What You Need to Know about MSG

Mono-Sodium Glutamate. “Flavor enhancer.” Hydrolyzed yeast. Soy extract. Hydrolyzed vegetable protein. Glutamic acid. Maltodextrin. Sodium Casienate.

And those are just a few of the 40+ names MSG is allowed to go by in our foods. 

You’ve heard of it – isn’t it that ingredient in Chinese food

And countless other processed foods, too. 

But is it really that bad?

The short answer here is, “yes.” 

Chances are you are like most people and probably haven’t given MSG a second thought. I knew it wasn’t supposed to be great, but I definitely didn’t actively think about eating it… until I recently traveled to Thailand.

It was during the market tour of a cooking class I attended in Thailand’s largest northern city, Chiang Mai, that our assistant teacher showed us a package of MSG and informed us it was in EVERYTHING. We didn’t use it in our class, but she piqued my interest in the salt-like food additive.

A few days later, it was in Bangkok that I noticed my entire body had started to swell. I brushed it off as dehydration and made a conscious effort to drink several large water bottles along with a fresh coconut every day… but it wasn’t helping. As the trip progressed, my legs and ankles became ever more swollen despite the constant increase in hydration. In fact, I was drinking probably four times as much water as I drink at home and not experiencing any other symptoms of dehydration. I was getting massages, known to help with edema in the lower extremities, with no relief either. My face even became affected by the swelling! 

Look how swollen my face had become from MSG at Wat Pho!

Then, it dawned on me to research MSG and how it can affect the body.

In 1995, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration put MSG in the “generally recognized as safe” category. This might make you feel relieved, but you should consider what else the FDA has labeled as safe that’s now banned in Europe:

  • Genetically engineered fruits
  • Meat from animals treated with Ractopamine
  • Brominated vegetable oil (btw this is a common flame retardant)
  • Meat from animals treated with arsenic-based drugs
  • Meat and dairy from animals treated with rBGH and rBST
  • Potassium Bromate 
  • BHA and BHT
  • Coloring agents
  • And on and on…

It’s clear the FDA has some catching up to do.

While naturally occurring glutamic acid does exist, it’s worth noting that the free form of glutamic acid can only be created through processing, and it is the free form almost always associated with adverse reactions. 

It is estimated that approximately 40% of humans are sensitive to MSG – nearly seven times the amount of people thought to be sensitive to gluten. What makes an MSG sensitivity more difficult to diagnose is that a reaction to this substance is not IgE mediated, and traditional allergy tests only identify reactions that are IgE mediated. The only way to determine if a person is sensitive to observe him for as long as 48 hours after eating MSG, or to have the person keep a record of food, pharmaceutical, cosmetic, and dietary supplement use and MSG reactions. 

Learning to pinpoint MSG as a reaction trigger, recognizing reactions that might be MSG-induced adverse reactions, and understanding where MSG is hidden in food, are essential to recognizing or diagnosing MSG-induced adverse reactions.

Those sensitive to MSG may experience:

  • headache
  • hives
  • runny nose or congestion**
  • chest pain
  • flushing
  • numbness and tingling**
  • facial pressure or swelling**
  • sweating**
  • nausea
  • digestive upset**
  • depression and mood swings
  • fatigue
  • swelling of the hands and feet**
  • difficulty breathing for asthmatics**
  • rapid heart rate 

    The items I starred above were all reactions I was experiencing on my trip abroad. My sinuses, “allergies”, and asthma were going haywire, but I didn’t put the symptoms together with the swelling and strange tingling of my hands until researching for this post.

    But even if you’re not personally sensitive to MSG, it can still silently wreak its havoc. 

    In 2016, researchers found that any amount of MSG is genotoxic, meaning it is damaging to cells and genetic material, as well as to human lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell. 

    My best advice: stay away from MSG by eating real, whole foods.

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