Monosodium glutamate, or MSG, is a well-known food additive that may trigger headaches in some individuals. An intolerance to this ingredient involves your digestive system rather than your immune system, so MSG symptoms are generally not life-threatening.
To remove added MSG from your body, drink plenty of water to streamline your digestive process. In addition, stop consuming all foods that contain this flavor-enhancing food additive.
MSG’s Natural and Cultural Origins
Although MSG seems to be a recently synthesized food additive, it actually exists in its natural form within the human body, states the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA). MSG is derived from glutamic acid, a well-known amino acid that's part of your body's chemical makeup.
This compound occurs naturally in cheese and tomatoes. In addition, it is present in soy extracts, yeast extract, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, protein isolate, hydrolyzed yeast and autolyzed yeast.
Throughout recorded history, various cultures have adopted diets that include glutamate-containing foods. For example, seaweed broth has always been a mainstay of Asian cuisine.
Back in 1908, a Japanese professor discovered that glutamate was the source of the broth's distinctive taste. He soon developed a method of pulling the glutamate out of the broth and then initiated a patent to produce MSG. Within a year, commercial MSG production began, and it continues on a larger scale today.
Production and Labeling Regulations
Currently, manufacturers produce MSG by fermenting starch, sugar cane, sugar beets or molasses. Vinegar, yogurt and wine production facilities use a similar fermentation process.
Let's assume you'd like to purchase a food product, but you first want to determine if it contains MSG. Per the FDA requirements, if a food contains added MSG, it must be listed as monosodium glutamate on the label's ingredient panel.
If MSG occurs naturally in a food substance, that item must appear on the ingredient panel, but the label doesn't have to mention the MSG connection. To complicate the issue, this food with naturally occurring MSG cannot say "No MSG" or "No added MSG" on the label. The manufacturer can't skirt the entire issue by disguising MSG as "spices and flavoring."
So, let's assume you are ready to banish MSG from your diet. To remove this flavor additive from your body, stop consuming all foods that contain MSG. Besides tomatoes and cheeses, avoid Chinese food, soups, processed meats and canned vegetables.
However, because MSG occurs naturally in your body, you probably can't eliminate it from your diet. In this case, minimizing your exposure is the best strategy.
Symptoms of MSG Intolerance
If you've heard the term food intolerance, you probably know that it refers to your body's negative reaction to a specific food, flavoring or additive. When you consume such a substance and it subsequently makes its way through your digestive system, you can experience some uncomfortable symptoms, notes University of Maryland Dining Services.
Because food intolerance typically doesn't involve your body's immune system, you're at low risk of a life-endangering reaction to that specific food or substance. Some people report troublesome symptoms after consuming products that contain monosodium glutamate.
This additive gives foods an appealing taste, and it is also used as a meat tenderizer. You'll often find MSG in Chinese food, soups, canned vegetables and processed meats. Although the FDA states that monosodium glutamate is "generally recognized as safe," the agency requires its inclusion on food labels, notes the Mayo Clinic.
Over several decades, the FDA has recorded numerous cases of negative reactions to MSG-containing foods. Collectively, these symptoms have become known as the "MSG Symptom Complex."
MSG symptoms may include sweating, flushing, nausea or headache. Facial tightness or pressure, tingling or numbness and a feeling of weakness have also been reported. Heart palpitations are also possible MSG symptoms.
Read more: A List of Foods With MSG
Higher MSG Consumption Side Effects
Choosing varied foods in moderation is the key to maintaining a healthy diet. However, consuming excessive amounts of any food can lead to nutritional imbalances.
Excessive intakes of MSG-containing foods could result in serious side effects, according to a review published in the December 2017 edition of the International Journal of Food Properties. The review analyzed 25 years of clinical trials on the potential effects of MSG consumption.
Researchers pored over numerous scientific journals to gather the relevant empirical findings. The studies collectively concluded that MSG is an effective flavor enhancer that does make food more appealing. This attribute can be especially useful for people who have lost their appetite for various reasons.
Although the FDA has stated that MSG is safe for limited use, the agency has listed several serious side effects that can result from higher consumption rates. Possible negative outcomes can affect the body's cardiac, circulatory, neurological, muscular and gastrointestinal systems. People with MSG sensitivity are likely to react to all forms of the additive.
Learn About MSG Headache Symptoms
When you're affected by a headache, going about your daily routine can be a challenge. Whether that nagging pain is a dull ache or feels like a sharp dagger, it can sap your energy and make it difficult to focus on the tasks at hand.
