Why is MSG bad?
This question was first raised in the 1960s when a scientist wrote a letter to the New England Journal of medicine when he experienced symptoms that started 15 ‘“ 20 minutes after every Chinese meal he had. He claimed the symptoms lasted two hours. He summarized these postprandial symptoms as Chinese Restaurant Syndrome (CRS). The symptoms included numbness at the back of the neck that radiated to his arms and back, general weakness and palpitations.
These were followed by numerous anecdotal reports which go by the name MSG symptoms complex. They were attributed to food poisoning and/or body’s reaction to MSG-containing food. Since Asians are widely and commonly known to add MSG in their food, the complaints regarding postprandial MSG-containing emphasized on the scientist’s letter to the New England Journal of medicine. The collection of symptoms included:
Facial pressure and tightness
Numbness and tingling around the neck
Chest pain and palpitations
Burning sensation in the oral cavity, around face and neck
Nausea, sweating, weakness of extremities e.g. arms and legs and flushing
Hives and other allergic skin reactions.
Although there have been a number of people claiming to have exhibited such symptoms after having a Chinese or other Asian food, no material evidence has come up to prove these claims. There is, however, evidence suggesting that some people do experience mild reactions which are self-limiting and do not need any form of medical attention. According to an article published by Guardian, the University of Western Sydney researchers concluded, tersely that ‘Chinese restaurant syndrome is an anecdote applied to a variety of postprandial illnesses; rigorous and realistic scientific evidence linking the syndrome to MSG could not be found.‘
So what exactly is MSG?
MSG stands for Monosodium Glutamate. It is a widely used flavor enhancer added to Chinese food and other Asian food. MSG is found abundantly in products we consume daily e.g. canned vegetables, soups, processed meat, dairy products and other sources of protein etc.
The glutamate in MSG is thought to be guilty of producing the MSG syndrome complex. 78% of MSG is free glutamic acid, 21% is Sodium and 1% contaminants. The MSG compound is derived from seaweed. Glutamate is a non-essential amino acid, which means our body produces sufficient amounts of glutamate and only needs a small portion from our diet to supplement our body. MSG contains glutamate in abundance, which when consumed fills the body with excessive glutamate thus posing a health threat.
Glutamate is a neurotransmitter that has an excitatory function and according to Dr. Russel, consuming MSG, which is rich in glutamate, could likely excite the nervous system to toxic levels. This would turn glutamate into a excitotoxin leading to a chain of reactions that trigger or worsen certain neurological and psychiatric conditions including cognitive impairment, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s etc. However, dietary glutamate does not cross the blood brain barrier, which refutes the allegations made against postprandial MSG syndrome complex.
Because the claims about postprandial Chinese Restaurant syndrome have failed to stand up to scrutiny, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have approved it as a ‘Generally Recognized As Safe‘ (GRAS). The approval is still debatable and that is why MSG has to be included in the label when used.
What does MSG really do?
We all have the four tastes: bitter, sweet, sour and salty. MSG is believed to be the source of the fifth taste ‘“ Umami. Umami is a Japanese word meaning ‘savoury’. This means that it makes food taste fresher and smell better. Apparently, there are certain physiological and sensory tricks it plays to the tongue that makes us perceive the food we eat in a much more enhanced manner.
People find Asian food tastier and more delicious because of the added MSG. More and more Asian restaurants are emerging across different communities in the world and gaining popularity in many societies and cultures. There are people who advise other people against lunching on a Chinese dish, but they do not have any material evidence to their warning upon.
What we know to be true about MSG?
We know that people with existing conditions such as Asthma, peptic ulcers etc. are prone to have a negative reactions to MSG containing food. Their body is already hypersensitive even to small, ineffective doses of certain healthy food. Therefore, people in these medical groups should avoid food containing MSG.
Obesity has been linked to the consumption of MSG and so have eye problems. Fatigue depression and disorientation have also been implicated. However, there are no studies to support these claims.
And Heston Blumenthal, an English celebrity chef strongly dismisses the claims concerning MSG saying that ‘the biggest old wives tale is that MSG is bad for you. That is complete and utter nonsense.‘