What most people don’t realize is that MSG is naturally found in foods including mushrooms, asparagus, tomatoes, cheese, sugar beets, soy beans, fish, and seaweed. Culinary techniques such as drying foods and aging cheese increases the concentration of naturally occurring MSG (i.e., dried mushrooms, sun dried tomatoes, seaweed, Parmesan cheese). MSG provides the savory, or umami, taste in these foods. Umami is considered to be the 5th basic taste: sweet, salty, sour and bitter being the other four.
People have been seeking out and eating MSG rich foods for thousands of years. The consumption and manufacture of high-salt and high-glutamate foods, which contain both sodium and glutamate, stretch back even longer, with evidence of cheese manufacture as early as 5,500 BC. In 1908, a Japanese chemistry professor by the name of Kiunae Ikeda isolated MSG from seaweed and since then it has been used to season food, with numerous studies confirming its safety.
Isolated MSG is a white odorless power that can be purchased in retail markets under names such as Accent (B&G Foods Inc.), Ajinomoto, Tasting Powder, Vetsin, Sazón (Goya Foods) and Mei Yen. MSG is also commercially sold as a flavor enhancer. Here is a laundry list of processed foods containing added MSG:
Asian foods, salty/savory snacks, mixed nuts, salted/flavored peanuts, hydrolyzed proteins, gelatins, plant protein extracts, yeast extract, textured protein, malt extract, malt flavoring, barley malt, bouillon, stock, carrageenan, maltodextrin, whey protein, natural flavors, processed meats, condiments, pickles, soups, and baked good
Just about anything processed, protein fortified, enzyme modified or fermented may contain MSG!
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has classified MSG as a food ingredient that is “generally recognized as safe,” but its use remains controversial. For this reason, when MSG is added to a food, the FDA requires that it be listed on the label. Although anecdotal, MSG is said to be the cause of “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”. Symptoms include dehydration, thirst, headaches, depression, and irritability.
At Food Sensitivity Solutions™, we believe that some people are susceptible to “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” because they have a food sensitivity to MSG. Since MSG is often demonized, we’d like to clarify that MSG is not necessarily a harmful substance, but we do acknowledge that some people are sensitive to it. It’s important to keep in mind that many benign foods and food chemicals cause reactions in certain individuals but that does not mean that they should be avoided by everyone. When you think about MSG, realize that most Asian populations ingest it in large quantities with no ill effect. Food critic Jeffrey Steingarten argues that fear of MSG is a Western bias born out of lack of culinary knowledge and anti-Asian sentiment: “If MSG is a problem, why doesn’t everyone in China have a headache?”
If you are sensitive to MSG, you may have less reaction when it’s found naturally in foods as natural sources of MSG typically contain less than processed sources. However, highly sensitive people may still react to naturally occurring sources. And just like many food chemicals, manufactures sometimes “hide” it on the label by using synonyms or closely related substances. Here is a list of alternate chemical names you might see for MSG:
Monosodium glutamate, sodium glutamate, Sodium 2-aminopentanedioate, Glutamic acid, monosodium salt, monohydrate, L-Glutamic acid, monosodium salt, monohydrate, L-Monosodium glutamate monohydrate, Monosodium L-glutamate monohydrate, MSG monohydrate, Sodium glutamate monohydrate
If you think you may be sensitive to MSG, try avoiding it for at least 2 weeks and observe if your symptoms improve. You can also get tested to see if you are sensitive. Working with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who specializes in food sensitivities can steer you in the right direction of an MSG-free diet. But for most of us, MSG is really not as scary as we’ve been led to believe.
Annette Hottenstein is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), Certified LEAP Therapist (CLT) and Food Scientist from Baltimore County, MD. She is co-founder of Food Sensitivity Solutions™, “Your One Stop Shop for Food Sensitivity Testing, Education and Support”.