MSG: National Organization Mobilized to Stop Glutamate


MSG: National Organization Mobilized to Stop Glutamate

What is MSG?

MSG is used widely in food to enhance flavor. You will find it, in one form or another, in almost all processed or otherwise manufactured food. Instead of making chicken soup with a whole chicken, use half a chicken and a little MSG; you get a big chicken taste and save some money. Unfortunately, about 25-30% of our population experiences one or more adverse reactions when they use MSG at the levels presently available in food.

A most interesting substance, MSG is added to food but has no nutritional value. It doesn't affect the food it is in, and it doesn't have any flavor itself. Rather, it produces its flavorenhancing effect by stimulating your taste buds. Scientists call glutamic acid, from which MSG is derived, an excitotoxic amino acid because it is known to excite, and even kill, brain cells in laboratory animals. MSG doesn't change your food at all. MSG changes you. We know that MSG excites the taste buds and causes adverse reactions. But we don't know how or why. And we don't know whether or not MSG is doing something to people who show no overt MSG reactions. We don't think anyone should use MSG.

Where is MSG Found?

MSG is manufactured through a process of protein hydrolysis (taking whole protein and breaking it down into amino acids). When protein hydrolysis and processing yield a product that is 99% free glutamic acid, the product is called "monosodium glutamate" (MSG) by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and is labeled as such. When a protein hydrolysate product consists of less than 99% free glutamic acid, the product is called by one of a variety of other names including "sodium caseinate," "calcium caseinate," "autolyzed yeast," "textured protein," "yeast food," "hydrolyzed vegetable protein," and "hydrolyzed protein." All these products contain MSG. Typically, the amount of free glutamic acid in these products ranges between 8 and 40%.

Unlike the 99% pure MSG, that is required by FDA regulation to be labeled "monosodium glutamate," the other hydrolyzed proteins do not have to mention that they contain MSG. On any given day, a new product may enter the market, and a new name for an MSG-containing product may be at hand. The names that can be used to signify a hydrolyzed protein appear not to be subject to any restrictions.

But that's not the half of it. Under FDA regulation, hydrolyzed protein may be included in various products with no mention of the hydrolyzed protein. The information we have at this time tells US that broth, bouillon, stock, flavoring, natural flavoring, natural flavors, and a whole host of products called natural chicken flavoring, natural turkey flavoring, etc. contain MSG insinuated into the product through the use of some form of hydrolyzed protein. So MSG-sensitive people who know about the different forms of MSG are afraid to eat any product that has "flavoring" or "natural flavoring" in it, for example, even though it might be MSG free. As a result, the grocery shelf, the refrigerator, and the freezer case contain very little that a sensitive person can be sure is free of MSG. Further, the amount of MSG found in food today is growing. It is found in most soups, salad dressings, and processed meats; in some crackers, bread, canned tuna fish, most frozen entrees, ice cre am and frozen yogurt. Lately we've seen it included in the new "low fat" foods. That makes sense because if you remove the flavor provided by the fat, you have to put back the flavor, and that, some say, calls for MSG.

Hiding MSG makes recognition of it so complex and confusing that people who are sensitive to MSG have a great deal of difficulty realizing it. Think about it. If you eat something with MSG in it, and you have a bad reaction, you might think at first that you are sensitive to MSG. But then you eat something that does not say MSG anywhere on the label and you have that same reaction. Obviously, you conclude, it is something else to which you are sensitive, not MSG. Not until you recognize all of the hidden sources of MSG will you be able to make a proper evaluation of what is causing your reaction. MSG manufacturers are investing large sums of money in keeping MSG hidden, so you will continue to purchase products that contain MSG.

Glutamate industry representatives have been adamant in repeating, again and again, that MSG is a "naturally occurring" substance; and because the FDA has defined "naturally occurring" as anything that comes initially from nature, the assertion is, of course, true. Thus, products that are advertised as "all natural," may legally contain MSG. And we, who have been brainwashed to think that "natural" means "healthy" or "good" don't think twice before we buy them.

Glutamic acid is not the only excitotoxic amino acid, and they all cause adverse reactions. Aspartic acid (often seen as aspartate) and Lcysteine are excitotoxic, too. Aspartic acid is most commonly found in NutraSweet(R), the sweetener actively used in diet soda and in Equal, a sugar substitute. Many MSG sensitive people have reported a sensitivity to NutraSweet(R), not dissimilar from the adverse reactions common to MSG. Thousands of letters reporting adverse reactions to NutraSweet(R) are on file at the FDA.

The use of L-cysteine appears to be growing as a "dough conditioner" in bread.

What Are the Symptoms of MSG Toxicity or Poisoning?

The symptoms of MSG toxicity are many and varied. In fact, so many different symptoms occur that people often question how a single substance could cause such diverse reactions. The answer lies in the fact that MSG is a neurotropic drug (a substance that affects the nervous system). If you realize that valium and lithium, which are popular neurotropic drugs, may produce a wide variety of side effects, you should not be surprised that the same is true of MSG.

