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MSG Safety

MSG was first condemned in 1968, when a physician, Robert Ho Man Kwok, contacted the New England Journal of Medicine with a letter describing Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. “[It] usually begins 15 to 20 minutes after I have eaten the first dish, and lasts for about two hours,” noted Kwok. “The most prominent symptoms are numbness at the back of the neck, gradually radiating to both arms and the back, general weakness, and palpitations.”

The following year, Dr. John W. Olney reported that laboratory animals suffered brain lesions and neuroendocrine disorders after being exposed to monosodium glutamate. Infant laboratory animals given free glutamic acid suffered brain damage immediately, and assorted neuroendocrine disorders later in life.

While injections of glutamate in laboratory animals have resulted in damage to nerve cells in the brain, consumption of glutamate in food will not cause this effect.

In knee-jerk fashion, parents began to worry about their safety and that of their children; at the time, MSG was a common additive in baby formula. By the late 1970s, in response to parent’s outcries, manufacturers had removed all MSG-containing ingredients from baby food.

A more balanced review of the additive reveals a transient risk, but only in certain people. A 1979 glutamate industry sponsored study by G.R. Kerr found that approximately 1.8% of the population is sensitive to MSG. That’s not much higher than the rate of peanut allergies (1.1%) or shellfish (2%). If you regularly experience severe symptoms after eating any food, you might consider visiting an allergist.

The FDA has classified MSG as GRAS or Generally Recognized as Safe since 1959. According to Linda Tollefson, an FDA epidemiologist, “There is sensitivity to MSG that is transient. If given enough, especially on an empty stomach, anyone would react with headache, flushing, and chest pain.” In 1986, FDA’s Advisory Committee on Hypersensitivity to Food Constituents concluded that MSG poses no threat to the general public but that reactions of brief duration might occur in some people.

And a 1991 report by the European Communities’ (EC) Scientific Committee for Foods classified MSG’s “acceptable daily intake” as “not specified,” the most favorable designation for a food ingredient. The EC Committee stated, “Infants, including prematures, have been shown to metabolize glutamate as efficiently as adults and therefore do not display any special susceptibility to elevated oral intakes of glutamate.”

Perhaps the most compelling evidence is anecdotal. MSG is synonymous in modern cuisine. We are exposed to the substance on a daily basis, with no ill-affect. Use of MSG in food has grown in the last 30 years and is still growing. Free glutamates or MSG are added to McDonald’s French Fries, KFC Fried Chicken, Boar’s Head cold cuts, Hamburger Helper, Doritos, Pringles, Progresso and Lipton Soups.

It’s found in restaurant gravy from food service carts, marmite, sausages, sushi rolls (even at Whole Foods), and in almost every Japanese or Chinese restaurant dish. And for good reason, it makes food taste better.