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The Truth About the Food Additive MSG

August 26, 2014

For years, consumers in the United States have shunned the food additive monosodium glutamate (MSG), which is used as a flavor enhancer in a wide variety of foods around the world. Most consumers know that it may turn up in Chinese food, but the additive may also be found in products including canned vegetables and processed meats. This week, the American Chemical Society (ACS) attempted to change minds with a video that claims to debunk the longstanding notion that MSG is unhealthy.

“Few ingredients come with as much baggage as monosodium glutamate,” writes the ACS in a press release. “More commonly known as MSG, the compound has had a bad reputation for nearly 50 years. In this week’s video, we debunk MSG myths and explain why the scientific consensus is that this flavor enhancer, known for its savory umami flavor, is perfectly safe for the vast majority of people.”

So what do the experts have to say?

The Food and Drug Administration “considers the addition of MSG to foods to be ‘generally recognized as safe’ (GRAS). Although many people identify themselves as sensitive to MSG, in studies with such individuals given MSG or a placebo, scientists have not been able to consistently trigger reactions,” according to the agency’s website. The FDA also offers a fact sheet on the additive, in which the agency helpfully points out that “glutamate or glutamic acid have nothing to do with gluten.”

A 2008 study published in the journal Obesity, however, came to the conclusion that MSG may increase the likelihood of being overweight. The study evaluated 752 men and women living in villages located in northern and southern China, where the use of MSG in cooking is common. The researchers found that those that used the most MSG in cooking were also more likely to be overweight. However, it should be noted that the researchers were able to establish an association between MSG and being overweight, a clear cause and effect was not established. “MSG is not toxic,” the lead author Dr. Ka He told the New York Times at the time. “But now the question is: Is it healthy? This study is a warning that we should be cautious,” added Dr. He.

"MSG isn’t a concern for most people, but some people are sensitive to large amounts of MSG, and careful studies exist that back this up,” said Lisa Lefferts, a senior scientist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, in an interview with Yahoo Health.

Lefferts said that researchers lack studies that show that smaller, or low doses, of MSG cause problems.  “But that doesn’t mean the people who claim to be sensitive to low doses are crazy or are lying,” she added.

When Katherine Zeratsky, a nutritionist at the Mayo Clinic took on the subject in a blog post on the organization’s website, she noted that there have been anecdotes about adverse health reactions including headache, flushing, sweating, fluttering heartbeats (heart palpitations), and nausea, among others.

“However, researchers have found no definitive evidence of a link between MSG and these symptoms,” wrote Zeratsky. “Researchers acknowledge, though, that a small percentage of people may have short-term reactions to MSG.”

Zeratsky notes that “symptoms are usually mild and don’t require treatment,” but adds, “The only way to prevent a reaction is to avoid foods containing MSG.”

The good news for anyone who is concerned about MSG is that it is fairly easy to avoid. The FDA requires that foods containing MSG must list the ingredient on the packaging as monosodium glutamate. But, be warned: The agency also points out that “MSG occurs naturally in ingredients such as hydrolyzed vegetable protein, autolyzed yeast, hydrolyzed yeast, yeast extract, soy extracts, and protein isolate, as well as in tomatoes and cheeses.”

In those cases, while the FDA requires “that these products be listed on the ingredient panel, the agency does not require the label to also specify that they naturally contain MSG,” it notes in its fact sheet.  However, foods with any ingredient that naturally contains MSG cannot make the claim of “No MSG” or “No added MSG” on the packaging. Also, per FDA regulations, MSG can’t be included under the mysterious “spices and flavoring” category either.