I am a label reader. Nothing goes in my cart until I’ve examined its label. I try to be sure I recognize all the ingredients. This seems like good practice. Turns out some ingredients can sound completely innocuous but in reality be something downright scary. Take MSG. Even if you aren’t in to healthy eating, organics, or very particular about what you put in your body, you know MSG is bad. Everybody knows that. The problem with MSG is that it never says “MSG” on the label. That would be like saying, “We use cow poop to make this food,” which may be true, but you never want to say it so obviously. Same for MSG. It’s in there, but no marketing department in its right mind would actually tell you that. Doesn’t mean it isn’t in there.
What about all those labels that say “Contains no MSG”? That’s because they don’t always call it MSG. There are lots of other names for MSG. I’ll get to that in a moment. First, I want to figure out what’s so bad about MSG. The FDA says that MSG is “generally recognized as safe,” which is the most ridiculous statement ever created. Riding in a car is generally recognized as safe, but I would clarify that statement by saying Riding in a car is generally safe, unless the driver is drunk, teenaged, or texting. Vacuuming is generally recognized as safe too, but that didn’t stop me from nearly bashing my head in recently when I tried to vacuum the stairs. Generally recognized as safe is simply a term the government is using to cover their posterior. I just want to be clear on that. So the FDA site told me nothing about the safety or danger of MSG.
On to the Mayo Clinic site which was uncharacteristically vague also. They said “MSG can trigger headache and other symptoms in some people”. No specifics on the other symptoms or the some people. So I had no choice but to head to the deep dark recesses of the internet where all the paranoid crazy people hang out. Here is only a partial list of the symptoms of “MSG Complex” garnered from various sites that seemed generally recognized as safe:
Facial pressure or tightness
Numbness, tingling, burning in face, neck and other areas
Rapid, fluttering heartbeats
With the exception of anaphylactic shock (and perhaps violent diarrhea) lots of people have these symptoms occasionally for lots of reasons. MSG complex looks suspiciously like a catchall.
So what is MSG? Monosodium Glutamate is a white, salt-like substance made from amino acids. It has little flavor of its own, but is used as a flavor enhancer to accentuate “meatiness”. Glutamic acid is a nonessential amino acid that occurs in meat broths and fermented products (think soy sauce). It’s what makes broth feel so satisfying and rich. Glutamate is the glutamic acid created by cooking broths and fermenting foods. It occurs naturally and is not toxic. In fact, it’s wonderful. That’s why your grandmother’s soup makes you feel so much better. The science behind it is that glutamate is a excitatory neurotransmitter that increases the rate at which neurons fire.
Where the glutamic acid in MSG goes so wrong is when it is unnaturally created. A process discovered in the 60’s allowed manufacturers to create monosodium glutamate artificially by breaking down and changing naturally occurring glutamate in to various free forms that are not found in nature. These modified glutamates enter the bloodstream 8-10 times faster than natural glutamate. This heightens the taste experience (and maybe your heart rate?). Many researchers believe this can also create an addictive quality to MSG which can cause people to eat much more than they should.
Some dieticians have promoted MSG enhanced foods for people who struggle to maintain their weight or eat what’s best for them (like people on diabetic or low salt diets). Their logical argument is that if it makes the food taste better and will get people to eat correctly, what’s the harm? What is the harm? The research is officially inconclusive. Perhaps there is some truth to the marketing campaign “You can’t eat just one.” Maybe the MSG in junk food makes it addictive. John Erb, in his book The Slow Poisoning of America, will tell you that MSG is a direct cause of obesity, diabetes, autism, and Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder. He can’t necessarily prove this, but researchers can’t prove him wrong either.
So how do you avoid MSG? Unless you eat a completely raw, homegrown diet you can’t. But there’s no reason to avoid naturally occurring MSG in cooked broths and fermented substances. Skeptics of MSG complex are quick to point out that Asian culture has been consuming MSG for centuries and they are some of the healthiest, longest lived populations in the world. True. But the MSG they consume occurs naturally in their cooking methods.
The MSG most of the rest of us consume can be found in the processed foods we eat. In most cases this is not naturally occurring glutamate, but manufactured monosodium glutamate. I wanted to give you a complete list of the most likely places you will find MSG in foods you buy at the grocery store, but this post is already too long and MSG is found in nearly everything you buy. Even in my “organic” cupboard, I found products containing MSG. As I alluded to at the start, MSG goes by many, many names, the least used being “MSG”.
MSG is found in most processed and prepared foods like chips and soups. But I also found it in chocolate sauce, wheat crackers, ice cream, salad dressing, and spaghetti sauce. Nearly every fast food chain uses plenty of MSG in all their foods.
According to http://www.truthinlabeling.org/:
These ingredients always contain MSG: hydrolyzed vegetable protein, hydrolyzed protein, hydrolyzed plant protein, plant protein extract, sodium caseinate, calcium caseinate, yeast extract, textured protein, autolyzed yeast and hydrolyzed oat flour.
These ingredients frequently contain MSG: malt extract, malt flavoring, bouillon, broth stock, flavoring, natural flavoring, natural beef or chicken flavoring, seasoning and spices.
These ingredients may contain MSG: carrageenan, enzymes, soy protein concentrate, soy protein isolate and whey protein isolate.
The one that really gets me is “natural flavoring”. I don’t understand how the government gets away with that. Especially when it doesn’t define “natural” or have any kind of testing or requirements for foods that claim to be “natural”. It really should just say, “and anything else we felt like putting in” instead of “natural flavoring”.
So what is the average consumer to do? I’ve come to the conclusion that you can’t avoid MSG. Our food system makes that impossible (again unless you can move to a desert island somewhere and eat only raw foods). MSG is like so many other things that aren’t good for you but aren’t necessarily going to kill you by themselves. The problem is when you have too many of those things like MSG, transfats, sugar, caffeine, etc. All of them together can weaken your system and make you more susceptible to all manner of bad things.
So the only conclusion I can draw from all this rambling research is that here is one more reason to eat more vegetables, fruit, grass-fed dairy and meat products. It’s one more reason to make your own food and buy food from people you know. MSG can easily be found in organic foods, so if you want to avoid MSG don’t think you can do that by sticking to organics. Many organic foods contain MSG under the guise of another name, like the ketchup in the picture above of foods I found in my cupboard that most likely contained MSG. Read labels and know what you are eating. The foods most likely to contain MSG are junk food, fast food, processed food, and cheap food. Limit the junk you eat and you’ll limit the MSG you ingest. Oh, and it might make you healthier, too. Just saying.