“No MSG, please.”
Many people try to avoid the common flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate because they’re sure it gives them symptoms such as stuffiness, nausea, migraine, rapid heartbeat, flushing and even numbness/tingling in their extremities—so-called “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.”
It’s not always easy to avoid MSG—we’ll show you how. But first, is it worth the effort?
A CONTROVERSIAL CONNECTION
The FDA considers MSG a safe food additive—there’s no high-quality scientific evidence connecting MSG in food with any of these symptoms.
It is true that when certain MSG-sensitive individuals are given MSG by itself (about three grams, or 3,000 mg), they can experience symptoms including headache, numbness, flushing, tingling, palpitations and drowsiness. But a typical serving of food that contains MSG has only about one-half gram (500 mg), and many studies have found that people who consume MSG in food don’t get any of these symptoms.
However, one recent study found that as little as 150 mg of MSG (given in a drink) can trigger headaches in healthy individuals. People with migraines may be particularly susceptible, and many doctors recommend that their migraine patients avoid MSG-containing foods.
While the science still is inconclusive, the FDA has gotten so many complaints of MSG-related symptoms from consumers over the years that it requires that labels clearly indicate when MSG is added to any packaged food (but not restaurant food).
Is MSG sensitivity real? It’s still not known. And there’s no reason to avoid MSG if it doesn’t seem to cause you problems. If your experience convinces you that MSG does cause you problems, you’ll want to read labels so you don’t buy packaged foods with added MSG and you can ask restaurants to leave out the additive—but even that won’t be enough.
Why? It’s simple. Labeling rules require only that added MSG be listed—but MSG is a naturally occurring ingredient in many foods and can be produced as a by-product of food processing. Monosodium glutamate, after all, is simply a salt form of the common amino acid, glutamic acid, that’s present in many protein-rich foods.
Therefore, if you want to minimize your MSG exposure, you’ll have to avoid added MSG and natural MSG.
You don’t need to, and probably wouldn’t want to, avoid every trace of MSG. But you could focus on the foods with the highest amounts. Here’s what to do…
- Minimize foods such as sauces and packaged foods that contain added hydrolyzed protein, hydrolyzed yeast, autolyzed yeast, protein isolates and soy extracts. These food additives all contain naturally occurring glutamates, although in smaller concentrations than in commercial MSG. (You don’t need to avoid bread or fermented foods, or indeed other protein-rich foods, as these contain even smaller amounts of naturally occurring glutamates).
- Dashi broth, the base for miso soup, could realistically be called glutamate soup. The main ingredients are dried kelp or dried kelp plus bonito (dried fish in the same family as mackerel and tuna)—both of which are high in glutamates. Indeed, MSG was first developed as a flavor enhancer by a Japanese scientist who isolated it from seaweed broth at the beginning of the 20th century.
- Marmite and vegemite, yeast spreads that are popular in Great Britain and New Zealand, are very high in glutamates, including MSG. Because it’s naturally occurring, though, the package label doesn’t list glutamates or MSG.
- Look for labels on packaged food that explicitly say “no MSG” or “no added MSG.” According to FDA regulations, any food so labeled must be free not only of added MSG but of ingredients such as the ones above that are naturally high in MSG.