Do you think you’re allergic to MSG? The facts will surprise you!

Jun 8, 2017 | 14 comments

When meeting with new clients, I always ask them to fill out a questionnaire that details some important facts, including past medical history, and diet and activity history.

My new client ‘Don’ was seeing me for weight loss: he had high blood pressure and borderline type 2 diabetes, and his doctor asked him to try and lose weight before prescribing any medications.

Don had left the allergy section blank, and so I asked him, “I see you didn’t indicate any allergies or intolerances. Just making sure that’s correct?”

Don said, “Well, I forgot. Except for MSG. I’m allergic to MSG.”

Hmmmm, I thought, how interesting, since his diet history shows … well, keep reading. More about him later.

First, what is MSG anyway? In 1908 Kidunae Ikeda, a Japanese university professor and chemist, was working to unlock the mysteries of flavor. On a particular day his wife’s soup was indescribably delicious, and when he asked her “What is your secret?”, she showed him the strips of dried kelp stocked in her cupboard. Each day she created a concentrated broth from soaked dried ‘kombu’, the heavy seaweed used in traditional Japanese cooking. This is also known as ‘dashi,’ a Japanese soup base.

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At the time, Professor Ikeda was among the group of scientists mapping the tongue to identify where the nerve endings transmitted tastes. He noted that the soup’s ‘meaty’ taste was unlike those flavors previously identified — sweet, salty, sour and bitter.

This flavor was unlike all others, and Ikeda named it umami (Japanese for “tasty” or “delicious”).  Ikeda isolated what gave foods this characteristic flavor — brown crystals of glutamic acid (glutamate) — and found that glutamate is common to many other foods, especially tomatoes, asparagus, mushrooms, aged cheeses, and aged and cured animal proteins.

When the protein containing glutamic acid is broken down — by cooking, fermentation or ripening — it becomes glutamate, an amino acid, a building block of protein.

In order to make this substance into something stable that can be used to add flavor to food, Ikeda mixed glutamate with ordinary salt and water.  Monosodium glutamate is thus a sodium salt of the common amino acid glutamic acid.

Ikeda patented the process of extracting MSG from wheat and defatted soybeans, and founded a company to market his discovery. Today, Ajinomoto Co., Inc. produces seasonings, sweeteners, cooking oils, and more. Located in Tokyo, it employs more than 25,500 people, and has annual revenues of around $12 billion.

But it was Ikeda’s wife’s soup, made with soaked heavy kelp, which made him his fortune.

What is glutamate?

Glutamic acid is naturally present in our bodies and in many foods and food additives. Humans produce 40 grams of it daily and it plays an essential role in metabolism. The average adult has almost two kilograms (about 4 pounds) of naturally occurring glutamate found in muscles, in the brain, kidneys, liver and other organs and tissues.

Human milk contains about 10 times as much glutamate as cow’s milk.  It’s noted that human (and all mammal) milk contain two taste enhancements to entice babies to consume — sugar (as lactose) and umami (as glutamate).

As reported in TheGuardian.com, “Parmesan, with 1200 mg per 100 grams, is the substance with more free glutamate in it than any other natural foodstuff on the planet.”

SFGate writes, “Glutamate-rich foods can boost the flavor of your dishes without the need for extra sodium…glutamate enhances the flavor of food by reacting in combination with other food substances. You can add mushrooms to a savory dish to take advantage of the glutamate as a low-sodium method of enhancing the overall flavor of the dish. In Japanese cuisine, glutamate plays a major role in creating the taste of the stock used for miso soup.”

MSG contains only one-third the amount of sodium as table salt, and amplifies and enhances the flavor of foods — whether it is naturally occurring or added to foods.

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Can you be allergic to glutamate?

One of my favorite science writers, Dr. Harold McGee, tells an interesting tale of how MSG began to be suspect in allergy. For the whole story, read here.

