(Note: This article first appeared in the April 2014 issue of Natural Awakenings San Antonio.)
When many people see the letters “MSG” (monosodium glutamate), they immediately think of Chinese food. That’s unfortunate for a couple of reasons. First, many Chinese food restaurants do not use MSG in their foods; second, MSG may actually be lurking in foods available at many non-Chinese restaurants.
MSG was invented in Japan in 1908 and is derived from glutamic acid, an amino acid. MSG is classified as an excitatory neurotransmitter or excitotoxin, as is the artificial sweetener aspartame. In small concentrations, excitotoxins act as neurotransmitters in the brain. In higher concentrations, they constantly stimulate brain cells causing them to undergo cell death as a result of overstimulation.
Many people (myself included) point to MSG as a trigger for headaches and migraines. Others report feeling high or nauseated after consuming foods containing MSG. While these results are often disputed, neurologists and neuroscientists are now seeing the link between MSG and other excitotoxins and neurological disorders such as migraines, seizures, learning disorders in children, and neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.
With all the controversy around the potential effects of MSG, why is it used in food? The food industry cites several reasons:
- MSG is a cheap flavor enhancer that allows food manufacturers to use less of the more expensive herbs and spices.
- MSG gives us the feeling of having consumed more protein than was actually in our food.
- MSG can enhance the flavor of bland foods.
Commercially prepared foods in our country often have MSG incorporated into the manufacturing process. Most commercially prepared soups, salad dressings and sauces contain MSG. Also, many spicy or highly flavored foods, such as snacks, chips and processed meats, often have MSG in them.
If you know you have a reaction to MSG or you’re concerned about its effects, there are simple steps you can take to avoid it:
Read the label. In the grocery, avoid processed foods when possible and read the ingredient list looking for MSG or monosodium glutamate.
Eat “made from scratch” foods. If you’re dining out, choose small, local restaurants as they will prepare more of their foods from scratch. House-made salad dressings generally have no added MSG, but I still avoid “ranch-style” dressings because they’re often made from a mix that can contain MSG.
Research before you dine out. Before dining out, visit the restaurant’s website and look for the ingredient list. You can certainly ask staff at the restaurant, but they may not know the full ingredients of food items shipped from a corporate manufacturer.