What’s Hiding in Your Food? The Dangers of MSG
Although glutamic acid is found in the human body, it is not the same as MSG and should never be considered as such; it is not essential to our diet.
When MSG is produced it is accompanied with impurities in the form of by-products.
You will not find MSG in naturally occurring whole foods, like fruits.
It is very difficult to really know whether MSG is in your food, as it goes by so many sneaky aliases so informed choice is essentially the only way to make sure MSG does not enter our diets.
History of MSG
In 1908 a Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda isolated the main substance of dashi — the seaweed Laminaria japonica, which gave food its meaty taste. Using an evaporation method, he isolated a specific compound within the seaweed.
After days of evaporating and treating the seaweed, he saw the development of a crystalline form – what we now know as MSG.
Ever since MSG was introduced into Western food in 1948 adverse effects have been associated with the free glutamates in MSG.
First identified as ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’, symptoms of MSG sensitivity have ranged from burning, numbness, facial pressure, chest pain and headaches.
Since then many other reactions have been reported including migraines, diarrhoea, nausea, stomach cramps, asthma, insomnia, depression, heart palpitations, ventricular fibrillation, AF (atrial fibrillation), children’s behaviour and attention problems.
In the mid nineties, three more flavour enhancers called ribonucleotides (627, 631, and 635 which is a combination of 627 and 631) started appearing on supermarket shelves after scientists realised that these chemicals could boost the flavour enhancing effect of MSG up to 15 times!
Due to the public backlash against this substance the term”MSG” (or its number 621) is seldom seen on food packaging anymore. This disappearance has led some consumers to believe that MSG is no longer used but this is wrong.
MSG is more widely used than ever.
Global MSG production has approximately doubled every decade, from 200,000 tons in 1969 to 270,000 tons in 1979 and 800, 000 tons in 2001, making MSG one of the most widely used food additives in the world.
But to get around the anti-MSG sentiment, one is hard pressed to find a food companies that will put 621 on a food label.
However food companies do have ways, some would say sneaky, to make sure that MSG and its closely related substances get into their processed foods.
MSG in Australia
Food manufacturers must label a food when MSG is added, either by name or by its food additive code number 621. For example, MSG could be identified as:
- ‘Flavour enhancer (MSG)’, or
- ‘Flavour enhancer (621)’.
Australian food labelling laws also applies to other added permitted glutamate food additives, which have food additive code numbers 622 – 625.
When glutamates are naturally present in a food or an ingredient of a food, they don’t have to be labelled (e.g. glutamate in meat, or glutamates in mushrooms used as a food ingredient).
Other ingredients typically added to foods may also contain naturally occurring glutamates and glutamate salts (e.g. yeast extract, hydrolysed vegetable protein (HVP), and ‘natural flavourings’).
MSG doesn’t have to be declared in restaurant or takeaway food but you can ask the staff whether or not it is added to food.
Remember by the food industry’s own definition, all MSG is “naturally occurring.” In this instance “natural” doesn’t mean “safe.”
It refers merely to the fact that the ingredient started out in nature, like arsenic and hydrochloric acid!
Why is MSG Dangerous?
MSG is known to be an excitotoxin which means it overstimulates our nervous system upon ingestion.
MSG was shown in animal studies to damage the neurons in the brain of mice.
High levels of excitotoxins have been linked to brain tumours, diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, brain damage, learning disorders and behavioural problems.
In addition to these serious health risks, Dr. Russel Blaylock, neurosurgeon and author of ‘Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills’, says:
“Excitotoxins have been found to dramatically promote cancer growth and metastasis… [MSG] also causes a cancer cell to become more mobile, and that enhances metastasis, or spread. When you increase the glutamate level, cancer just grows like wildfire….”
Consuming MSG, even in the short term can have consequences. While the effects may not be immediately apparent, sensitivity can build up in our bodies.
Those who are sensitive to MSG report symptoms such as dizziness, headaches, numbness/ tingling, flushing, muscle tightness, nausea, cold sweats, irritability, heart palpitations, and even an asthma attack.
Just as MSG tricks your brain into believing food has more flavour, it also fools you into thinking you’re still hungry. This encourages overeating because your brain essentially doesn’t get the message that you’re full.
Reactions to MSG are dose related, i.e., some people react to even very small amounts. MSG-induced reactions may occur immediately after ingestion or after as much as 48 hours.
The time lapse between ingestion and reaction is typically the same each time for a particular individual who ingests an amount of MSG that exceeds his or her individual tolerance level.
MSG is a far reaching and surprisingly prevalent ingredient in a variety of foods and other items.
MSG reactions have been reported from soaps, shampoos, hair conditioners and cosmetics, where MSG is hidden in ingredients with names that include the words “hydrolysed,” “amino acids,” and/or “protein.”
Most sun block creams and insect repellents also contain MSG.
It is little surprise that children are most at risk from MSG sensitivities. The blood brain barrier, which keeps toxins in the blood from entering the brain, is not fully developed in children.
MSG can additionally penetrate the placental barrier and potentially affect unborn children as well. It is of considerable concern therefore that most major brands of infant formula contain some processed free glutamic acid.
The Aliases of MSG
By becoming familiar with the hidden and varying names of MSG, we can help determine and control what foods to eat and what foods to avoid.
Here is a list that highlights 129 ways to add MSG and claim ‘no added MSG’ to fool consumers!
How to avoid MSG
Read the ingredient list – not the label!!! The following words will NOT protect you: fresh, natural, traditional, original, plain, pure, gourmet, finest ingredients, ‘100% wholesome goodness’.
All natural. No artificial colours, flavours or preservatives. No added MSG.
Avoid ‘600 number’ Flavour Enhancers
- 620 Glutamic acid
- 621 Monosodium glutamate, MSG, umami, E621 (in Europe)
- 622 Monopotassium glutamate
- 623 Calcium glutamate
- 624 Monammonium glutamate
- 625 Magnesium glutamate
- 627 Disodium guanylate, DSG or GMP
- 631 Disodium inosinate, DSI or IMP
- 635 Disodium 5’ribonucleotides, I&G, nucleotides
However, there is a food labelling loophole.
Most consumers don’t realise that ingredients such as hydrolysed vegetable protein, soy sauce or yeast extracts contain free glutamates that are essentially the same as MSG.
Consumers must educate themselves on the myriad of deceptive and ever-changing ways that MSG can be described on labels.
Free glutamate can be listed as:
- HVP (hydrolysed vegetable protein)
- HPP (hydrolysed plant protein)
and any combinations of:
- Hydrolysed, autolysed, formulated
- Vegetable, wheat, gluten, soy, maize, plant
- Yeast (except in baked products like bread), yeast flakes
- Yeast extracts (Vegemite, Marmite and similar foods such as Promite, Natex savoury spread, Vegespread and Vecon contain free glutamates)
Free glutamate can also be present in added flavours in savoury foods.
Free glutamate can also be added as:
- Kombu extract
- Vegetable powder, tomato powder, etc
- Soy sauce – even without any additives, this is naturally very high in glutamates
- Other sauces and seasonings e.g. BBQ sauce, Worcester sauce, Bragg’s all purpose seasoning
- All stocks and stock cubes
It can seem overwhelming to search packaging labels for some of these hidden ingredients. Food companies seem to be deliberately making it hard to decipher exactly what is in the food that we are purchasing and eating.
One way around this is the knowledge that there is no MSG in unprocessed whole foods. By cooking your meals at home from scratch, you can monitor the ingredients and seasonings to ensure you aren’t eating hidden MSG ingredients.
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