monosodium glutamate MSG

Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) in Food: Why is MSG Bad?

Monosodium Glutamate widely known as MSG or Ajinomoto is a common food additive; used to enhance the flavor. It is a combination of sodium and glutamic acid.

It is mostly used in Asian food as well as many processed foods. ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’ is an outdated term that was used in the ’90s to describe the symptoms one experiences after eating food from a Chinese restaurant because of the extensive use of MSG in their food.

The symptoms include headache, skin flushing, and sweating. Today this is known as the ‘MSG symptom complex’. 

According to various researches, MSG is not harmful when consumed in moderate amounts. Although people often think it is very harmful and must be avoided at all costs. 

In this article, we will try to inform you all there is to know about MSG.

Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) in Food

Monosodium glutamate was discovered in 1908 by a Japanese chemist named Kikunae Ikeda. He derived it from extracting and crystalizing a seaweed broth and realized that it had flavor-enhancing properties.

It gave out a strong ‘umami’ taste, a Japanese term that is used to describe a rich savory flavor. He filed a patent to produce MSG in an easy to use form. He launched it in the Japanese markets as a brand named Ajinomoto. 

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), these days MSG is made by fermenting starch, sugar cane, sugar beets, or molasses. 

MSG is ‘generally recognized as safe’ by the US FDA. But it continues to have a negative reputation among the people.

How is MSG Made?

MSG is made by fermentation of starch found in natural ingredients such as sugar beets, sugar cane, cassava, molasses. The fermentation process is carried out by microbes that produce glutamic acid from these ingredients. The process is similar to that used in making yogurt, wine, and vinegar. 

Sugar is essential for the fermentation process. Due to fermentation, carbohydrates get converted into glutamic acid which is purified and crystallized before drying. 

Glutamic acid gets converted into monosodium glutamate by neutralization. The finished product is a white crystal. 

Natural MSG vs Synthetic MSG

Glutamate is a type of amino acid that is found in all proteins. During the process of digestion, glutamic acid is released from ingested protein and becomes free glutamic acid. Glutamic acid has been recognized as a ‘non-essential’ amino acid because you do not need to consume it in order to maintain its supply in the body. 

Free Glutamic Acid exists naturally in our bodies and some vegetables and fruits. It is unadulterated and unfermented. It is composed of single amino acid, L-glutamic acid. 

In comparison, MSG is glutamic acid that is freed from protein through the process of fermentation. Along with L-glutamic acid, it is also accompanied by D-glutamic acid and a variety of other by-products as well as sodium. It is processed food and will contain some of the impurities that appear during fermentation or other modes of processing. 

Natural glutamate is responsible for the ‘umami’ flavor. 

When Ikeda discovered MSG, he derived it from seaweed that occurs naturally in the environment. According to the FDA, any ingredient or constituent of an ingredient that comes from a plant or an animal source is “naturally occurring”.

Nowadays, MSG is made through fermentation, which is a natural process. But MSG does not occur naturally in the environment. 

Whether it is glutamic acid or MSG, the body metabolizes both in the same manner. 

Does MSG Make You Sleepy?

MSG is found naturally in our bodies as well as in foods such as cheese, mushroom, fish, tomatoes, and walnuts. 

Some people who are sensitive to MSG and consume more than 3 grams of it, often experience extreme fatigue along with headache, migraine, sleepiness, and numbness. 

does msg make you sleepy

The MSG symptom complex is a condition that is caused by a reaction to Monosodium Glutamate. The treatment for the MSG symptom complex depends upon the symptoms and their severity. 

Does MSG Make You Thirsty? 

No theory or research claims that MSG makes you thirsty. The foods that contain MSG also contain salt, and it is the high amounts of sodium that make you feel thirsty. MSG only has ⅓ the sodium of table salt. So, it is the high amounts of sodium mostly found in processed and canned foods that make you feel thirsty and not the MSG

When you eat salty food; the blood absorbs the excess salt, and the fluid surrounding the cells becomes saltier and takes fluid from inside the cells. The cell informs the center of the brain that controls the thirst.

