The Problem with MSG Problems

By June 7, 2016 April 1st, 2019 Featured, MSG
msg problems

As a dietitian, I’m happy to share the science-based information I have on many topics—including monosodium glutamate.

There are lots of scientific studies on this ingredient, so there’s no lack of information to provide to people seeking answers to their “MSG problems”. The thing is, people have to be open to hearing the information.

One generic comment that comes up surprisingly frequently (often while I’m dining out with someone at a restaurant) is some variation of this: “Does this have MSG in it? I have a problem with MSG.” I usually say something like “Oh, really? I happen to know a bit about MSG science and safety, what is your specific problem with it?” I offer my information as a resource for the person, and sometimes he or she listens and seems to consider it. Other times it’s obvious that his or her mind has already been made up, and no amount of scientific evidence will even slightly nudge that mind over to the possibility that the “problem with MSG” may, in fact, be a problem with something else. Like I said, I pick my battles, so I drop it and move on.

Perceived Problems with MSG

So what “problems” do people usually list? Frankly, nothing I haven’t heard before—and nothing I haven’t seen sprinkled over the internet via scaremongers’ personal anecdotes—and certainly, nothing that hasn’t already been examined by researchers and covered in the scientific literature. Here are a few examples:

“Chinese food makes me so thirsty—it’s the MSG.” — Well, chances are, if you’re thirsty after eating Chinese food (or any food), you’ve probably consumed a good dose of sodium in the food or you’ve not had enough liquids recently. And, while MSG does contain sodium, it has only 1/3 the sodium of table salt. Chinese food contains a lot of high-sodium ingredients, including soy sauce, broths and other sauces. In fact, there are lots of foods (snack crackers and flavored chips, condiments, soups and sauces, commercially-prepared entrees) we eat all the time that typically contain much more salt than MSG. It’s time to stop blaming Chinese food (and MSG) for your thirst. Many Americans are chronically under-hydrated, and a salty meal of any ethnicity can send us all racing for water afterward.

“I don’t eat gluten, so I can’t have anything with MSG.” – Although the words “gluten” and “glutamate” sound similar, they are not the same thing! Gluten is a protein in wheat, rye and barley that can be dangerous for people with celiac disease or severe gluten intolerance. Glutamate is an amino acid and makes up part of MSG (along with sodium). You can rest easy; glutamate and MSG are, in fact, gluten free. If you must avoid gluten for health reasons, it’s always wise to read food labels/ingredient statements.

“It gives me a headache.” – This complaint makes my head hurt! Headaches are so subjective and so individual in nature that unless one has undergone some specific, scientific headache testing, It’s really impossible to know that MSG is the culprit. On the other hand, there are lots of reasons that people develop headaches (none of which have anything to do with MSG): stress, dehydration, lack of caffeine, a hangover, the flu, sinus issues, red wine, foods that contain nitrates such as processed meats, PMS, vision problems, even having a ponytail pulled too tight! And there are many, many more reasons why your head may hurt. The FDA has reviewed the research and reports on MSG and headaches and was never able to confirm that MSG caused headaches.

“I’m allergic to MSG.” In order for something to be a true allergy, the body must produce antibodies to the allergen. Our bodies do not produce antibodies against MSG. Therefore, whatever is bothering the supposedly allergic person, it’s not an MSG allergy. That’s not to say that that person might not be allergic or sensitive to something else in that food. MSG is used in lots of ethnic foods, but also in lots of processed American foods—and in plenty of mixed dishes. Given that, it can be tough to say what the cause of a reaction might be. For example, I am allergic to something in Thai food. I’ve had the same bad reaction every time I’ve had Thai food—in different restaurants, in different cities. I’m done trying it. I haven’t yet bothered to get tested by a board-certified food allergist to see what the cause may be; instead I just avoid Thai restaurants. Maybe it’s lemongrass? I don’t know—the point is I haven’t jumped to ascribe my symptoms to any one ingredient because I really just don’t know the cause.

Science shows that monosodium glutamate is not the cause of many of the “problems” people try to link to it. Humans are like that—we try to find a reason for things that happen to us, and the simpler the better. That’s fine, and we aren’t going to change. But maybe we can figure out if we truly have these problems in the first place. See a doctor or an allergist if you like, but skip the internet research and self diagnosis.

About Kitty Brohier, MS, RD

Kitty is a food and nutrition communications professional whose 25 years of experience is strongly focused on written communications, both from a food-centric perspective as well as a scientific one. Kitty’s scope of work includes recipe development, product development consultation and serving as a member of scientific advisory groups. She has authored several cookbooks. She is very active with Maine’s groups of nutrition professionals, and just completed serving a second term as the President of the Maine Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

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