I’m sure you, like most people, have been told that MSG is bad for you — maybe even dangerous. The reality is all the hype over it is the result of lots of misinformation that persists heavily to this day. Is there really a reason to assume healthy people should avoid it in normal levels?
This may be one of those cases where repeating a lie often enough makes it “true.” That said, we all know that plenty of naturally occurring chemicals can kill us in large quantities — the question is, does MSG?
What is MSG?
Glutamate is nothing more than a naturally occurring amino acid that’s found in all foods with protein. It’s also produced by your body, and is a vital component for bodily functions like brain function and metabolism. Monosodium glutamate is the salt of glutamate — comprised of glutamate, sodium (the same sodium as table salt) and water.
It was discovered in the mid-1800s by a German chemist, who isolated it from seaweed. It’s responsible for the umami flavor in many foods (including tomatoes, mushrooms, tuna, peas, corn, parmesan cheese, cow’s milk and even human breast milk). While it’s made differently now, it remains a perfectly natural substance.
The (entirely unscientific) source of MSG’s bad rep
This whole mess started in 1968 when a biochemist wrote a letter to The New England Journal of Medicine noting that he’d had several adverse reactions when he ate in a Chinese restaurant. And the myth of Chinese restaurant syndrome was born. Suddenly, others started experiencing the same symptoms he was. The theory he had that sounded the scariest and people latched on to was the one that sounds like an artificial chemical: MSG. Despite the fact that no studies had been done and the doctor himself, a Chinese-born immigrant to the U.S., suggested several possible causes (and that his likely intention was to spark research), it slowly led to mass hysteria.
Here’s the problem — it doesn’t exist! No fewer than five scientifically reliable studies by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, United Nations’ World Health and Food and Agriculture organizations, European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Food, American Medical Association and Food Standards Australia New Zealand have all concluded it doesn’t exist. In at least one instance, one of the individuals participating in the studies — self-identified as having Chinese restaurant syndrome — did have a reaction… to the placebo.
While there’s no scientific evidence an MSG sensitivity is impossible or that it couldn’t affect you sometimes and not others, the reality is American cooks continued to use MSG with no reports of adverse reactions. In fact, there was never any guarantee that he wasn’t having a bad reaction to off ingredients in the food (which even if he ate at several restaurants, may have been from the same source).
Can MSG cause other ailments?
MSG has been linked to several diseases and disorders: migraines, obesity, asthma, epilepsy and autism, just to name a few. Evidence for most of this is anecdotal and many studies claiming to prove it are flawed. MSG doesn’t cross the blood-brain barrier. Nor is there evidence to prove it causes or contributes to autism. While there’s also no evidence it causes epilepsy, too much of it may interfere with some anti-seizure drugs.
It’s also been linked to causing or exacerbating cancer by overwhelming glutamate receptors in the body. But experts say the cause of these conditions is not from the consumption of glutamate in foods.
The problems with many of this anecdotal evidence are clear. Aside from simply being one person’s reaction, even when that individual was supervised by a doctor, it doesn’t mean there’s any actual correlation. It may be what’s known as an illusory correlation. Cutting out MSG may cause you to eat healthier because you’re also cutting out a lot of extremely processed foods that also contain MSG. It has been proven that a healthier or special diet relieves the symptoms of most of the disorders MSG is accused of causing. Basically, it may be as simple as shopping in the produce section instead of the canned section (and some of that produce does contain more MSG than the typical cook would use).
The problem with potentially flawed studies is that many of them rely on animal testing. A big problem with animal testing (ethical considerations aside) according to Ralph Heywood, one of the scientists who studied it in the 1980s, is “there is no reliable way of predicting what type of toxicity will develop in different species to the same compound.” Viagra, for example, caused multiple problems (some very serious) in several animals. Other drugs, like diabetes drug Rezulin, cleared animal testing — then it was discovered to cause liver disease and death in humans.
While you should always follow the advice of your doctor, ultimately, vilifying MSG based on pseudoscience and anecdotes does nothing but complicate or slow down research into what may be the real cause of these ailments.
The tables turn a bit with heart disease (or those trying to limit salt intake due to a family history of heart disease). While many believe adding MSG reduces overall salt intake, MSG is still sodium you should account for. Be careful here, as MSG goes by many names. The American Heart Association doesn’t say you should cut it out altogether, but you should limit your intake to the recommended sodium level, regardless of how you get it.
Note that it should also be mentioned that there’s no link between MSG in breast milk and any maladies in infants, and infants process MSG exactly the same way adults do.
Should you use MSG?
Unless advised otherwise by your doctor, there’s zero reason to believe MSG in and of itself is dangerous. And if you use MSG powder at home, be wary of how much you use there too. A little goes a long way and too much of anything could have adverse effects (for example, cinnamon).