You may experience three general types of headaches, notes Harvard Health. When your head and neck muscles grow uncomfortably taut, you're probably having a tension headache. A migraine headache results when your brain's sensitive nerve endings generate pain. Sinus pressure, or a localized infection, can result in painful sinus headaches.
Surprisingly, a tension headache often has a food-related origin. If you're extremely hungry or have recently given up caffeine or a caffeine-containing food or medication, you may experience this type of headache. Specific foods, such as chocolate (which contains caffeine) and processed foods containing MSG, are often the culprits.
Migraine headaches are harder to diagnose as they can have many different sources. In fact, a migraine can result from several factors at once. Caffeine withdrawal is always a candidate, as are seemingly unrelated foods in the protein, fruit, vegetable, dairy and chocolate categories. Food additives, including MSG, also make the list of triggers that can lead to migraine headaches.
If you experience migraines as one type of MSG headache, you'll typically notice several severe symptoms, states the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Before the headache begins, you might become aware of an "aura," or a collection of symptoms that precede the headache's arrival.
Next, one side of your head will begin to hurt, although the pain may later migrate to both sides. At any given time, the pain could be pounding, pulsating or throbbing.
You can also feel nauseated and you might notice changes in your vision. If you try to move, the pain often worsens, leading some people to lie down and remain motionless to alleviate the discomfort.
Can MSG Cause Allergic Reactions?
In stark contrast to food intolerance, food allergies involve your immune system. In this case, your body reacts to the food's proteins or protein-related substances. Because monosodium glutamate affects your digestive system rather than your immune system, this food additive won't trigger an immune system reaction.
Allergic reactions can occur when you least expect it, warns the University of Rhode Island. If you're allergic to something, your symptoms can be more (or less) severe than those of someone else who eats the same food. And you can have an allergy to one type of fish, for example, but can eat another variety without any problems.
Although more than 160 foods have been identified as food allergy triggers, only eight foods cause 90 percent of these problems. In addition to milk and eggs, food allergy culprits can include soybeans, wheat, peanuts and tree nuts. Fish and crustaceans — such as lobster, shrimp and crabs — are also major offenders.
Allergy symptoms can kick in just a few minutes after you consume the offending food. Sometimes, they might not appear for several hours. You may only experience mildly irritating symptoms — or you can be faced with a severe reaction, known as anaphylaxis, that can quickly become life-threatening. Your reaction can increase in severity throughout your lifetime, or you could outgrow the food allergy entirely.
Typical food allergy reactions include a skin rash or hives, along with itching. Your face, tongue and throat could swell. You might have trouble breathing and feel dizzy. Stomach cramps, diarrhea and vomiting are common too.
Anaphylaxis is life-threatening. Your lungs and airways can become constricted, leading to severe breathing difficulty. Your blood pressure can plummet. Your pulse can also become very irregular and rapid, and you could lose consciousness. If any of these symptoms occur, you should immediately seek emergency medical care.
MSG and the Digestive System
To better understand how MSG affects your body, consider that this additive is a type of amino acid, which is a universally recognized protein building block. Each plant and animal protein contains large amounts of glutamate, states the International Food Information Council Foundation.
Numerous foods also contain traces of "free" glutamate, or MSG, which helps enhance their flavor. In most cases, the food-sourced glutamate goes toward energy production in the intestinal cells. As a result, the substance doesn't go any further than the intestinal lining.
The same cells use up the rest of the available glutamate, combining with more amino acids to make proteins and glutathione. The latter substance is an antioxidant that contributes to digestive health.
Because MSG is widely used as a food additive, it travels through your digestive system along with the food it's in. If you're intolerant to MSG, you may have a negative reaction to the chemical ingredients in this substance, states the Cleveland Clinic. Generally speaking, the reaction's duration should mirror the time the food takes to make its journey through your body.
Is This an Emergency?
- University of Maryland Dining Services: “Allergies, Intolerance, and Sensitivity”
- Mayo Clinic: “What Is MSG? Is It Bad for You?”
- International Journal of Food Properties: “Monosodium Glutamate: Review on Clinical Reports”
- Harvard Health Publishing: “Causes of Headaches”
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: “Headache”
- University of Rhode Island: “Food Allergies”
- International Food Information Council Foundation: “Monosodium Glutamate (MSG): From A to Umami”
- Cleveland Clinic: “Food Problems: Is It an Allergy or Intolerance”
- U.S. Food & Drug Administration: “Questions and Answers on Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)”