Ask anyone if MSG is dangerous, and you’ll get a myriad of responses. Some of the more scientifically-minded among us will scoff at the notion that MSG is dangerous or poses real health risks. Sure, they’ll allow, there are a few sensitive people who get headaches or migraines when they eat it, but MSG doesn’t actually harm the rest of us.
Or does it?
Are you one of the many who don’t believe that MSG is dangerous? Or do you, like me, believe that because it is a newfangled substance invented in 1908, we should inherently distrust it as a food additive and seriously question its safety?
And, if you are like me, what scientific research do you use to convince the doubters among your circle of family and friends? The good news is the science proving MSG is dangerous is out there, and I’ve collected a lot of here for you.
Research on the dangers of MSG continues to mount, albeit slowly. Some contend that funding for such projects is inevitably sparse. After all, why would the food industry (which funds most of these sorts of research ventures) want to spend money proving the detrimental effects of one of its chief money makers?
There are a growing number of people who report immediate, adverse reactions within minutes eating MSG. Perhaps you’re one of those people? Or, maybe you know someone who is sensitive?
Typical MSG complaints include:
- burning sensations of the mouth, head and neck, (1)
- weakness of the arms or legs, (1)
- headaches, (1)
- upset stomach, (1)
- hives or other allergic-type reactions with the skin.(2)
Wait! You say. I call foul. How do they know that what these people experienced was actually because of eating MSG? How were these experiments controlled? Were they double-blind? That’s the only real way to do epidemiological research like this.
It’s true that when people self-report what they’re eating or how they’re feeling their own bias tends to get in the way. They misremember exactly what they ate. They make associations between what they ate and how they think they ought to feel.
But double blind studies on the effects of MSG have been done. These are studies where neither the participants nor the ones administering the study know who consumed MSG. Everything’s randomized and controlled by researchers a step removed from the process.
And, guess what? Even these double blind studies also found that MSG exposure caused muscle tightness, fatigue, numbness or tingling, and flushing in sensitive people.(3)
But what if you’re not one of these people? What if MSG causes no noticeable or immediate reaction in you?
Should you still consider MSG a dangerous food additive?
That’s because the effects of MSG are cumulative. Just because you don’t react to MSG now, doesn’t mean you won’t later. According to Dr. Russell Blaylock, who wrote a book on the subject called Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills, sensitivity to MSG builds up in our bodies until we reach what he calls our “threshold of sensitivity.”
That’s because MSG overstimulates our nervous system — exciting our nerves and causing an inflammatory response. With time, these repetitive inflammatory responses cause our nerves to start producing more and more nerve cells that are sensitive to this kind of stimulation. The more overly-sensitive nerve cells we have, the stronger our immediate response to MSG will be.(4)
That said, you still may be scratching your head about MSG.
If the worst that can happen is a migraine headache or some hives, why worry about eating it now, when it causes no reaction in you?
Way back in 1957, a team researchers decided to see if glutamate could help repair a diseased retina. Remember, glutamate is a common and necessary amino acid in our diet (arguably the most common neurotransmitter in the brain), so this presupposition isn’t so far fetched. The researchers fed rats MSG and were shocked by their results.
Rather than repairing the disease, the MSG destroyed the retinal cells that allow vision!
A decade later, the neuroscientist Dr. John Olney used their method of destroying retinal cells so that he could study visual pathways to the brain. He found that MSG not only destroyed retinal vision cells, but also parts of the brain. This brain damage was done as neurons became over excited, virtually exciting themselves to death. He called this “excitotoxicity,” and that has led subsequent researchers to describe MSG as an “excitotoxin.”
While the naturally occurring glutamates in food aren’t dangerous, processed free glutamic acids like MSG are.
Not only do they cause brain damage and lead to nervous disorders, but they also cause radical hormone fluctuations. Mice injected with MSG become rapidly obese, inactive, and have other hormonal issues.(5)
Wait! You say. Those are mice and rats. We’re people. We’re bigger, biologically different. Surely it won’t affect us the same way.
Unfortunately, that argument doesn’t hold much weight. Humans are 20 times more sensitive to MSG than monkeys, 5 times more sensitive than rats.(6) We have glutamate receptors on every major organ, hard-wired into our brains, and even on the tip of our tongue! That means that one fifth the level of MSG used to cause obvious brain damage to a rat will do the same to you.
And what about growing babies? It turns out that MSG is especially harmful to pregnant or nursing mothers because infants and young children are four times more sensitive to MSG than adults!(7) Dr. Blaylock elaborates:
Many studies have shown that glutamate plays a major role in how the brain is formed during development. There is a programmed rise and fall in brain glutamate levels during brain formation, which occurs in humans not only during intrauterine life, but until the age of 27.
This oscillation in brain glutamate is very critical, and any disruption in glutamate levels has dire consequences. It has been shown that during pregnancy, a diet high in MSG increases the developing baby’s glutamate levels to those twice as high as the mother’s. This can significantly alter how the baby’s brain forms and functions.
Very high MSG intake (of any excitotoxin) can cause abnormal learning, addiction risk, and behavioral, emotional control, and endocrine problems later in the baby’s life.
We now know, for instance, that glutamate is the main control neurotransmitter for the hypothalamus. This section of the brain controls most of your hormones, eating behavior, temperature control, pain regulation, and sleep habits, as well as the autonomic control of your heart, GI tract, lungs, and bladder. When animals are fed MSG early in life, they develop severe abnormalities, which include a short stature, small endocrine organs (pituitary, adrenal glands, thyroid, ovaries, testes and pancreas), and a high risk of seizures and impaired learning. (8)
I don’t know about you, but this is enough to raise alarm bells.
Not only is MSG not a traditional food, not only are many people immediately sensitive to it, but it can also interrupt the hormonal and biological development of my children!
Lest you think this is all fanciful, it’s important to remember that a number of studies have found that the effects of MSG can occur cumulatively over time with subsequent exposure. For example, a study done with animals found that MSG exposure over a period of 3-6 months led to significant risk for damage to the retinas of the eyes.(9) Initially, there was no visible damage, but multiple exposure over a period of time led to the irreparable injury.
It’s simply not worth the risk.
So, if you want to avoid MSG, how can you do it?
Turns out, it’s harder than it looks.
If all you had to do was read food product labels and put anything that said “monosodium glutamate” back on the shelf, you could maybe handle it without much difficulty. Or, if you could trust a food manufacturer’s claim that there is “No MSG added” to their food, that would be relatively simple too.
But, MSG hides in more than 40 other FDA-approved ingredients. Because the manufacturer didn’t add an ingredient called “monosodium glutamate,” they can “truthfully” claim “No MSG added” on their label. Yet, nothing is stopping them from adding ingredients that contain MSG. In that case, the manufacturer only has to list the name of the actual ingredient added, not the ingredients within those ingredients.
So, they can say a food includes “spices” or “flavorings” when that spice mix includes MSG. They can say the food includes “yeast extract” or “hydrolized soy protein” without telling you that the process of creating those ingredients also creates processed free glutamic acids (also known as MSG).
For more on where MSG may be hiding in your food labels, see this handy list of MSG-containing ingredients provided by the Truth in Labeling Campaign.
(photo by punkjr)