MSG-sensitive people have reported numerous reactions including simple skin rash, bloating, fatigue, joint pain, shortness of breath, chest pain, severe gastric distress, diarrhea, asthma type symptoms, exercise-induced asthma, headache, migraine headache, irregular heart beat, rapid heart beat (called tachycardia), atrial fibrillation, nausea and vomiting, anxiety attacks, depression, hyperactivity in children, mood swings, mouth lesions, flushing, and tremors.

If you experience any of these symptoms, you must understand that none are caused exclusively by MSG. Most, if not all, could be caused by various physical conditions as well as by other food additives. But they can be caused by eating MSG.

Pinpointing an MSG sensitivity is not difficult if you understand some basics. First, some people eat MSG and react immediately, while some react as late as 48 hours after eating. A second confusion lies in the fact that reactions are doserelated. Jeannette cannot tolerate even the smallest amount of MSG without having a reaction. However, Pat tolerates small amounts, but reacts to MSG when she ingests four grams or more in any one meal.

The clue to diagnosis is the fact that a person will always react in the same one, two, or three consistent ways, and do so within the same time frame. Whenever Ron ingests just a little MSG, he gets light-headed and somewhat disoriented. The reactions start about 20 minutes after he has eaten the MSG. If he eats a lot of MSG, he gets violent diarrhea, which starts about half an hour after he finishes his meal. If he eats a little MSG and engages in vigorous exercise, he goes into anaphylactic shock.

The best estimates we have suggest that approximately 25-30% of the population react to MSG at levels presently found in food. That doesn't mean that you're included. But it's not too hard to tell. You don't have to take anything, and it doesn't cost a dime. Basically, all you have to do is eliminate MSG from your diet for two or three weeks and see how you feel. Granted, it's not very easy to identify all the MSG in your diet if you eat a lot of packaged or processed foods, and it's almost impossible if you eat out. But if you feel a lot better when you avoid it, you may decide it's worth reading the labels on what you buy, and picking your restaurants more carefully.

Remember, even if you're sensitive to MSG, eating a little may not bother you, while eating a lot does. That may explain why you react to eating MSG sometimes, and not others. Remember, also, that the effects of eating MSG are not always immediate. Hopefully, if you eliminate MSG, you will be eliminating or decreasing the incidence or severity of symptoms that would otherwise occur immediately or as much as 24 or 48 hours after eating MSG.

If you'd like to do an MSG-free diet for awhile, we recommend the following as probably being free of MSG. This works for very severely sensitive people, so it should work for you as far as MSG is concerned. The guide is based on information that people have given us about food that they have found to be free of MSG. Remember, however, that with the food industry, there are no guarantees. Things may change from day to day. So let our list serve as a guide only. Much as we'd like to, we can make no guarantee that any packaged food is free of MSG.

The MSG-Free Diet

General: Fresh fruits and vegetables, and unprocessed fresh meats, poultry, and fish are safe. Turkey, for example, is almost always broth basted, and basted turkey contains MSG. Whole grains, including rice are safe if there is nothing added, and they are not hydrolyzed during processing.

Also avoid all use of the sugar substitute "aspartame" found most often as NutraSweet(R), because it causes the same adverse reactions as MSG; and avoid dough conditioner that may include L-cysteine as well as MSG-producing "protease."

Breakfast: Most of the hot, unflavored cereals are safe; flavored cereals almost always contain natural flavoring which very likely contains MSG. Puffed Kashi, a dry cereal, is safe. Also, some brands of puffed wheat, rice, and oats, and shredded wheat are MSG-free. Eggs, if fresh, have no MSG. Bread without dough conditioner, yeast food, protease, or malt, malted barley, or other forms of malt flavoring are O.K. but hard to find. No sausage or bacon or lunch meat because it almost always contains MSG.

Lunch: Salad of fresh vegetables is fine. But read the labels on the salad dressings, because almost all of them have MSG. Use oil and vinegar, instead. Soup is safe only if it is homemade from fresh ingredients. Soup base and bouillon usually contain MSG, even if labels say "No MSG Added." Severely sensitive people have reported having difficulty with dairy products, probably due to the use of milk solids or caseinates that are not always labeled, natural flavoring, and/or carrageenan. However, for the less sensitive, some cheese, if you read the label carefully to be sure there is no flavoring, protease, or caseinate in it, may be O.K. Extremely sensitive people are limiting their dairy consumption to whole milk. On the other hand, canned sardines or canned salmon are safe, as far as we know, but read the label. Canned tuna in water most always contains hydrolyzed protein and/or vegetable broth, with contain MSG.

Be careful of any of the new "light" foods which have reduced fat. The reduced fat part is fine, but to replace the flavor lost when the fat content was cut, most manufacturers are using MSG. Look out for hydrolyzed protein, flavoring, and natural flavoring.