The short version is this. In 1968, a letter to the editor in the New England Journal of Medicine related a personal experience. When the writer would visit Chinese restaurants, certain symptoms were sure to follow, including numbness in the back and arms, palpitations, and a general sense of weakness, which would pass within two hours.

The writer wondered if there was a connection to the types of food he was eating? Or, he speculated, maybe it was that Chinese restaurants used MSG to season the food?

Of course, this wasn’t a scientific trial, just one person’s experience, and merely conjectures on symptoms. However, the Journal gave the letter the catchy title, “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” and the media picked up on it and…voila! Fake news strikes again. Correlation is not causation, nevertheless.

Globally, the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) of the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food & Agricultural Organization (FAO) designate MSG as safe and place it in their safest category of food ingredients.

Likewise, the European Community’s Scientific Committee for Food, as well as Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) have reviewed and confirmed the safety of MSG. The U.S. the Food & Drug Administration has reaffirmed the safety of MSG, based upon a report from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, of which the American Society for Nutrition is a member.

In Asia, where 80% of MSG in the world is consumed, you’ll find no reports of unusual headaches or symptoms. As reported in FoodInsight.org, “research has been unable to verify that MSG caused these symptoms. Clinical studies tried to reproduce these negative reactions but found no clear connection to MSG.”

There are no double-blinded studies that have confirmed symptoms at normal dietary intake. Nothing that shows “neurotoxicity” when MSG is consumed orally in typical amounts, although some mice studies, where scientists injected more than 4 grams of MSG per kilo of body weight, were problematic. No doubt.

But you say you’re allergic anyway? There certainly may be something there, but not an allergy.

There’s a difference between allergy and intolerance. A true food allergy causes an immune system reaction that affects numerous organs, and causes a range of symptoms, and when severe, can be life threatening.

But a food intolerance is less serious and often limited to digestive problems.  Other symptoms may include skin rashes or joint pain, headache or possibly migraine, or even a vague ‘tiredness.’ Unlike allergic reactions, which are always immediate, intolerances may be immediate, but they can be delayed up to 72 hours.

Experts say that other foods can provoke an intolerance that may be attributed to MSG, such as amines in cheese, or caffeine in the green tea.

Clinical studies have disproven MSG “allergy” when ingested in normal amounts, or about ½ gram. However, the FDA agrees that symptoms including headache, nausea, drowsiness and palpitations are associated with heavy consumption (3 grams or more at one time) of MSG.

And although most people associate MSG with Chinese food, nearly all people get their daily dose from all types of packaged foods — from soups, snacks, chips and dips, and from salad dressing, seasonings. Snack food consumption is booming! The global market for snack foods is projected to exceed $630 billion by 2020.

Take a Healthy Break from MSG

Back to Don. I asked him about some of the foods that he listed in his food diary. He says he loved to eat at Kentucky Fried Chicken, but knew that was “bad” for his weight. Fast food is almost guaranteed to have a lot of MSG. I’m not picking on KFC, but just for an example, KFC’s fried and grilled chicken, gravy, chicken pot pies, potato wedges and even green beans are all seasoned with MSG.

Don’s wife was Italian, and indulged him with his favorite sausage and spaghetti with tomato sauce dinner weekly, of course, with extra Parmesan cheese on top.

When he sat down with friends to watch football on Sunday, it was always with a few beers and a big bag of Doritos, he said, “Maybe I could switch to light beer?”

But, he avoided Chinese food because he said he was allergic to MSG.

It would be interesting to know if all Chinese food gave him a headache and symptoms, or just one restaurant. It could be that the chef is heavy-handed with the MSG, or it could be an accumulation of the day’s other added free glutamates that could be the culprit. Certainly, you’ll get a decent dose if you’re munching on Doritos, especially Nacho Cheese Doritos — which contains five separate forms of glutamate. Read more about the addictiveness of Doritos here.

You say you’d like to learn more about how your body reacts to MSG? Or find out which foods might be giving you symptoms? An elimination or exclusion diet is helpful, but you need to be very systematic about it.

