Side Effects of MSG and Foods to Avoid

Monosodium glutamate, also known as MSG, is one of the most common additives in processed foods. MSG is also often added as a flavor enhancer in all sorts of restaurants. While some people view MSG as a harmless seasoning used to make food taste better, others are convinced that the additive causes detrimental side effects from headaches to Alzheimer’s disease.

We wanted to cut through the anecdotal accounts and uncover the facts about MSG and its side effects. We also wanted to find out exactly which foods contain MSG and learn to decipher food labels in order to do so. In our research, we found studies backing up some of the universally reported harmful side effects caused by MSG and a large list of foods that contain it.

What Is MSG?

MSG is a type of salt derived from glutamic acid. It is used to enhance the flavors of food. Glutamic acid is a naturally occurring amino acid produced by the body and found in tomatoes, mushrooms, cheese and a variety of other foods. MSG is synthesized from glutamic acid in a method that isolates the L-glutamate and adds sodium.

MSG enhances the umami flavor or savoriness of all sorts of foods. It adds depth and complexity to dishes from stir-fries to soups and stews.

MSG Side Effects

Once simply regarded as Chinese restaurant syndrome, reactions and side effects from ingesting MSG are troublesome for many individuals. In fact, in 1957, MSG was labeled an excitotoxin — a substance that binds to nerve cell receptors and overstimulates the cells to the point of damage or death.

It is believed that the excitotoxicity of MSG is what causes the harmful side effects after its ingestion. Here’s a list of some of the most prevalent reactions to MSG.

Headaches

One of the more common side effects of MSG consumption is a headache. The Northern California Headache Clinic conducted a study about the correlation between MSG and headaches. When study participants eliminated all foods containing MSG, their headaches decreased significantly.

Asthma

A study in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found that MSG can aggravate asthma symptoms and cause asthma attacks. Subjects in their study were fed a diet free of MSG for five days. Then, the participants were given 500 milligrams of MSG. Around half of the subjects had an asthmatic reaction after consuming MSG. Some had a reaction within an hour or two, while others reacted six to 12 hours afterward.

Damage to Eyes

During the 1950s, researchers hypothesized that MSG may help repair damaged retinas in the eyes of rats. When MSG was administered to the rats, the researchers found that MSG didn’t help the condition and also made it worse. MSG destroyed the cells in the retina and blinded the rats. Further research found that MSG exposure also damaged parts of the brain and caused problems in the nervous system.

More recently, a study published in the journal, Experimental Eye Research, found that MSG causes a weakening of the eye’s retinal cells.

Flushing

Many people report flushing of the face, neck, and chest after ingesting MSG. The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology put out a study where 61 subjects were given a placebo and later, a dose of MSG. During the placebo round, flushing did not occur. After the MSG administration, flushing occurred in a large percentage of the participants.

Muscle Tightness & Weakness

In the same study from the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, some subjects reported general weakness after MSG exposure. Others felt tightness in their muscles.

Obesity

Research out of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill indicates that people who regularly consume MSG are nearly three times more likely to struggle with obesity than those who do not — even when they have the same caloric intake and physical activity levels.

More Serious Side Effects

Dr. Russell Blaylock, the author of “Dr. Blaylock’s Prescriptions for Natural Health: 70 Remedies for Common Conditions,” wrote about the relationship between excitotoxins and a number of more serious health conditions like stroke, brain tumors, Alzheimer’s disease, and meningitis.

MSG and Its Many Aliases

It seems simple enough. If you want to avoid MSG in your diet, look at the nutrition labels on everything you buy and stay away from the foods that list MSG on the ingredient list. However, MSG is like an undercover FBI operative with its multiple aliases and cover names. The United States Food and Drug Administration requires that food companies to list MSG on the label when they use the actual ingredient. But, when MSG is in another ingredient they’ve used in the product, they don’t have to disclose it on the label. Furthermore, according to the folks at the Truth in Labeling Campaign, there are more than 40 ingredients that contain the chemical in MSG that causes adverse reactions.

We’ve created a chart of the many names for MSG. Entries with an asterisk beside them are names of ingredients that often contain the chemical in MSG, but not always. Print this out or take a screenshot of the list so you can refer to it while you’re shopping. It’s in alphabetical order for easy reference.

The Many Names for MSG

AccentAjinomotoAutolyzed plant protein
Autolyzed yeastBarley malt*Brewer’s yeast*
Broth*Bullion*Calcium caseinate
Calcium glutamateCaramel coloring/flavoring*Carrageenan*
Dough conditioners*Dry milk solids*Enzymes
Flowing agents*GelatinGlutamate
Glutamic acidHydrolyzed proteinMagnesium glutamate
Maltodextrin*Monoammonium glutamateMonopotassium glutamate
Monosodium glutamateMSGNatrium glutamate
Natural meat tenderizerOligodextrinProtease*
Protein fortifiedProtein-fortified milkReaction flavors*
Seasonings*SenomyxSodium caseinate
Soy protein*Soy protein concentrate*Soy protein isolate*
Soy sauceSoy sauce extractSpice*
Textured proteinTorula yeastUmami
VetsinWhey protein*Whey protein concentrate*
Whey protein isolate*Yeast extractYeast nutrients

*Indicates an ingredient that often contains the chemical in MSG, but not always.

MSG and Restaurants

Chinese restaurants have gotten a bad reputation for serving food seasoned with MSG. However, nearly all of the popular fast-food restaurant chains use MSG in their seasoned foods like chicken nuggets and french fries. Stopping to pick up a bucket of fried chicken for dinner? Surprise! You’re also getting an ample dose of MSG at no extra charge. In fact, the leading fried chicken chain is the worst offender as MSG is in almost everything on their menu. Additionally, many casual, sit-down, chain restaurants use MSG to season their signature dishes, soups, meats and sauces.

If you’re hoping to avoid MSG while you’re dining out, look for restaurants that offer a more natural or organic selection of foods. Call ahead to speak with a manager and ask if they use MSG in their food preparation. You can also enter “MSG + the name of the restaurant” into your search engine to see if anyone has reported an issue. You may be surprised at what you learn.

Foods that Normally Contain MSG

Certain foods almost always contain MSG. Canned foods are known offenders. Bagged salty snacks are also commonly full of MSG. Avoid these foods if you’re staying away from MSG:

  • Soup, chicken stock and broth
  • Flavored tortilla chips
  • Seasoned potato chips
  • Spice blends
  • Fried chicken
  • Flavored nuts
  • Dry roasted peanuts
  • Ranch dressing
  • Protein and granola bars
  • Protein shake mix
  • Lunchmeat
  • Frozen dinners
  • Gravy
  • Bacon
  • Ham
  • Canned fish

The above foods nearly always contain MSG. Nevertheless, you can often find an organic or natural version of many of these items that are MSG-free. Many organic brands make excellent seasoned tortilla chips. You can even get organic condiments like ranch dressing that is made with real food ingredients and no MSG. Use our chart and read the labels carefully to make sure you’re not falling for one of the many names for MSG.

MSG — Tasty, But Not Healthy

If you have an immediate reaction to foods containing MSG, you’re fortunate. Headaches, flushing and digestive problems will likely make you want to avoid MSG-laden foods. Many people have no immediate symptoms at all when they eat foods with MSG. However, over time, the accumulation of excitotoxins in the body can take their toll, damaging and killing healthy cells.

MSG is not a natural food. It also isn’t necessary to make food taste good. There are plenty of wonderful, fresh, natural, whole food ingredients that taste delicious and will enrich and strengthen your body. Look to the best foods for your nourishment and avoid foods containing MSG and other unnatural additives.