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Is the food additive MSG bad for you?

Dear Cecil:

Having seen Chinese restaurants with banners proclaiming "NO MSG," I gather monosodium glutamate is bad for you. So how come you can't pick up a can or package of chicken soup or a TV dinner that doesn't contain MSG (or hydrolyzed vegetable protein, which contains MSG)? What does MSG do for manufacturers that makes it worth using? More important, what does it do to us?

Murdoch Matthew, Jersey City, New Jersey

Cecil replies:

MSG is a flavor enhancer that accentuates “meatiness.” It’s a component of the proteins found in many foods, but critics say in its purified form it can be a potent neurotoxin, causing nerve cells literally to excite themselves to death. An alleged example of this is “Chinese restaurant syndrome.” A half hour after eating MSG-laden soup, once a staple of budget Chinese cuisine, some people say they experience headaches, tightness of the chest, and a burning sensation. Researchers have had difficulty reproducing this in the lab, but the feds got so many complaints from the field they’ve issued tougher label requirements for MSG in meat and poultry and are thinking of doing the same for other foods.

MSG may also be harmful to babies, which is why it was yanked out of baby food 20 years ago. But MSG makers and some scientists hotly deny that MSG poses a threat to the average adult. If you want to avoid it, watch out for the term “natural flavoring” on ingredients labels. Until the rules are changed, that could be a camouflage for MSG.

Editor’s Note: According to the Mayo Clinic:

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a flavor enhancer commonly added to Chinese food, canned vegetables, soups and processed meats. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has classified MSG as a food ingredient that’s “generally recognized as safe,” but its use remains controversial. For this reason, when MSG is added to food, the FDA requires that it be listed on the label.

MSG has been used as a food additive for decades. Over the years, the FDA has received many anecdotal reports of adverse reactions to foods containing MSG. These reactions — known as MSG symptom complex — include:

  • Headache
  • Flushing
  • Sweating
  • Facial pressure or tightness
  • Numbness, tingling or burning in the face, neck and other areas
  • Rapid, fluttering heartbeats (heart palpitations)
  • Chest pain
  • Nausea
  • Weakness

However, researchers have found no definitive evidence of a link between MSG and these symptoms. Researchers acknowledge, though, that a small percentage of people may have short-term reactions to MSG. Symptoms are usually mild and don’t require treatment. The only way to prevent a reaction is to avoid foods containing MSG.

Cecil Adams

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