There’s a lot of artificial junk in our food. A list of some of the most notorious repeat offenders reveals some pretty familiar names; trans fats, high fructose corn syrup and aspartame have all made unflattering headlines for their unhealthy properties. Another additive that can put a significant dent in your health is monosodium glutamate, better known by the abbreviation MSG. Though it may not garner as much press as other man-made concoctions, the widespread presence and potential health effects of MSG make it worth studying in detail.
MSG: Made in Japan
You might think that MSG is a both a recent and an American creation, but you would be wrong on each count. In reality, this flavor enhancer was first produced a century ago roughly halfway across the world. To be specific, MSG can trace its origins back to Japan in the early 1900s.
In 1908, a Japanese chemist named Kikunae Ikeda conducted a thorough study of the Kombu Seaweed plant, attempting to explain its highly alluring taste. Ikeda found his answer in the form of glutamate, an amino acid found in numerous other foods, such as tomatoes, asparagus, meat and various cheeses. Having identified the taste-boosting ingredient, then sought to create a glutamate-based additive that could season a wide range of foods.
In order to achieve his goal, the experienced chemist would need to create an additive that could dissolve in water but wouldn’t solidify in the presence of humidity. The fruit of Ikeda’s labor was monosodium glutamate, an ingredient which fit the bill perfectly. It didn’t take long for Ikeda to profit handsomely from his discovery; the MSG inventor would soon form Ajinomoto, a chemical production company which today holds the honor of the world’s largest MSG producer.
The purpose of MSG is pretty straightforward; food manufacturers use this ingredient to make their foods taste better. Tasty food is popular food, and popular foods allow food producers to stay in business.
The Spread of MSG
A century Ikeda’s first announced his creation, MSG is everywhere. Chances are you’ve unknowingly picked up a good deal of MSG while out grocery shopping. If you eat out at restaurants, then at least some of the foods you order will contain MSG. To further illustrate just how popular MSG is among food producers and restaurant chains, take a look at the list of foods which can feature monosodium glutamate as an ingredient:
- Canned soups and soup bases
- Spice mixtures
- Baby formulas
- Soy foods marketed as meat alternatives (includes veggie burgers, veggie hot dogs and veggie sausages)
- Baby foods
- Bottled sauces
- Salad dressings
- Salad croutons
- Protein powders
- Salty snack chips
- Chicken products sold at restaurants (such as chicken tenders and chicken nuggets)
- Cold cuts
- Many items sold in Chinese restaurants
- Many items sold in fast food restaurants
- Frozen pizzas
- Canned tuna
- Ramen noodles
As you can clearly see, it is very easy to consume lots of MSG without even knowing it. Making matters worse is that food producers aren’t especially upfront about including MSG in their products, preferring instead to list it under alternative names on nutrition labels. If you see one of these ingredients listed on the back of a certain food item, consider it a code word for MSG (brace yourself for another long list):
- monopotassium glutamate
- glutamic acid
- vegetable protein extract
- hydrolyzed vegetable protein
- hydrolyzed plant protein
- sodium caseinate
- calcium caseinate
- textured protein
- yeast extract
- autolyzed yeast
MSG and Your Health
Ever heard of Chinese Restaurant Syndrome? This condition usually strikes people that just ate some Chinese takeout food, and soon find themselves complaining of headaches, shortness of breath, numbness/burning around the mouth, diarrhea, skin irritation and heart palpitations. Care to guess the ingredient blamed for these problems? The answer is MSG, which Chinese restaurants add to most items on their menus. The aforementioned symptoms aren’t limited to patrons of Chinese restaurants; consumers who have eaten other MSG-drenched foods have noted similar problems.
The risks of MSG are not as universally accepted as those of, say, high fructose corn syrup. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) views MSG as generally safe for public consumption, though it admits that certain people can have bad reactions after digesting it. Many consumers suffer from ill-effects from MSG whatsoever.
Though some researchers might be skeptical of the health issues associated with MSG consumption, a number of studies have reinforced this additive’s questionable image. One report found that participants who ingested MSG soon experienced flushing, muscle tightness, adverse skin reactions, numbness and tingling. This particular study was conducted using the “double-blind” research method, meaning that neither the researchers nor participants initially knew who received MSG samples. This technique helps to filter out preconceived notions from both researchers and test subjects alike, serving to boost the study’s accuracy.
There is good reason to be suspicious of the impact of MSG of your health, and it certainly wouldn’t hurt to try and eat less of it. Though MSG is seemingly unavoidable, it is possible to greatly reduce your consumption of this dubious flavor enhancer. When eating out, ask your server if your food can be prepared without the use of MSG. Remember to carefully read nutrition labels when shopping, as monosodium glutamate can be listed under many different aliases. Finally, consider substituting these MSG-alternatives when cooking or preparing food:
- Aged cheeses
- Red wine
- Sourdough bread