Monosodium glutamate: Is it really that bad?
Monosodium glutamate gets a lot of bad press. MSG, as it's more commonly known, is a flavour enhancer that's added to many processed foods, and it's been labelled 'the silent killer'. In recent years, many healthier ready meals and pre-packaged food producers have eliminated MSG from their products, whilst some of them have simply hidden it labelled as other ingredients. Most of us have heard that it is far from good for you. But what is MSG, why does it get such bad press and are the health scares justified?
What is MSG anyway?
Most MSG is made from 78% free glutamic acid, 21% sodium and 1% contaminants. It actually has very little taste at all, yet it works its magic on your taste buds and tongue, tricking them into thinking food tastes better and has more protein. You'll find it in food with little nutritional value, such as crisps and instant noodles, which can be swapped for high protein snacks such as fresh hummus or a protein packed flapjack. It uses the fifth taste, which many people may not have heard of: umami.
Umami is used to describe how glutamate tastes and the flavour can be found in bacon, MSG and many Asian foods. It wasn't until after World War Two that MSG became popular in the USA and UK, when the military forces realised that MSG actually made the Japanese rations tastier. MSG is classed as an excitotoxin, which means it excites cells in the body.
Which foods contain MSG?
Generally speaking, you'll find MSG in most processed foods. Processed meats, frozen and fresh ready meals, canned foods and even some soups, sauces and salad dressings contain MSG. Check the labels of some of your favourite foods and you may find it's listed as an ingredient. One of the most notorious places to find MSG is in Chinese food, although many takeaways now prides themselves on being free of the flavour enhancer; this is usually printed on their menu.
What are the dangers?
Because MSG is an excitotoxin, it can 'overexcite' cells, causing damage. The body uses glutamate to transmit nerve impulses in the brain and your body has other tissues which respond to glutamate too. When the glutamate receptors in your body function abnormally, it could act as a trigger for certain neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's disease. We're told that MSG is safe, but experts have a different opinion.
Dr Russell Blaylock, author of 'Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills', claims MSG could damage your heart, as the heart has its own glutamate receptors. There are other adverse effects which could occur from regular consumption of MSG too, such as:
In those who suffer from asthma, or anyone eating large quantities of MSG, a reaction known as 'MSG Symptom Complex' can occur, with symptoms ranging from numbness to nausea, drowsiness and chest pain or breathing difficulties.
This usually affects those who are 'sensitive' to or intolerant of the flavour enhancer, and it's estimated that as much as 40% of the population could be affected since the use of MSG has expanded.
How to avoid eating monosodium glutamate
The best way to avoid MSG is by sticking to a fresh food diet and avoiding processed food. Eating plenty of food which already has flavour, with no need for flavour enhancers and cooking your own meals from scratch means you can be 100% sure of what is in your food. Make your own soups, sauces, smoothies and salad dressings and steer clear of processed meats or snacks, which are often loaded with salt and calories, as well as MSG and other additives. When cravings stike, a healthy breakfast bar, a handful of nuts or a piece of fruit are better choices than processed snacks.
It's not as easy as it may sound to avoid monosodium glutamate, as it can be hidden in other ingredients. Look out for the following ingredients, which always contain MSG:
- Autolysed yeast
- Calcium caseinate
- Glutamic acid
- Hydrolysed protein
- Monopotassium glutamate
- Sodium caseinate
- Yeast nutrient, yeast extract and yeast food
- Textured protein
There are other ingredients which create MSG during processing or which can often contain MSG, including soy sauce, bouillon, powdered milk, maltodextrin and natural meat flavourings.
The only way to be sure your food is free from MGS is to prepare meals yourself at home, or ask in restaurants for MSG-free dishes. Fresh food that is full of flavour, such as sweet potatoes or colourful vegetable stir fries are the ideal way to get your five a day, or make your own salad dressings and smoothies. This will help you avoid MSG and other potentially dangerous additives.