Finding MSG-free foods might be a challenge, as it's uncommon to find prepackaged or frozen foods without this flavor enhancer. MSG is also present in many seasonings and sauces. Carefully reading labels and opting for fresh and minimally processed foods will put you on the right track.
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Finding an unbiased presentation on MSG (or monosodium glutamate) might take some work. This well-known flavor enhancer has been used for decades and can be found in a wide variety of foods. It has earned a reputation for giving many foods a satisfying taste. However, this additive has also gained many detractors due to anecdotal reports of negative reactions after consuming it.
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So, what exactly is MSG? The Marion Institute notes that MSG is the sodium salt derived from glutamic acid, a well-known amino acid. Although MSG has evolved from a naturally occurring substance, it morphs into a man-made food additive during the processing cycle.
As you're probably aware, food ingredient labels use varied names for substances that contain MSG. Examples include glutamic acid, monosodium glutamate, calcium caseinate, autolyzed yeast, textured protein, natural flavor and others. Because additives are often present in small amounts, these substances will likely appear toward the end of the list.
Foods That Contain MSG
MSG is a chameleon-like food additive that doesn't have its own distinctive flavor, states Dietitians of Canada. Instead, it enhances the taste of many other foods.
Numerous prepackaged foods have MSG on their ingredient labels. If you consume a meat or poultry entree, a casserole or vegetable side dish or even a snack, MSG is probably part of the food's chemical makeup.
Prepared entrees and side dishes, frozen foods, canned and cured meats and smoked sausages contain this flavor enhancer. If you enjoy prepackaged snacks or like to nosh on crackers and cookies, know that MSG is likely the reason the food tastes good. Not surprisingly, this ingredient is also part of many flavorings and seasoning blends.
The Marion Institute adds that MSG is also found in many infant formulas and baby foods. It's also a staple of restaurant fare, as it heightens the appeal of numerous foods. Specifically, MSG has long been prominent in Chinese and other Asian restaurant dishes.
Dietitians of Canada mentions that glutamate (the naturally occurring substance from which MSG is derived) is found in green peas, mushrooms, tomatoes and corn. Grapes, grape juice and some cheese varieties contain either glutamate or MSG.
So, how can you tell if a specific food contains MSG? If you're considering a prepackaged food, "monosodium glutamate" must appear on the ingredient label if MSG is present.
If a spice or other food ingredient contains MSG, this compound must still appear on the label. As a caution, note that imported products' ingredient lists don't always feature accurate translations, so the information might be difficult to interpret.
MSG and Umami Taste Comparison
Comparing the tastes of MSG and umami is like weighing one type of tasty apple against another variety. For starters, properly used MSG can give you a savory flavor sensation that salt just can't match, says the Stanford University Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute. However, this additive has gotten mixed reviews due to its composition and possible adverse reactions.
On the flip side, umami is a recently identified "fifth taste" that also adds a savory touch to foods ranging from meat to soy sauce. This wildly popular taste sensation has spurred the creation of new food combinations and hip new restaurants. In other words, diners can't seem to get enough of this satisfying blend.
Believe it or not, MSG and umami both rely on glutamate, a well-known amino acid, to kick your taste receptors into gear. When you consume a food that features an MSG or umami taste, your body's network of cell-borne messengers and neurons (or nerve cells) quickly gets to work.
The message finally arrives at the brain stem, which transmits it to your gustatory cortex and finally to your taste buds. Whether you're noshing on foods containing MSG or a desirable umami taste, your brain reacts the same way.
Finding MSG-Free Foods
Locating MSG-free foods takes some planning, but it's certainly possible, states the University of California Health System. For starters, add more fresh vegetables and fruits to your MSG-free diet plan.
Also, opt for frozen produce without sauces or additives. Low-sodium salad dressings may be an option, but check the ingredient labels first.
Next, add flavor and texture to entrees and vegetable dishes by using fresh or dried herbs, onion or garlic. Salt-free seasonings, which typically combine an appealing mix of spices, can also bring zesty new dimensions to your meals. Consider adding onion powder and garlic powder to your MSG-free diet plan.
If you're dining out, ask the restaurant to provide a sauce-free version of a specific dish. Or, request that the sauce be served on the side and use it sparingly. With a little flexibility, you should be able to successfully adopt an MSG-free diet plan.
