If you’ve dined at a Chinese restaurant, there’s a good chance you’ve been exposed to monosodium glutamate or MSG. Although MSG has most commonly been known as the food additive responsible for the “Chinese restaurant syndrome”, it’s also found in a variety of processed foods ranging from fast food to packaged snacks. This additive is so common that most people have been exposed to it despite their best efforts to avoid it. Is there any real health justification for avoiding it? What are the health effects of MSG?
What exactly is MSG?
MSG or monosodium glutamate is the sodium salt of the amino acid glutamate. Amino acids are found naturally in the body where they serve as the building blocks of protein. Because only glutamate in its “free” form can stimulate the taste buds, a fermentation process is used to release the glutamate from the protein it’s bound to. While in past times, this was done by extracting glutamate from sources such as seaweed, today it’s produced industrially from starches such as cane sugar and sugar beets.
MSG has grown in popularity as a flavor enhancer due to its cheap price and easy availability. Despite how commonly it’s found as a food additive, many people are convinced that it’s harmful and should be avoided or even banned. Although the FDA has received numerous reports of adverse reactions to MSG, it continues to emphasize its general safety.
What are the health effects of MSG that make it so controversial?
In the past, people have blamed MSG for causing health problems ranging from Alzheimer’s disease to obesity, although there appears to be little evidence to support these claims. While there’s no medical evidence that MSG causes long term health problems, it can cause short-term health problems in people who are sensitive to its effects.
What the short-term health effects of MSG?
In a susceptible individual the short-term health effects of MSG can mimic those of a heart attack with sweating, chest pain, shortness, of breath, and a rapid heart rate. Symptoms can also include lightheadedness, headache, and numbness in the hands and feet. It’s not unheard of for an unfortunate individual experiencing a MSG reaction to end up in the hospital to be evaluated for a possible heart attack. Such is the power of this flavorful food additive.
For many years, it was thought that MSG could worsen symptoms of asthma; although several studies have investigating the health effects of MSG on the lungs have been negative. Even some of the short-term health effects have been called into question by recent studies with the experts claiming there’s no solid proof that MSG is the cause of even short-term reactions.
What about long-term health effects of MSG?
Some studies have shown an association between MSG and obesity in rats, but subsequent human studies have failed to confirm this. Some animal studies have suggested that MSG could damage brain by acting as “excitotoxins”, although most experts don’t believe that high enough levels of these excitotoxins are reached in humans to cause any serious neurological damage, although some experts are concerned that small children and infants who could be more susceptible to the effects of MSG.
The bottom line?
Most research suggests that MSG is safe if consumed in limited quantities. There may be certain groups of people who are particularly sensitive to the health effects of MSG and could experience the disturbing symptoms described above. There’s also the possibility that young children and infants may be more prone to adverse reactions. For this reason, if you’ve ever experienced a known reaction to MSG, it’s best to avoid it whenever possible. It may also be wise to avoid exposing children to it until more is known about its safety in this population.