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MSG - a hidden danger

Published:Tuesday | August 2, 2011 | 12:00 AM
Chinese food

MSG (Mono Sodium Glutamate) is a food additive that enhances the flavour of food. It has no flavour of its own, but by stimulating your taste buds and nervous system, causes you to experience a more intense flavour from the foods that you eat. For food labelling purposes, MSG is approximately 78 per cent glutamic acid, 21 per cent sodium plus contaminants. However, the active ingredient, glutamic acid is found in smaller quantities in many, many foods without it being listed on their label.

This allows the food industry a simple way to balance and mask unwanted tastes in its products and to make otherwise unpalatable foods acceptable. MSG is particularly helpful in making many low-fat and no-fat foods taste better. To millions of consumers, however, it means exposure to the adverse effects from the addictive and dangerous properties of this chemical.

The problem with MSG first came to the attention of the medical profession in 1968 when a Chinese doctor reported that he and his friends suffered numbness, weakness and palpitations when they dined in certain Chinese restaurants. Subsequent investigations indicated that the problem was a reaction to MSG, in particular, the glutamic acid it contained. The condition came to be known by doctors as the 'Chinese Restaurant Syndrome'.

Glutamic Acid

It is unclear why some people have a reaction to glutamic acid, but it may only become a problem when the manufacturing process converts glutamic acid to free glutamate. Glutamate, when it occurs naturally in some plant foods does not seem harmful. However, when some people eat food containing MSG, they react to the glutamate. Some reactions are immediate while in others, symptoms may not appear for 48 hours. Some highly sensitive individuals will react when only very small amounts of MSG are present in their food.

There is a vast body of evidence linking the ingestion of free glutamate to serious health problems. These can extend far beyond the 'Chinese Restaurant Syndrome'. The reactions involve different body systems, especially the brain. MSG is what doctors call an excitotoxin: at the same time that it is stimulating your taste buds, it is stimulating your entire nervous system as well.

A short list of MSG problems

Alzheimer's disease-like symptoms, ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease), anxiety attacks, insomnia, asthma-like symptoms, irregular or rapid heartbeat, Attention Deficit Disorder and hyperactivity in children, joint pain, bloating, mood swings, burning sensations, mouth lesions, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, nausea, chest pain, numbness in the finger tips, depression, diarrhoea, Parkinson's disease, disorientation and confusion, seizures, dizziness, shortness of breath, drowsiness, skin rash, fatigue, slurred speech, flushing, stomach aches, tremors, headaches and migraines, vomiting, weakness, infertility and other hormone problems.

In addition, some researchers believe that MSG can cause brain damage in children, and can affect how their nervous systems develop, so that in later years, they may have learning or emotional difficulties.

Studies also indicate that women who ingest MSG while pregnant increase the risk of their babies having smaller pituitary glands, thyroid glands, ovaries, or testes. This results in reproductive disorders in both females and males. MSG also increases the risk of developing sensitivities to numerous other substances. It can certainly make you more sensitive to products containing the artificial sweetener aspartame.

What to Do?

Develop the habit of reading food labels carefully. However, MSG is sometimes difficult to identify in many processed, packaged or restaurant foods because food manufacturers are doing a good job of keeping this ingredient hidden. These foods contain so many other chemicals; consumers may find it difficult to identify what substance in a food may be causing a reaction. Is it the glutamate, or the food itself, or the additives, or the pesticides?

One way to avoid the addition of free glutamate is by preparing your own food from fresh ingredients. Try to eliminate free glutamate from your diet for a few weeks and see how you feel. You may find it worth the effort.

The list of food products containing glutamate is growing. It is found in most salad dressing, processed meats, snack foods, soups, and prepared foods on the grocery store shelves. It is common in crackers, bread, frozen entrees, ice cream, frozen yoghurt and low-fat foods. Be careful of the 'light' foods with reduced fat. Restaurants often add glutamate during preparation. Drinks, chewing gum, and candies are also potential sources.

Food is not the only source of glutamate. Soaps, shampoos, hair conditioners and cosmetics contain free glutamate, as well as binders for some medication, nutrients and supplements.

Again, we are confronted with how powerfully the things we put in our mouths can influence our health. It adds new meaning to the popular saying, 'You are what you eat'.

You may email Dr Tony Vendryes at or listen to An Ounce of Prevention on POWER 106FM on Fridays at 8 p.m. His new book 'An Ounce of Prevention - Especially for Women' is available locally and on the internet.