Hello reader! I am Lisa – Soho, London based nutritional therapist and traveller with a passion for both. I have heard such greatly opposing views on Monosodium glutamate (MSG) on the road that I thought a detailed analysis was needed. So here we go……
Monosodium glutamate or MSG is a flavour enhancer commonly used in Asian cuisine such as curry, stirfries and soups.
It is the sodium salt of glutamic acid.
Glutamic acid is a non-essential amino acid. There are 20 known amino acids which constitute the building blocks of proteins. Non-essential just means that the acid can be created by the human body and is therefore not an essential part of our diet.
Glutamic acid actually occurs naturally in some foods such as parmesan, mushrooms, soya, eggs and chicken. It is even found in human breast milk!
It is responsible for the ‘unami’ taste. Often described as the fifth taste, it is described as ‘meaty, savoury and morish’ – examples being marmite, spaghetti and burgers. It was discovered by Kikunae Ikeda in 1908.
This Japanese university professor then went on to chemically separate monosodium glutamate from seaweed. MSG was born and he became a wealthy man following manufacture of the super tasty salty stuff.
Concerns about MSG began following anecdotal accounts of neurological symptoms post consumption of Asian food. These are so common that ‘Chinese restaurant syndrome’ is a term used by doctors to describe the phenomenon.
Symptoms vary greatly in severity from headaches, numbness in the neck and a sensation of weakness to full-blown angioedema.
But how can we be sure that MSG is responsible for these symptoms? The simple answer is that we can’t. High powered journals point to the lack of good quality research to support this link and safety studies conclude that MSG is safe to consume in small quantities.
So why do some people react this way? Surely they are not imagining the way that they feel?
Various theories have been presented.
- Its not the MSG its something else
Food served in restaurants may contain a wide array of additive substances such as preservatives, color additives and food toxins. These may be the real culprits for adverse reactions.
2. MSG is not harmful for everybody just for those with a sensitivity
Most studies conclude that there may be a small proportion of individuals who react badly to MSG – they feel more research is needed to evaluate this. Interestingly vitamin B6 supplementation has been found to improve symptoms.
Despite the above MSG is often derided by holistic health practitioners.
Inflammation is part of the body’s response to infection and tissue damage, and it is crucial to the healing process. This is definitely great if you have a serious injury or infection. Chronic low grade inflammation is not so great though. It has been found to be a contributor to the development of diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimer’s.
MSG has been linked to the development of non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) in mice studies. The authors conclude that this occurs due to inflammation of blood vessels in the liver.
MSG is an excitotoxin in the brain – it causes the release of dopamine and causes imbalance. This may contribute to feelings of anxiety and panic.
Children and babies are especially sensitive with seizures reported in this study post consumption.
MSG effects regulation of the protein adiponectin responsible for blood sugar management. Leptin (the chemical released by fat cells to signal we are full) signalling is also impacted. This is thought to be why studies show an association with MSG and increased levels of obesity. Have you ever thought ‘I just cannot stop eating these crisps?’ Me too – and this may be part of the reason why.
If you are genned up about the amazing powers of plants and eat a rainbow of these daily you are avoiding many of the sneaky places that MSG dwells.
Indulging in that delicious laksa in Penang, curry in KL and tonkatsu ramen in Tokyo is one of the most enjoyable parts of travelling. I always ask for MSG free but sometimes there is little choice and in these occasions I chow down and have never personally experienced any side effects.
However, my Mum is very sensitive and will immediately get a headache. Other people get more serious issues or are very committed to avoiding all food nasties. If this sounds like you – read on for my tips for avoiding the crack of the condiment world……
- Watch food labels
Many consumers are very aware of the dangers of MSG and manufacturers try to avoid naming this ingredient. This has sparked significant outrage in US with some commentators feeling that the FDA are complicit in avoidance of proper labelling of the product.
2. Look for restaurants with a No MSG sign outside
Never fool-proof (see above for sneaky ways MSG can get into food). Some restaurants may not be knowingly whacking this in by the bag but it is there nonetheless in shop bought pastes and sauces
3. Cooking from scratch
For those who are very sensitive cooking from scratch whenever possible is advocated but what to do if you are in a situation where this is not possible?
4. Order foods which avoid sauces, try vegan or Muslim joints and bring your own seasoning!
MSG is usually contained in soups and sauces so grilled meats, salads and plain veggies are best. Health coach Jenna Longoria adds this advice. She advocates looking for vegan places (higher proportion of whole foods), muslim restaurants (MSG is not halal) and to bring your own seasoning to avoid a bland meal.
So you want to have a devil may care attitude to this stuff but it really messes you up and ruins your whole day or even more than one day. What are you to do? I can’t stand the thought of you looking balefully as everybody else is chomping away at their biryani and laksa….
- Consider B6 supplementation
B6 is needed for glutamate metabolism. Deficiency has been demonstrated as a causative factor in rat studies
50mg B6 supplementation has been shown to alleviate symptoms in a small scale blinded placebo trial.
2. Drink lots of water
Sounds obvious but MSG is sodium rich and taking extra fluid (water) will prompt the kidneys to flush it out.
3. Trial a small spoon of cream of tartar mixed with water
This remedy is presumed to work by increasing alkalinity – I couldn’t find any studies in support of its efficacy but there are numerous positive anecdotal reports online.
I hope this article has been helpful – has anybody had issues with MSG out there? How do you deal with this? Let us know in the comments.
Credits for photo-collage