Label fables part I – Monosodium glutamate

This is by no means a new topic, but still as relevant today as when the (now outdated) term “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” was first coined in the 1960s. Monosodium Glutamate, or MSG, is a common food additive and a flavour enhancer. It is derived from glutamate or glutamic acid. Glutamate is a naturally occuring, non-essential amino acid found abundantly in nature. Glutamic acid is found in nearly all foods, especially high protein foods such as dairy, meat, fish and even some vegetables. Mushrooms, tomatoes and parmesan cheese have particularly high levels of naturally occuring glutamate. The human body is able to produce glutamic acid, making it a non-essential amino acid.

MSG is in the FDA’s GRAS (Generally accepted as safe) list. However, the FDA has received reports of “symptoms such as headache and nausea after eating foods containing MSG”. Studies have shown that several people experience various symptoms like nausea, headache , tingling in arms and legs, immediately after eating food seasoned with MSG. Such people might be overly sensitive, or allergic to MSG. However, even in people who do not experience any symptoms immediately afterward, the effects of MSG can cause nerve damage over time. Russel L. Blaylock, a neurosurgeon, wrote a book in 1996 called “Excitotoxins: The taste that kills”, explaining that certain amino acids when present in large quantities in the brain, can cause neurons to die. Among the many biochemicals that can act as neurotransmitters in the brain, the ones that excite our neurons are called “excitotoxins”. Glutamate is one such excitotoxin. MSG leads to excessive stimulation of nerve cells in the brain. A research paper also talks about how excess glutamate can become neurotoxic.

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Is MSG safe for consumption in ordinary amounts used as flavouring? My goal isn’t to present arguments for or against MSG (there are enough articles out there either implicating MSG or acquitting it), nor do I want to change anyone’s mind. I simply wanted to do a blog post because MSG still is an important topic. Time and again, scientific studies have yielded conflicting results, at best. For every person who has ever felt a reaction to MSG, there is one person who will attest to the safety of the additive. While the jury is still out on whether MSG actually causes reactions in sensitive people and when consumed in ordinary levels can cause much harm to humans, I personally try to avoid it, even though I am among the people who see no immediate reaction to it.

Some might argue that MSG can’t be bad because glutamate is a naturally occuring amino acid. While naturally occurring glutamate is chemically similar to the additive, it may not be as easily accessible as the glutamate in MSG. Food processing industries are quick to point out that the glutamic acid obtained from any whole food is the same as the free glutamic acid in added MSG, and that the body doesn’t differentiate between the two. That’s exactly like saying that the body doesn’t differentiate between complex carbohydrates in whole foods and simple carbohydrates in refined food. But we know better, don’t we?

If you’re still reading, I assume you DO want to avoid added MSG in food. So how do we ensure we are keeping it out of our kitchen cabinet? When it comes to processed food we eat all too frequently, will simply avoiding Chinese food keep us away from MSG? Several fast food menu items from KFC (the worst offender) , Burger King, McDonald’s and processed food manufacturers like Nestle, Campbells, Frito-Lay, Unilever, Kraft foods, Planters (salted nuts), Knorr, contain some form of MSG. For those who can’t avoid picking up some processed foods from the grocery, is checking for the terms MSG, or monosodium glutamate in the ingredients label enough to ensure we aren’t getting any added MSG (other than what’s naturally present in real food)? If you answered yes, you’ll be surprised. As was I. Apparently, MSG can sneak into our food supply under several different names. See a long list here  and another list here.

If you find the names in the lists too complicated, remember these points:

  1. Salty and processed foods are likely to contain free glutamate.
  2. The presence of more than 10 complex sounding ingredients in a packaged food usually indicates MSG in one of its varied forms.
  3. Even if you are buying processed food from a health food store, do not skip reading ingredient labels. An innocuous sounding ingredient, “Natural flavour”, can contain up to 20% MSG by weight.

Processed food manufacturers want to use MSG in all kinds of food imaginable, so that their products taste good and people buy more of it. Now with so many other ingredients that actually contain free glutamic acid, they conveniently put “No added MSG” on the package and make that a selling point, while effectively deceiving consumers.

Look at the picture below. Can you spot any offending ingredient? Note how the package says “No added MSG” at the top. Now look at the ingredients in all of the processed foods in your kitchen. How many of the ingredients from the two lists above can you spot?

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There are two ways to make sure you’re not being deceived into consuming what you want to avoid –

(a) Eat whole, unprocessed foods, and

(b) Carefully read the ingredients if you can’t avoid processed food sometimes.

When choosing option b), always remember that food manufacturers will continue to do their best to “disguise” additives they know people want to avoid.

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