Does Eating Monosodium Glutamate Cause Cancer?

Close-up dish of Chinese food
MSG is commonly added to Chinese food. (Image: Ciaran Griffin/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

Cancer is the second-leading cause of death among Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While the food additive monosodium glutamate has found itself in the center of controversy throughout the years, any conclusive evidence to suggest MSG possesses cancer-causing abilities, or that consuming MSG increases the risk of cancer, is lacking. Certainly, if you find that you're sensitive to MSG, it's best to avoid it by checking food labels.

Still a Mystery

Under normal circumstances, your cells divide in a controlled manner, with new cells replacing old ones. Cancer cells, however, possess the capability to escape normal cell death and continue growing in an uncontrolled manner. The extra cells can go on to form a mass, or tumor. Cancer cells can invade other organs and tissues also. More than 100 types of cancer exist. The exact cause of cancer remains unknown. Scientists have identified various risk factors that may increase the chances of cancer development, such as smoking, genetic vulnerabilities and abnormalities, and exposure to certain toxins such as as pesticides, to name a few.

A Savory Additive

MSG is the sodium salt of a common amino acid -- glutamic acid -- found naturally in some foods and added to others. As an additive, MSG enhances the flavor of savory foods. It's produced from a fermentation process of starch, sugar beets, sugar cane or molasses and added to a wide variety of savory foods. Some individuals have reported sensitivity to MSG, with symptoms such as headache, chest pain and heart palpitations. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration asserts that MSG consumed at the typical levels is safe, however.

Cancer and MSG

Dr. Russel Blaylock, a researcher, retired neurosurgeon and author of "Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills," asserts that excess consumption of glutamate promotes cancer growth, and he emphasizes the need for well-researched studies into this area. Although the safety of MSG has been the subject of debate over the years, the link between MSG and cancer is based on anecdotal evidence, which does not provide scientific proof, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research.

Some Recommend Re-examination

Despite the FDA's assurance that MSG is safe, some researchers recommend further studies to re-examine the safety profile of MSG. In an animal study, adding MSG to the diet of rats negatively affected liver function, according to a study published in the January 2011 issue of the "Annals of Medical & Health Research." The large majority of the safety studies conducted on humans were published in the 1970s and 1980s. There may be a need for updated human research to reassess the safety of MSG, but currently, eating typical levels of MSG is considered safe.

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