MSG, also known as monosodium glutamate, is a common ingredient and food additive used to boost the flavor of processed, canned and frozen foods. MSG seasoning is derived from glutamic acid, a type of protein that is abundant in many types of food, including fruits and vegetables. It’s produced through a fermentation process and brings a savory taste to dishes.
So why is MSG controversial?
Because it contains an isolated and highly concentrated form of glutamic acid, it’s processed very differently in the body and can increase levels of glutamate in the blood very rapidly.
This has been shown to be associated to a long list of potential side effects, with studies linking excess MSG consumption to everything from asthma and metabolic issues to heart disease and cancer.
MSG and Triggered Sensitivity
Research shows that certain people may be especially sensitive to the effects of MSG and may experience a slew of negative MSG side effects after consuming it.
Nicknamed the “Chinese restaurant syndrome,” one study actually showed that MSG triggered side effects in many people with a reported sensitivity to MSG, causing symptoms like muscle tightness, numbness/tingling, weakness, flushing and the well-known MSG headache. (1)
Although researchers are not entirely certain what causes MSG sensitivity, they have theorized that eating large amounts can cause small amounts of glutamate to cross the blood-brain barrier, interacting with the neurons to cause swelling and cell death. (2)
MSG and Free Radicals
Studies have shown that consuming large amounts of monosodium glutamate could cause oxidative damage to the cells and contribute to free radical formation.
For example, one study published in the Journal of Cardiovascular Disease Research showed that high doses of MSG increased the levels of several markers of oxidative stress in the heart tissue. (3)
Free radical formation has also been tied to the development of chronic conditions, such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes. (4)
However, keep in mind that most research shows that it would take a very high dose of MSG significantly greater than the average intake to cause damage.
MSG and Weight Gain
Studies are still somewhat questionable when it comes to the effects of MSG on weight control. Although some research shows that it can enhance hunger and increased intake food intake in some people.
One study published in the British Journal of Nutrition, for instance, showed that adding MSG to a high-protein meal actually increased caloric intake later on during the day. (5)
MSG and Blood Pressure
High Blood Pressure is a serious condition that can place excess strain on the heart and cause the heart muscle to slowly weaken over time.
Along with high cholesterol and triglyceride levels, having high levels of blood pressure is one of the major risk factors for developing heart disease. (8)
In a 2015 study published in the journal Nutrition, researchers found that consuming high amounts of monosodium glutamate resulted in significant increases in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure. (9)
Similarly, another study conducted by the Jiangsu Provincial Centre for Disease Control and Prevention showed that MSG intake was associated with higher levels of blood pressure over a five-year period in Chinese adults. (10)
MSG and Asthma Attacks
Some studies have found that MSG intake could be linked to a higher risk of asthma attacks in those who are at risk. A study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology tested the effects of 500 milligrams of MSG in 32 people with asthma and found that a shocking 40 percent of participants experienced a worsening of asthma symptoms within 12 hours of ingesting MSG.
Not only that, but nearly half of those who experienced a reaction also reported side effects associated with Chinese restaurant syndrome, such as headaches, numbness and flushing. (11)
MSG and Metabolic Syndrome
Metabolic Syndrome is a group of conditions that can significantly increase your risk of developing problems like heart disease, diabetes and stroke. Some of the risk factors for metabolic syndrome include having high blood sugar, increased blood pressure, excess amounts of belly fat or abnormal cholesterol levels. (12)
Multiple studies have linked MSG to several of these conditions, including high blood pressure and obesity. Another study out of Thailand also showed a direct association between the consumption of monosodium glutamate and a higher risk of metabolic syndrome among 349 adults. (13)
MSG and Unhealthy Foods
Regardless of whether or not you have a sensitivity to monosodium glutamate, it shouldn’t be a regular part of your diet. This is because it’s found primarily in ultra-processed food that offer little in terms of nutrition apart from excess calories, refined carbs, unhealthy fats and sodium.
Filling your diet with unprocessed, whole foods, on the other hand, is the easiest way to minimize your dietary intake of MSG and supply your body with the vitamins and minerals it needs.
Because MSG contains a concentrated amount of free glutamic acid, it can increase glutamate levels in the blood rapidly. While some people can tolerate moderate amounts without noticing any side effects, it can contribute to symptoms like headaches, flushing and muscle tightness in those with an MSG allergy or sensitivity.
However, MSG is primarily found in heavily processed, unhealthy foods, so it shouldn’t be a staple in your diet, regardless of whether or not you experience any of these side effects. If you do notice any adverse symptoms after consuming foods high in MSG, try reducing your intake by minimizing your intake of common monosodium glutamate food sources.
How to Avoid MSG
MSG is a common ingredient in many types of processed foods, from salty snacks to frozen convenience items and beyond. The best way to completely cut out all MSG food sources from your diet is to simply minimize your intake of processed junk foods and incorporate more healthy, whole foods into your weekly rotation instead.
You can also start reading food labels to make sure your grocery list is completely MSG-free. Look out for some of the other names for MSG, including monosodium glutamate, glutamic acid, calcium glutamate and other similar variations. Other ingredients like yeast extract, sodium caseinate and hydrolyzed products can also indicate that there may be MSG present as well.
Foods to Avoid with MSG
Unfortunately, there are many hidden sources of MSG in food, and it can be found in everything from fast food to meat products. The best way to find out if MSG is lurking in your favorite foods is to simply check the label and look for ingredients like “monosodium glutamate,” “glutamic acid,” “glutamate” or “yeast extract.”
Here is a list of some of the top foods that hold MSG in their ingredients. Keep a look out for them the next time you take a trip to the grocery store:
- Canned soups
- Convenience meals
- Fast food
- Iced tea mixes
- Instant noodles
- Potato chips
- Processed Meat
- Salad dressings
- Salty snacks
- Soy sauce
- Sports drinks
- What is MSG? Also known as monosodium glutamate, it is a common food additive made from the sodium salt of glutamic acid, a common amino acid found throughout the food supply.
- So, is MSG bad for you? Studies have linked monosodium glutamate to weight gain, high blood pressure, asthma attacks, metabolic syndrome and short-term side effects in those who are sensitive.
- Additionally, it’s also found mostly in unhealthy processed foods that should be kept to a minimum on a healthy diet. Some of the most common sources of MSG include processed foods, salty snacks, seasonings and convenience items.
To reduce your intake of MSG, fill your diet with nutrient-rich whole foods and practice label reading to ensure MSG isn’t found in your favorite ingredients.