Monosodium glutamate, or MSG, has long been at the center of health debates, with the Food and Drug Administration saying the product is “generally regarded as safe” (GRAS) on one side and many scientific studies demonstrating the ill effects of MSG on the other. In fact, MSG has been shown in several studies to have neurotoxic effects, and although the FDA claims that problems associated with MSG affect only about 2 percent of the population, many health experts say that number is significantly higher. Moreover, they aver that MSG is at the root of many health problems for tens of millions of people.
But while other substances known to cause sensitivity or unwanted health effects can be clearly identified — and avoided — simply by reading food labels, MSG can be called by many different names and is used in many different substances, making it extremely difficult to identify monosodium glutamate and all its hidden forms by packaging alone.
Sure, you may know that another common term for MSG is processed free glutamic acid, and that can help in weeding out some products; however, because MSG is used in the production or processing of so many products, you can still experience the consequences of MSG even when it’s not specifically listed on the label.
For instance, according to the site TruthinLabeling.org, which is dedicated to monitoring MSG in food products, any of the following labeling terms indicate that MSG is present:
- Glutamic acid
- Hydrolyzed protein of any type
- Monopotassium glutamate
- Whey protein concentrate
- Autolyzed yeast
- Citric acid
Other ingredients that almost always include or produce free glutamic acid during the processing phase include:
- Bouillon, broth or stock
- Any “flavors” or “flavoring,” including so-called natural flavoring
- Anything “ultra-pasteurized”
- Amino acids
- Barley malt, malted barley or malt extract
- Brewer’s yeast
- Citric acid, Citrate
And finally, the site lists the following ingredients as being suspected of containing enough MSG to serve as triggers in those who are highly sensitive to the substance:
- Modified food starch
- Corn starch
- Rice syrup
- Corn syrup
- Brown rice syrup
- Products that are “pasteurized”
- Milk powder
- Lipolyzed butter fat
- Reduced fat milk
- Most products that are identified as “low fat” or “no fat”
- Vinegar, including balsamic vinegar
- Products that list the terms enriched or vitamin enriched
What’s worse, if you think you’ll be “safe” by purchasing food products from health food stores, you couldn’t be more wrong. Protein powders and essentially any food containing hydrolyzed proteins is highly likely to contain MSG, and although products labeled “organic” cannot contain MSG as an ingredient, other ingredients used in organic food production may use or create MSG. For instance, MSG may occur naturally in some products, including tomato products and cheeses — especially parmesan cheese. But simply because it occurs naturally doesn’t mean that it’s safe to consume or won’t cause reactions in people who are sensitive to it.
And food products aren’t the only culprits. MSG can be hidden in fillers used in dietary supplements and drugs — even in personal care items like shampoo, soap, body wash, conditioner and cosmetics, all products that allow MSG to be absorbed by the body. MSG is also commonly used in many pesticides, herbicides and even fertilizers, resulting in residues on or within the edible portion of fruits and vegetables.
Symptoms of MSG sensitivity
The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), an independent scientific group appointed by the FDA to study the effects of MSG, found that MSG causes symptoms including headache, numbness, flushing, tingling, palpitations and drowsiness.
But how does ingestion or absorption of MSG cause these effects to occur? In his groundbreaking book published in 1994, Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills, neurosurgeon Russell Blaylock, M.D., said MSG is one of three “excitotoxins” commonly added to food products; the other two are aspartic acid (found in aspartame) and L-cysteine (often used as a dough conditioner and preservative in food and non-food products). According to Blaylock, excitotoxins increase excitability of neurons, eventually causing brain cells to die off and potentially playing a role in the development of degenerative diseases including Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and Alzheimer’s.
Because MSG is found in so many foods and even non-food products, avoiding it entirely can be extremely difficult. For now, the most effective route for consumers is to carry a list of ingredients known or suspected to include or produce MSG and to read labels very, very carefully in order to reduce the potential health risks that studies suggest may be associated with MSG.