan@gmail.com'

      Hi, Jed,

      I really like your posts and appreciate your efforts to inform the public. Having said that, I think that you are not well informed regarding MSG. There is clear science which shows that MSG is quite dangerous as it does brain damage. Please look into the book, “Excitotoxins” by Dr. Blaylock who also explains that Maltodextrin (though you are correct that is not MSG) has the same active chemical properties and toxicity as MSG.

      Post a Reply
      • Glad you like the posts Tara. Regarding Dr. Blaylock, I’m not so convinced his claims are “clear science.” His views are not held up by most of his peers in the scientific community. That said, don’t get me wrong here, I am not a fan of MSG by any means. The facts are that the research is still early in pinpointing some of the ill-effects of MSG. Does that mean you should chow down on Doritos all day until the research catches up and says not to? Of course not. But I also don’t want to mislead readers and say it’s a clear-cut case against MSG already, because it isn’t.

        Post a Reply
  1. cityofoaks@gmail.com'

    I didn’t intend for my comment to be a reply to Brent’s comment. I intended for it to be a reply to the article. I’m sorry for the confusion.

    Post a Reply
  2. rigoberto.zendejas112@gmail.com'

    I’m not an expert so maybe I have no right to contradict your own personal research or your opinion, but there are several other names that monosodium glutamate are not known as that are a form of MSG either prior to consumption or turn into MSG in digestion

    http://www.truthinlabeling.org/hiddensources.html

    http://www.elephantjournal.com/2013/04/sneaky-names-for-msg-check-your-labels/

    http://www.realfoodwholehealth.com/2011/05/excitotoxins-msg-and-hidden-names/

    Just by these articles alone might make you want to think twice about your recommendation to others about drinking anything with whey proteins.

    Post a Reply
    • Those articles make some good points, though some are misleading. If MSG is all bad, then we shouldn’t have any protein according to the first link of yours! Of particular note is that MSG can be formed in the body from proteins because of the glutamate amino acid. Even the Elephant Journal you reference notes that ingesting protein with several amino acids would not raise enough MSG toxicities (whatever that means). Guess what? Whey Protein has more amino acids than glutamate. Only far-flung claims with sketchy research will say that Whey Protein is bad for you. Current research is suggesting the supplement may have anti-cancer properties and reduces the risk of heart disease. What is more, Whey Protein is a complete protein with several amino acids, including BCAA’s. Thus, if MSG is a byproduct it is a minuscule amount compared to the benefits. By your same logic, even grass-fed beef, free-range chicken, and organic quinoa should not be consumed because of the possibility MSG might be produced in the body! Your body HAS to have protein, and if MSG is a byproduct, it is a necessary evil. The fact is, there is more research out there to prove the benefits of whey protein in its forms than there is prove the detrimental effects of MSG. Does that mean I will load a corn-fed Ribeye Steak with Accent? Of course not! But it’ll take a lot more evidence to stop me from gulping down my protein shakes.

      Post a Reply
  3. mcarrasculpture@gmail.com'

    Appreciate your articles and opinions.

    I’m so sad that people like me who have an extreme sensitivity to msg and all relatives still aren’t believed by so many. My doctor takes it seriously – I’ve lost 30 pounds (I’m very underweight) because I have to grow my food on my balcony and cook from scratch – the problem is that you can’t avoid msg. Even in trace amounts, it can cause me to go into a near coma. This is documented medically.

    You may want to take a look at who funds/orders the studies that say there is no link between msg and illness. Then things start to make sense…

    Post a Reply
  4. sandra@chrispin.force9.co.uk'

    I try to eat processed food as little as possible. If I eat MSG or Aspartame by mistake – which can happen when eating out – the following day, I have a twenty minute episode when a section of my vision distorts, and is like looking through water in psychedelic colour, in both eyes, both open and closed. I don’t get a head ache. I can usually trace it back to an earlier food or drink. This now happens only about 3 or 4 times a year.
    I first experienced these vision disturbances about ten years ago, when taking a medicine daily which contained aspartame. ( It took some time to track down the culprits.) I think it built up in me and with dodgy blood vessels, maybe it passed through the B.B.Barrier. I had some terrifying episodes of violent, rapid flickering in my head; would wake in the night with this mad disco like flickering. Since avoiding MSG and Aspartame. I hardly ever get the flickering now. When I first tried to find the cause, the only reference I found, was by Dr. Blaylock and I have him to thank for tracking down that it was excito-toxins. I have never yet found anyone else who gets this reaction from these toxins.

    Post a Reply

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