Sensitive to MSG?  Guess What… You’re Not! Featured / Food Safety / Food Technology / Nutrition

I can’t keep count of how many people have casually told me “I’m actually really sensitive to monosodium glutamate (MSG).”  News breaker… you’re not.  I know you think you are… and you really want to tell me all about your symptoms… and that you’re the special one… but I promise, you’re not.

That being said you probably could cut back on the fried rice and General Tsao’s chicken.  I mean you did just complain about being bloated…

Let’s walk through the science.

What is MSG?

MSG is a flavor enhancer which has been used effectively for nearly a century to help bring out the best flavors in foods.  MSG can be used in many savory dishes including meat, fish, poultry, many vegetables and in sauces, soups and marinades.  It harmonizes well with salty and sour tastes but contributes little or nothing to sweet or bitter foods.

MSG is the sodium salt of the common amino acid glutamic acid (or glutamate), which is naturally found in most foods and in your body (remember – amino acids are the building blocks for proteins).  It occurs naturally at high levels in many foods such as tomatoes and Parmesan cheese, and the glutamate in commercially produced MSG is chemically indistinguishable from the glutamate naturally present in food.  Our bodies handle both sources of glutamate in the exact same way. Breast milk actually contains high levels of glutamate that’s produced naturally by the human body.

The average adult consumes about 13 grams of glutamate each day from the protein in food, while intake of added MSG is around 0.5 grams.  Want to taste the best scrambled egg on earth?  Add a pinch of MSG.  Try it… you won’t regret it.

How is MSG created?

In 1908 a Japanese scientist, Kikunae Ikeda was able to extract glutamate from seaweed broth and show that it provided the savory taste to the soup.  Today, instead of extracting MSG from seaweed broth, it is created by the fermentation of starch, sugar beets, sugar cane or molasses. This process is the same used to make other common food products such as soy sauce, vinegar and yogurt.

Is MSG safe?

Absolutely. Scientists have not been able to confirm MSG causes any of the reported effects (e.g., headache, nausea, etc).  There is no limitation for use of MSG in foods because international scientific and regulatory bodies have failed again and again to identify any harm from consumption of MSG.

In 1968, an American doctor wrote a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine claiming to have experience symptoms of numbness in the back of neck and a feeling of pressure in the fact and upper chest muscles, which he coined as “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.”  He suggested this was caused by MSG because of its widespread use in Chinese restaurants, without any study, data or proof.  While the term Chinese Restaurant Syndrome caught on in the U.S., study after study has failed to show any consistent effects among individuals who claim to be “MSG-sensitive” when blindly exposed to fairly high levels of MSG.

How much sodium is in MSG?

MSG has a low sodium content.  It contains about 12% sodium while salt contains 39%.  MSG is used at levels much lower than salt.  Using low levels of MSG allows food scientists to effectively reduce the sodium content of foods, like ready-to-eat soups by up to 40%, without sacrificing flavor.  Take out salt, add a pinch of MSG, and cheers to your health.

Don’t get me wrong, you are a very special person… just not one that’s sensitive to MSG.

For additional information see the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s “Questions and Answers on Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)” consumer information website.


Comments

  1. Shantanu Y. Says: September 24, 2018 at 11:33 pm

    Myth debunked. Thanks Taylor 🙂

  2. Nonsense…my BP skyrockets,severe lethargy brain fog 5 min after ingesting

  3. About 6 months ago my boyfriend started getting migraines on a fairly regular basis after only having one or two his entire life. I love Asian food and always want to eat it when we dine out. He finally realized that he only got migraines after we ate Asian food. I found a “cure” for the headaches that takes some time to work but eventually reduces the migraine to a bearable state and neutralizes the effects of the MSG. Your article does nothing to address allergic reactions to MSG and stigmatizes people who claim to be sensitive to it. Further, it provides no proof that it can’t make people ill.

  4. Dr Wallace, please explain why after eating a food w MSG in it, that u think I’m not allergic to it when it gives me diarrhea. I can tolerate sm amts apparently, but I get severe stomach pain, feel faint, have to have bowel movement that ends up w severe diarrhea.
    I just ate a fried egg w mayo sandwich w 2 slices of crumbled fried bacon-Gwaltney.The MSG had to be in:Sodium Phosphates, S. Erythorbate or S.Nitrite, 2 % or less listed on bacon pkg.

    • It could be many things… I just tried one of those food sensitivity tests and am awaiting the results. It’s likely another ingredient or food sensitivity vs. anything related to MSG.

