Have you ever noticed that some foods can leave you feeling ill and foggy-headed after your meal?
This phenomena has been heavily associated with eating Asian food because of an ingredient called “MSG”. It’s gained so much notoriety that some restaurants now display “NO MSG” on their front window to help draw customers in.
Although there’s been a lot of debate about whether or not MSG is actually bad for you, there are many testimonies that indicate that there’s certainly reason for concern.
What Is MSG?
MSG or monosodium glutamate is a food additive used to enhance flavor in processed foods. The sugar-like powder is engineered from starch, corn sugar, molasses, sugar cane or sugar beets through a fermentation process (1).
MSG was created in the early 1900s by Japanese biochemist Kikunae Ikeda. He set out to replicate what made kombu (a seaweed) broth so delicious by looking at its chemical structure.
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That’s when he discovered umami, the fifth taste that your taste buds can identify, along with sour, sweet, salty and bitter. This taste commonly occurs in foods like seaweed, meat, fish, mushrooms, yeast and cheese.
Dr. Ikeda transformed his discovery into a product by isolating glutamate, an amino acid and stabilizing it with salt. MSG hit Asia by storm, where it is still an important ingredient in home cooking and restaurant foods alike (2).
Why It’s Bad
Glutamate on its own isn’t bad, in fact it’s used by the body as a neurotransmitter. Unfortunately, combined in MSG it can wreak havoc on the brain.
Studies have found that the neurotoxin causes cytoplasm swelling, nuclei damage and neuron loss in the developing brains of fetuses whose mothers consume MSG. This alters the adioligand-bindings in both the hippocampus and hypothalamus, causing reduced learning capacity and impaired memory function in adulthood (3).
MSG can also cause allergy-like symptoms in individuals who are sensitive to the substance. These can begin within 20 minutes to two hours after eating MSG-laden food and can last for up to 12 hours (4,5).
Cardiac symptoms include:
- Atrial fibrillation
- Rapid heartbeat
- Slow heartbeat
- Extreme drop or rise in blood pressure
But that’s not all, the additive also negatively affects other systems and organs:
Visual symptoms include difficulty in focusing, blurred vision and pressure around the eyes.
Muscular symptoms include joint pain, aches, stiffness and pain in the face, back, neck or chest.
Gastrointestinal symptoms include vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, rectal bleeding, stomach cramps and bloating.
Neurological symptoms include mood swings, depression, anxiety, confusion, disorientation, panic attacks, behavioral problems, hyperactivity, attention deficit disorder (ADD), sleepiness, lethargy, insomnia, seizures, paralysis, numbness, sciatica, shakes and chills, slurred speech, headaches and shuddering.
Respiratory symptoms include shortness of breath, asthma, tightness in the chest, runny nose, chest pain and sneezing.
Skin symptoms include rash, hives, lesions in the mouth, extreme dryness in the mouth, flushing, swelling of the tongue and face, pressure on the face and bags under eyes.
Urological symptoms include prostate swelling, frequent bladder pain, nocturia and frequent urination.
And finally, reproductive symptoms include vaginal spotting, vaginal swelling and prostate swelling.
In response to complaints of MSG sensitivity or “Chinese Food Syndrome”, The FDA has required the additive to be listed on food labels, even though the administration still claims that it’s “generally recognized as safe”.
How To Avoid MSG
Since the additive enhances flavor, it’s no surprise that it actually exists in a lot of processed foods you encounter every day.
If you experience MSG sensitivity, here are a few foods you should cut our of your diet:
- Autolyzed yeast
- Yeast Extract
- Yeast Nutrient
- Monopotassium Glutamate
- Monosodium Glutamate
- Glutamic Acid
- Flavor, flavorings, seasonings
- Soy sauce
- Stock, broth
- Malt extract
- Textured Protein
- Hydrolyzed Protein
- Calcium Caseinate
- Sodium Caseinate
- Yeast food
- Worcestershire sauce
- Kombu extract
- Powdered milk
- Barley malt
- Enzyme-modified ingredient
- Corn starch
- Soy Protein or soy protein isolate
- Ultra-pasteurized foods
- Protein-fortified foods
If you have to come in contact with these foods, make sure not to eat them on an empty stomach or to have alcohol with your meal, as both can worsen symptoms. You can also combine vitamin C-rich foods or ginger to your meal to protect against the ill effects of MSG.