Start by eating a fresh and whole foods diet for 21 days.

Don’t eat out in restaurants, even if they say they don’t “add” MSG. MSG is present in many restaurant ingredients, in packaged, canned, dried, and preserved foods, both naturally in the form of glutamate, and as a flavor enhancer.

Avoid salty snacks, chips, dips, convenience foods like ramen noodles, frozen meals, salad dressings, bouillons, soup ‘bases’, malt extract and flavorings, and anything that says ‘natural flavoring’. For a full list of foods to avoid, click here.

Avoid some foods naturally high in glutamate too:

Aged, cured and preserved foods including aged cheeses like Parmesan and Roquefort.
Dried and cured meats like sausage and salami
Oysters
Mushrooms, ripe tomatoes or tomato juice, grape juice, broccoli, walnuts, peas, and corn

Now…Eat! Cook from scratch: foods that have not been subjected to processing. Some fresh foods may contain significant amounts of glutamate, such as poultry, eggs, meats and some fish, but the glutamate is bonded to proteins and do not form MSG.

Enjoy fresh fruits and vegetables, cooked grains and legumes, fresh meats, poultry, fish (not smoked or cured), milk (without added milk solids), fresh cheese, yogurt and eggs.

After 21 days, start adding back fresh foods one by one, starting with the fresh fruits and vegetables, then meats and cheese (if you eat them). Allow three days before reintroducing each next food, and most importantly, keep a journal, noting any symptoms including the type of symptom and how long after eating the food that the symptom occurs.

If no symptoms occur from fresh foods, then begin to add back packaged foods one by one and follow the same process. You might try eating in certain restaurants.

For most people, MSG is a natural flavoring that in normal amounts serves to enhance the flavor of foods. And sometimes it’s the accumulation of excessive amounts that might produce symptoms. By the way, some medications, vitamins and dietary supplements have MSG in the binders and fillers.

Try the exclusion diet. You might even find that you love the way you feel so much that packaged foods and some restaurant foods will be a thing of the past!

Sources

BuisnessInsider.com. A food scientist explains why Doritos are the perfect snack. http://www.businessinsider.com/why-doritos-are-addicting-2017-2/#intoxicating-flavor-that-red-powder-is-high-in-salt-and-sugar-two-major-pleasure-solutes-and-loaded-with-flavor-boosters-like-msg-disodium-inosinate-and-disodium-guanylate-not-to-mention-garlic-romano-cheese-cheddar-cheese-and-more-1

Euromonitor International. Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) Under Threat in East and West, but for Vastly Different Reasons. http://blog.euromonitor.com/2016/08/monosodium-glutamate-msg-threat-east-west-vastly-different-reasons.html

FDA.gov. Questions and Answers on Monosodium glutamate (MSG). https://www.fda.gov/food/ingredientspackaginglabeling/foodadditivesingredients/ucm328728.htm

FoodInsight.org. The Umami Factor: 4 Surprising Facts about MSG.  http://www.foodinsight.org/4-msg-glutamate-facts-safe-flavor

LuckyPeach.com.  On MSG and Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. http://luckypeach.com/on-msg-and-chinese-restaurant-syndrome/

MayoClinic.org. Food allergy vs. food intolerance: What’s the difference?
http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/food-allergy/expert-answers/food-allergy/faq-20058538

RaminChemistry.com. Umami Science Part III – Umami Synergy.
http://www.ramenchemistry.com/blog/2015/2/18/umami-science-part-iii-umami-synergy

SFGate. Glutamate Levels in Mushrooms. http://healthyeating.sfgate.com/glutamate-levels-mushrooms-12002.html

TheGuardian.com. If MSG is so bad for you, why doesn’t everyone in Asia have a headache? https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2005/jul/10/foodanddrink.features3

TruthInLabeling.org. Hidden Sources of MSG. http://www.truthinlabeling.org/hiddensources.html
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