The ‘thirst-center’ knows that the body fluid has become too salty and informs the body to consume more water to balance the ratio between sodium to body fluid.

How to Quench Thirst From MSG?

If you feel thirsty after eating food that contains MSG, it is probably the salt that is making you feel thirsty. To quench your thirst or avoid feeling thirsty, you must stay well-hydrated. 

How to Flush MSG From Your Body?

To remove MSG from your body, you must drink plenty of water to smooth the digestive process. In addition, you must also stop consuming any foods that contain MSG

Does MSG Make You Hungry?

There are conflicting views about whether MSG makes you feel satiated or not. Some evidence suggests that it does make you feel full while some others say that MSG might end up making you feel more hungry. 

Ghrelin is the appetite-stimulating hormone and Leptin is the hormone that curbs appetite. Protein breaks down into amino acids during metabolism. It is known to decrease ghrelin and boost leptin. Monosodium Glutamate is a common amino acid that increases the leptin levels in the body. 

A study conducted by PubMed Central indicates that MSG increases calorie intake rather than decreasing it which is why it will make you feel hungry. Another study conducted by The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in June 2014 suggests that the umami flavor in MSG may increase immediate appetite

Is MSG Addictive? 

To be an addictive substance, MSG needs to alter the brain, which it does not. As already discussed above, the glutamate levels in the brain are always balanced. Most of the glutamate that gets inside the body stays inside the GI tract. The brain keeps tight control over the levels of glutamate in the body.

Furthermore, for MSG to be an addiction it needs to meet certain medical criteria, which it does not. People do not consume MSG directly. Several foods with added MSG are extremely delicious but that is because of a lot of flavors coming together and not just the MSG. 

When too much MSG is added to the food, it spoils it rather than enhancing the taste. There are also no withdrawal symptoms if someone stops consuming MSG

How Long Does MSG Stay in Your System?

When you eat food containing MSG, this is what happens in your body: 

Mouth: the glutamate receptors in your mouth activate when you consume food that contains glutamate. The receptors inform the brain about the umami (savory) flavor. The brain responds by telling the mouth to generate more saliva that helps in lubricating the food for easy swallowing. 

Stomach: The receptors that are present in the stomach activate the nerve which informs the brain that protein-rich food has arrived. The stomach prepares for protein digestion. The vagal nerve is activated only by glutamate and not by other amino acids. The protein obtained from MSG does not need to be broken down any further. 

Small Intestine: MSG is broken down into sodium and glutamate. 95% of that glutamate gets used as fuel by the cells in the gastrointestinal tract. Any remaining glutamate will be absorbed into the bloodstream and will be delivered to the cells to make protein. Only a small percentage of glutamate enters the bloodstream, and it does not affect the level of glutamate in the brain. No extra glutamate gets inside the brain even if there is an excess of it in the bloodstream. 

Our bodies process MSG in the same way it processes naturally occurring glutamate. MSG plays a vital role in digestion by increasing salivation that signals the meal contains protein and fuels the cells of the GI tract. Since MSG is not bound inside big protein molecules that your body needs to break down, it is easier to absorb. 

People sensitive to MSG may experience the symptoms after eating foods that contain MSG. Symptoms like fatigue-ness can last a few hours to a couple of days. Therefore, depending upon the individual to individual and sensitivity towards MSG, MSG does stay in your system for a couple of days.

How To Tell If Food Has MSG in it? 

Most food packaging lists MSG as Monosodium Glutamate in their ingredients section. Some other names under which MSG may be listed are Glutamate, Glutamic acid, Calcium glutamate, Magnesium glutamate, Disodium guanylate, Disodium inosinate, Disodium 5-ribonucleotide, Magnesium glutamate. 