Processed meats are a no-no at any time. There may be a few safe ones, but until you're a "pro" at MSG avoidance, stick to the safe things and leave the processed meats alone. Fast food places are difficult to predict. We know that one of the biggies uses MSG in the form of protease in its buns and includes MSG in the sauce, too. We know that the original formula for the new "lean" hamburger that recently hit the market cells for hydrolyzed protein (which contains MSG), and, also, carrageenan. Some may have modified the formula, but we doubt that it is MSG free. Basically, if you're new at it and trying to cut the MSG out of your diet for two or three weeks, skip the fast foods, and be very picky in restaurants. Mayonnaise, catsup, and soy sauce, for example, are questionable, so you have to read labels. Worcestershire sauce almost always contains MSG. If you order egg salad, for example, you have no idea whether or not you are getting MSG. So while you're "testing," don't try i t.

Dinner: A piece of chicken, fish or meat that's fresh, not processed, is safe. Potatoes, rice, whole grains, and pasta if it's made from durum wheat flour (to be safe), are O.K. No sauces from cans, remember, so use fresh garlic and olive oil with basil or other fresh or dried herbs. (Even tomato sauce usually has MSG in its "natural" flavoring.) No seasoned salts, either, for fear of MSG in the form of natural flavoring. If you find one that's safe, of course, go ahead and use it (and tell us SO we can tell others).

Desserts: Fresh fruit, baked pear or apple are always good. Highly sensitive people report that they are reacting to the milk solids/caseinates used in skim milk and to carrageenan found in heavy cream, and so cannot eat ice cream.

We've not yet seen a frozen yogurt that passes inspection, but we haven't necessarily seen them all. Avoid cocoa mixes and non-dairy creamers which have caseinates and natural flavoring, but make your own cocoa with pure cocoa and sugar and whole milk. Some imported chocolates are safe, some of the Hershey chocolates, some of the Ghiradelli, and often locally made brands. But watch out, Price is no measure of safety. Godiva chocolate made in the USA often contains natural flavoring that may contain MSG.

A Special Word About "Baby Food"

In 1968, the first MSG adverse reaction was reported in the literature, and in 1969, we saw the first report of MSG-induced brain lesions in laboratory animals. Approximately two years later, the food industry said that they would remove MSG from baby food, but what they did was to remove the "pure" MSG and substitute hydrolyzed protein. It was not until 1978 that baby food was "clean." But today the MSG is back. Not necessarily in the little jars that we call "baby food," but in lots of the other food we feed to babies, including some of the infant formulas.

Hidden Sources of MSG

The following are food label descriptors that are always or often associated with the presence of MSG in food products.

These always contain MSG: Monosodium glutamate; Hydrolyzed protein; Sodium caseinate; Yeast extract; Yeast nutrient; Autolyzed yeast; Textured protein; Calcium caseinate; Yeast food and Hydrolyzed oat flour.

These often contain MSG: Malt extract; Malt flavoring; Bouillon; Barley malt; Broth; Stock; Flavoring(s); Natural flavoring(s); Natural beef flavoring; Natural chicken flavoring; Natural pork flavoring; and Seasoning.

These create MSG: Protease enzymes, Fungal protease and Protease.

We have reasons to question these: Whey protein: Carrageenan; Soy protein isolate; Whey protein concentrate; Enzymes; Torula yeast; Smoke flavoring; Soy protein concentrate and Vegetable gum.

Hidden MSG is not limited to use in food. MSG sensitive people have reported reactions caused by soaps, shampoos, hair conditioners, and cosmetics that contain hidden sources of MSG. The most obvious are those that contain "hydrolyzed protein" or simply "amino acids."

Don't forget that drinks, candy, and chewing gum are also potential sources of hidden MSG. Also, aspartic acid, found in aspartame (NutraSweet(R)) ordinarily causes MSG type reactions in MSG sensitive people. Both aspartic acid and glutamic acid (the primary component of MSG) are neurotoxic amino acids.

Finally, please realize that binders for medications, and nutrients and supplements, both prescription and non-prescription, including enteral feeding materials and materials administered through IV's in hospitals, may contain MSG.

Reactions to MSG are dose related, i.e., some people react to even very small amounts of MSG while others usually only react to relatively more. Understand also, that MSG-induced reactions may occur immediately after contact or after as much as 48 hours.


- In Bad Taste: The MSG Syndrome by George R. Schwartz, M.D., Santa Fe: Health Press, 1988.

- The consumer group NOMSG, P.O. Box 367, Santa Fe, NM 87504, 800-288-0718

- Chicago NOMSG, 540 Frontage Road, Suite 3105, Northfield, IL 60093, 708-446-3000.

At this time, the FDA, The Glutamate Association, the International Food Information Council, the American Medical Association, and the American Dietetic Association will do little more than tell you that MSG is "safe."


National Organization Mobilized to Stop Glutamate (NOMSG)

P.O. Box 367

Santa Fe, New Mexico 67504


Fax 505-983-1733

Townsend Letter for Doctors & Patients.

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