  5. Dene Taylor Says: February 14, 2019 at 9:01 pm

    If you are so certain, why is that when I forget to request “no MSG” with my favourite dish at the Chinese restaurant, I have difficulty sleeping, and are dragging the next day. Yet when made without MSG I sleep well and the following day is productive.

    Note I also am sensitive to other food additives, and stabilizers in processed food and keg beer.

    My credentials? Advanced chemistry degree, and a career of identifying root cause for problems.

  6. Janet Davis Says: February 16, 2019 at 3:28 pm

    This is very false. MSG causes a sensitivity in some people, a sensitivity which is poorly understood. It differs from a true allergy, but symptoms can be similar.
    It does not lead to death the way a peanut or shellfish allergy can but the symptoms are disconcerting.
    My sensitivity began with severe headaches when I would eat at chinese restaurants as a child. Now at fifity, I never have had headaches like that in my life.
    I realised I was sensitive to it and would always avoid it. The last time I accidently had it the symptoms progressed to a shortness of breath. I exused myself from the table and went to the restroom. I felt faint and my chest turned blotchy red. The symptoms lasted for about ten or fifteen minutes. We were at a chinese restaurnt in Berkeley CA and I had asked to have my food made without MSG.
    When I returned to the table to question the waitress she said there was MSG in the soup, which was communual to the table, I had just eaten the soup and that is what made me sick.
    Ever since I only eat at restaurants that do not use MSG and I am vigilant.
    My third similar reaction was at a restaurant that it turns out had it in the sauce.
    Knowing it is not a true deadly allergy is helpful, as I have learned it lacks the ige response. However the symptoms are unpleasant enough for me and many others which is why we avoid it.
    Every single person I know that avoids it has personally had the physical responses similar to me, they are not just afraid it is bad for you for no reason, they have personally experienced it.
    As we all know Dr Wallace medical science is replete with illnesses mediical science is ignorant of so please don’t speak as the definitive word on all and dismiss people’s symptoms just because you do not understand them.

  7. I suffer from migraines only after I ingest MSG. Once I thought that this was debunked because I hadn’t accidentally had it. Then I found out that the flu shot I had just received uses MSG as a stabilizer.

    Although my experience is only one data point, I can assure you that every time I have a migraine it has been directly traced to MSG I accidentally consumed.

    My mother used to put MSG on everything I ate. I didn’t used to have any migraines. This only started when I was about 35. I suspect there is some limit that my body reached.

    You cannot universally say that people aren’t sensitive.

  8. John Steven Stanley Says: March 3, 2019 at 5:09 pm

    Whenever I ingest a meal that contains msg I get a serious stomach spasm by the following day. It has been happening to me from I was a teenager (13/14???) and now I am 60 and just been able to pinpoint it

  9. Does it help to report the restrant that uses MSG which has made a dozen or more people I know sick? Sweet Tomatoes is basicly a vegetarian Restrant, but it also serves soups and breads. I always thought that MSG was used to fill people up, so the restrants don’t lose money on the larger portion eaters? Not as a flavor enhancement. I honestly believe this is what its intended for. Or there is that something else being used to make people feel fuller? Wish I knew what it was. Should be unlawful. Gives so many people I know headaches and diarea. Something needs to be done. This restrant doesn’t even post there using MSG.

  10. Another person here who gets serious migraines, the kind that mess with my vision, when exposed to msg. It took me many years to figure this out. The migraines didn’t start until my 20’s. Like clockwork if I ate anything with msg I’d get a migraine within a day and never immediately. The exact same foods that were prepared without msg (the ones I could do that for) produced no migraine. Your article makes me wonder because as far as I can tell the migraines are only triggered by added msg, i.e. tomatoes and parmesan don’t trigger which based on what you say should be impossible. But it doesn’t have to be Chinese food, many times I’ve eaten something I thought was safe, gotten a migraine and then looked at the label and have seen msg listed. I hadn’t had any migraines for many years and thought I had aged out (my mother had a similar experience of migraines from 20’s-30’s) until tonight. Turns out I ate some food with added msg last night. Then I went online to see if anyone had done more research since last time I looked many years ago, to find your article calling it a myth. I don’t think there is anything else common to the foods other than msg. It is very frustrating to still not have a handle on this and then be told it is in my head.