Attribution: Photo by hhm0 per Open Food Facts. This file was uploaded to product Super Snacks® Falafel Bits – Zetov – 1.4 oz, 40 g and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

However, some foods naturally contain MSG. The food agency does not need to specifically point out that the food contains MSG. But they also cannot claim “No Msg” on their packaging. 

Some foods that always contain MSG are Hydrolyzed protein, Sodium or calcium caseinate, Autolyzed yeast, Yeast extract, Yeast Food, Yeast Nutrient, Textured protein, Glutamic acid, Monopotassium Glutamate, and Gelatine. 

Some foods that almost always contain MSG are cake mixes, canned or frozen soup, and foods, yogurt, most cottage cheese, candy and gums, store-bought salad dressings, bacon, and ham. 

Foods With Natural MSG

Foods that naturally contain MSG are:

  • Tomato
  • Cheese
  • Meat
  • Fish and other seafood
  • Fermented sauces like soy sauce
  • Kelp 
  • Anchovies
  • Corn
  • Green peas
  • Mushroom

Foods With Synthetic MSG

  • Fast food, particularly Chinese food.
  • Chips and snack foods
  • Seasoning blends and condiments like salad dressing, mayonnaise, ketchup
  • Frozen meals
  • Canned soups 
  • Processed meats 
  • Instant noodles

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s)

How does MSG enhance the taste?

The umami taste receptors on our tongue are sensitive to glutamate, the main component of MSG. 

How much MSG can an average person consume?

The average person can consume up to 1 gram of MSG daily. The human body produces 50 grams of glutamate every day on its own. 

Does Maggi noodles contain MSG?

Though Maggi claims that it does not add MSG many other instant noodles as well as other processed foods do contain MSG. 

Is Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) related to Gluten?

Glutamate might sound similar to gluten but they are two different things. MSG is glutamic acid, and it does not contain gluten. 

Is MSG the same as salt?

No, MSG and salt are different from each other. MSG is made from water, sodium and glutamate while salt is made from sodium and chloride. 

How much sodium does MSG contain?

MSG contains 12.28 grams of sodium per 100 grams of serving. It has two-thirds less sodium than regular table salt.

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The Verdict: Is MSG Bad For You?

In the 1990s, the FDA asked an independent scientific group Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) to test the safety of MSG.

FASEB concluded their report by saying that MSG is safe. A sensitive person may experience short-term mild symptoms such as headache, numbness, tingling, palpitations, and drowsiness after consuming more than 3 grams or more of MSG in their food. Such an event is highly unlikely to happen as a typical serving of food with added MSG contains less than 0.5 grams of MSG.

The FDA has recognized MSG as safe but still, people believe that it leads to adverse effects on their health. 

Some people claim that MSG is an ‘excitotoxin’ because it leads to excessive glutamate in the brain and stimulation of the nerve cells. 

A book called ‘Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills’ by Russell Blaylock and many other studies and researches are responsible for keeping the fear alive regarding the negative effects of MSG. 

Increased glutamate activity in the brain can cause harm which can occur due to the consumption of MSG in extremely large doses.

The MSG Symptom Complex is experienced by a small percentage of people and the symptoms include the following:

  • Headache
  • Flushing
  • Sweating
  • Heart palpitations 
  • Nausea
  • Numbness or tingling in the mouth
  • Numbness or tingling in the throat
  • Blurred vision
  • Fatigue

Some severe symptoms include:

  • Chest pain 
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Abnormal heartbeat
  • Difficulty in breathing 
  • Swelling in the face or throat

Various experiments have helped dismantle the theory of MSG being bad for health.  Although it is a well-known fact that the consumption of anything in excess can have adverse effects on your health. If you consume anything that contains MSG and your body reacts adversely to it, you must avoid it. 

Due to various myths and misconceptions, people tend to avoid MSG. There is no concrete evidence that says MSG is bad when consumed in moderate amounts.

Mostly MSG is found in processed and frozen foods that must be avoided either way in order to maintain a healthy lifestyle. 

A small percentage of people may have symptoms after consuming MSG and if you happen to be among them, then you should avoid it. 

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