Historically, Chinese and other Asian restaurants have gained a reputation for using MSG in many dishes. To avoid this flavor enhancer, simply ask the kitchen to refrain from adding it to your meal.
Effects of MSG Consumption
The United States Food and Drug Administration has documented numerous reports of people experiencing troublesome symptoms following MSG consumption, states the Mayo Clinic. Although the reports have all been anecdotal, they mention the same group of symptoms.
Collectively, the reactions have been termed "MSG symptom complex." The reported symptoms include headaches, sweating, flushing, nausea and weakness.
Consumers may also experience tingling, numbness or burning in various parts of their bodies. A feeling of facial tightness is also common, as are heart palpitations and chest pain. The Cleveland Clinic stresses that consuming MSG may also cause your blood pressure to rise, which can be a concern if your readings are already above normal levels.
The Mayo Clinic notes that upon detailed investigation, researchers haven't found conclusive evidence that MSG is linked to these symptoms. However, researchers do admit that a small subset of consumers may have experienced temporary MSG reactions.
Generally speaking, the symptoms are mild, and no treatment is necessary. Avoiding MSG-containing foods is the only sure way to prevent an adverse reaction.
MSG Intolerance vs. MSG Allergy
Maybe you have noticed uncomfortable symptoms after eating MSG-containing foods. So, do you have a food intolerance or an MSG allergy? Dr. Carla Davis, an associate professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine, offers a useful explanation of the difference between the two conditions.
If you have a food intolerance and you consume that food, you'll experience a specific set of symptoms that don't involve your immune system. For example, let's say you have lactose intolerance. If you consume milk, you might notice symptoms like bloating and diarrhea.
If you're sensitive to caffeine and you consume a food that contains this substance, you might feel jittery and notice an increased heart rate. Based on the above definition, you're probably not experiencing an MSG allergy.
In contrast, a food allergy will trigger an immune system reaction to a specific food. Some food allergy reactions are relatively mild. Symptoms could include itchy skin or the worsening of an existing skin condition.
In severe cases, you could experience a life-threatening allergic reaction. Let's say you break out with hives or your skin appears to be swollen. Maybe your tongue, lips and throat begin to swell. You may begin to wheeze or cough and have breathing difficulties. Your blood pressure may drop, and you could feel severe abdominal cramps and begin to vomit.
If you experience one (or more) of these symptoms, this is a true medical emergency. You are likely having a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction, and you need immediate medical attention. In extreme cases, food allergic reactions can be fatal.
Can MSG Harm Your Health?
The medical literature includes a number of anecdotal reports from consumers who experienced undesirable symptoms after consuming foods containing MSG. In May 2019, the Global Journal of Nutrition & Food Science published an in-depth review that explored this issue further.
Specifically, researchers took a comprehensive look at whether MSG in seasonings had a negative effect on human health. After viewing available findings, they concluded that it does have harmful effects on several body systems.
First, scientists determined that MSG may cause oxidative stress in the body. Chemical-caused kidney and liver damage is also possible. MSG consumption may also result in increased cholesterol and total protein blood levels.
Continuing the focus on your circulatory system, MSG use may raise your platelet count, bleeding duration and clotting duration. Sex-related hormones, such as estrogen, testosterone and progesterone, may also experience disruptions. Finally, consuming MSG may result in weight gain and obesity.
These negative effects can potentially be tempered by consuming ginger, garlic and turmeric. Eating foods that contain large concentrations of vitamins C and E along with other antioxidants may also minimize undesirable health outcomes.
- Marion Institute: “What Is MSG and What Is the Problem With It?”
- Dietitians of Canada: “The Truth About MSG”
- Stanford University Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute: “Two Sides of the Same Coin: MSG and Umami”
- University of California Health System: “Low-Sodium Eating”
- Mayo Clinic: “What Is MSG? Is It Bad for You?”
- Cleveland Clinic: “5 Food Additives You Should Avoid”
- Baylor College of Medicine: “The Difference Between Food Allergy and Food Intolerance”
- Global Journal of Nutrition & Food Science: “Toxicological Effect of Monosodium Glutamate in Seasonings on Human Health”