  11. OK. Glad you cleared that up. But since feeling like I’m on fire isn’t fun, I think I’ll skip it all the same.

  12. I am in Japan and having bad react ions to the food – like a severe bloating water retention it may be MSG or other ingredients used- i was concerned for anaphylaxis as it usually manifests in lower extremities but last night involved my hands i could not make a fist- i did then take a antihistamine doxylamine i use for sleep and it is better this am started diuresing and its almost all gone. Does anyone know if not MSG what other ingeedient may cause this effect? Is DIPHENIHDRAMIBE USED FOR ANAPHYLAXIS EQUIVALENT TO OTHER ANTIHISTAMIBNES SUCH AS DOXYLAMINE?
    I AM ALSO LOOkING FOR CONFIRMATION ABOUT MSG REACTIONS NOT CREATING ANAPHYLASIX because now im worried since its travelled up my body lower extremities to upper if it can continue to laryngeal edema and cause obstruction ?

  13. This Wallace person obviously doesn’t have MSG sensitivity, and since he firmly believes in the FDA he assumes it must be safe. I get a terrible reaction to MSG. Usually super tired right after meal, followed by very specific unpleasant sensation all over my body (searing tingles that make me twitch and short of breath), followed by being tired the next day.

  14. Chris Allen Says: April 5, 2019 at 4:08 pm

    MSG or Mono Sodium Glutamate is just a sodium salt of Glutamic Acid, one of the most abundant naturally occurring amino acids. The protein in your body is literally made of it. It occurs naturally in high levels in tomatoes, grapes, cheese, mushrooms and other foods. It is present in your brain and functions as a neurotransmitter. https://academic.oup.com/jn/article/130/4/901S/4686606

    It is possible that your mind associates MSG with a previous bad food experience. If you had vomiting and diarrhea from under-cooked or contaminated food that also contained high levels of MSG your mind can be programmed to associate MSG with this bad food experience. The worse the bad food experience the more likely this is too happen. There are cases of severe food poisoning where a person will feel nauseous years later just by smelling the offending dish.

    Another possibility is that you have a “leaky brain” or faulty blood brain barrier. This can be caused by inflammation, head injury, and degenerative diseases. Even so, these headaches should quickly subside as your gut scavenges free glutamate and turns it into energy.

  15. Most of these people are saying they have issues with MSG in Chinese food, but are you just as sensitive to Doritos and other snacks which are loaded with MSG. If it’s only from Chinese food then it’s something else not MSG.

  16. So why do I have a severe physical reaction to eating pho? If I eat pho and drink to much of the broth, I break out in a rash, my head neck and back skin feels like it is literally on fire, I get a migraine, and my stomach kills me, and I sweat the whole night. I don’t have any other allergies at all, only happens when I eat pho or something else with very high level of msg. But pho is when it’s the worst. I had never heard about msg sensitivity before this happened, which is why I’m looking it up now. But that is not normal or ok

    • Hey there – you may want to try one of the food sensitivity tests or see a specialist. MSG is in almost all restaurant foods (steaks, vegetables, soups, etc) since it isn’t required to be labeled like on packaged products… so if its just a reaction to Pho… its likely something else.

  17. Curious George Says: April 29, 2019 at 8:10 pm

    I’m suspecting that some of these symptoms people experience are real and some are psychosomatic.

    For the real ones, an interesting test would be for the subjects to have the same fish a week apart with one dish having 12% more table salt and the next week’s adding approx one portion of MSG.

    I’m curious to know if it’s actually the higher overall dose of sodium that’s causing these symptoms, not specifically MSG.

  18. Natalie Says: May 1, 2019 at 5:40 am

    All these people saying that they eat at Chinese restaurants and then react – my question is, do you react when you eat chips? Dorritos? Home-made noodles? Or McDonalds, KFC, Karls Jr, pretty much most fast food? Because they all contain MSG. If you react to MSG, you have to avoid most processed foods, or be very careful about what you do eat. I say this as someone who is allergic, not sensitive, but allergic to MSG. So if you *only* seem to react at Chinese restaurants, it’s either psychological, you’re just racist or it’s something else you’re reacting to.
    There are no studies showing that it affects the body in any way, and every country has deemed it safe. Go to the doctor and get tested for what ever it is you are actually reacting to.

  19. i realized that I react to certain type of MSG (not all, which brand or amount, unknown tho). I know most of the Asian restaurants use MSG, I feel numbness on back of the neck and shoulders.

  20. Interesting that this article suggests that if you want further information on the topic to refer to the US FDA. Not sure I would trust their track record.

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