Is MSG bad for you?

I’m seeing https://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/673/is-the-food-additive-msg-bad-for-you/ today. Which is interesting in a historical sense, but should have been put out to pasture long ago.

Definitely now a case of ignorance promoted, not ignorance fought.

Excellent Brian Dunning summary of MSG from a couple months ago.

The podcast *This American Life *had a great episode on the genesis of the “supposed” MSG myth. The transcript is listed here, but I recommend downloading & listening to the podcast:

https://www.thisamericanlife.org/668/transcript

OK, so what’s outdated about it? It says that critics say bad things about it, but that there’s no conclusive evidence for what they’re saying. Is that not still accurate?

I continue to believe that some people must be overly sensitive to MSG and thus susceptible to the unpleasant effects Cecil mentions.

Data point: Myself. MSG sometimes affects me this way. It appears to be only large doses, as Chinese food was often reputed to contain. Foods like Campbell’s canned soup or other such prepared foods have never bothered me, even though they often list MSG among the ingredients.

This cannot be a case of placebo effect. When I was about 15 years old, living in Honolulu, we regularly ate at a certain Chinese restaurant. Every time, I got vaguely sick. (Feeling lightheaded and short of breath mainly.)

I knew nothing about MSG, nor its purported effects at the time. So it couldn’t have been a placebo effect. But the booths had rather deep upholstered bench seats, which caused the table top to be positioned high in front of my chest, which caused my arms (when my elbows or arms were on the table) to be held up high. I always assumed that this posture made breathing difficult.

Eventually, I made it known that I wanted to sit at the tables that weren’t in booths. The posture was better, but the unpleasant effects remained.

At some point during that year, I became aware of MSG and its purported effects. I connected the dots immediately, and concluded that the food there must be full of MSG and that must be the problem.

@Chronos

I haven’t looked at Sir Viks link yet, but certainly in mine, the answer is crystal clear the evidence in 2020 is very conclusive that MSG is not a health risk.

So no, that’s absolutely no longer accurate.

I’d suggest the column should 1) updated or 2) flagged that it’s no longer accurate or 3) (Last option) delete it completely.

I’ve never liked MSG. I don’t like flavor 621, and I don’t like vegetable extract, and I don’t like yeast extract. I don’t like chicken extract, I don’t like chicken salt, I don’t like chicken stock cubes, and I don’t like “deliciousness” and I don’t like “umami”.

And though I’ve never been able to make any kind of test, I’m pretty sure that I don’t like Potassium Glutamate either.

So I thought that the advice to avoid "natural flavoring” was also kinda weak :slight_smile:

I did use to get headaches from Chinese food, but on the whole, I think that was more likely from the MS than from the G — I was brought up on low-salt food.

I also don’t particularly like pepper or five-spice :slight_smile:

Thank you for this! It was very informative! :slight_smile:

So, foods that contain loads of MSG don’t affect you, and therefore you must be susceptible to MSG?

There’s a hole in this thinking. OK, maybe there is something in Chinese food that isn’t found in other food that you have a bad reaction to. But it can’t be MSG, because MSG is not something that isn’t found in other food.

It’s always worth pointing out that glutamate is very common in certain foods, especially mushrooms and tomatoes (and tomato sauce, obviously), so you’d think there’d be some reaction to Italian food as well. Glutamate is indistinguishable from MSG from your body’s perspective:

From here:

https://www.fda.gov/food/food-additives-petitions/questions-and-answers-monosodium-glutamate-msg

So, maybe people are sensitive to something else in Chinese food, or maybe it’s just so salty that they get dehydrated.

I can tell you exactly what is was in my case:
A few years ago after lunch at the Chinese buffet in our building, I was going on about how bad a reaction I always had to the MSG in Chinese food. Exactly as Senegokd describes it. My friend pointed out that I’d had about 10 cups of the free Chinese green tea during lunch and asked if I always did that.

He suggested that all the caffeine might be the real issue. I changed to water next time, problem solved. He was 100% correct. Like many others, I assumed that green tea was herbal. It’s not.

Teasing out some meaning from this, I’d expect you to get negative results from drinking about a fifth as much black* brewed coffee, assuming it’s the caffeine and nothing else, based on the Mayo Clinic’s estimates of caffeine content of the various drinks. Also, the generic “Cola” has about as much caffeine per unit volume as black tea, or at least the same range, which surprises me.

*(Or at least with no caffeine-free fillers like creamer.)

HELP FROM THE SCIENTIFICALLY LITERATE NEEDED HERE:

I’ve long understood, from reading lay versions of the scientific literature, that MSG is harmless. When people go on about how harmful it is and how badly they react to it, I point out that it is in mushrooms, tomatoes, and parmesan, so they must react badly to those too? That pretty much shuts people up.

However, I feel just slightly disingenuous leaving the discussion there, because if I understand correctly, the precise molecular structure of added MSG is different from what is found in foods like mushrooms. Is this true, and if so, can someone explain the mechanism by which this makes no difference, health-wise? (After all, don’t the differences between glucose, fructose, and sucrose matter, even though they are all forms of sugar?)

I would like to be able to go on and explain in more detail exactly why those differences, if any, don’t change the harmlessness of MSG. (As I also like to point out, half of Asia would be dead by now if MSG were bad for you. They sell it in tins similar to tea canisters in Indonesia - it’s called “vetsin” - for adding to food.)

Closing anecdote: just one time in my life I had a reaction after eating Chinese food: my hands and tongue started to feel noticeably tingly. So I am willing to concede the possibility that there is some ingredient (or perhaps some batches of some ingredient? - who knows, maybe an infrequently used variety of water chestnut, or an uncommon fungus that attacks bamboo and isn’t noticed before harvesting, or chemical changes to wood ears from a certain kind of ant poop, or…whatever) that causes a reaction in some people.

But then again, maybe not. What are the chances that, given all the times in my life I’ve eaten at Chinese restaurants, that I would coincidentally experience certain symptoms, from a different cause, afterward? Pretty high, I’d say. And knowing the story of how “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” got started makes it seem pretty likely that it is nothing but confirmation bias when people experience it.

Read what RitterSport posted above, especially where he quoted the FDA saying it’s metabolized the same way as the glutamate in things like tomatoes and cheese. If there’s no difference, there’s no difference: The body can’t get sick on one thing and be fine on another if it reacts the same way to both.

There’s also a spice called Accent which is MSG. Again, if MSG were terrible, people who used Accent would know it.

Confirmation bias plus a lot of people eating at the “exotic” Chinese restaurant and remembering if they felt even a little bit off afterwards, whereas they wouldn’t give it a second thought if they felt less-than-great after eating at a steakhouse.

(My inner scientist is piping up with an experiment to test the implied hypothesis: Is “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” becoming rarer or becoming an old-person disease now that there’s more ethnic variation in the average mix of restaurants in America? That is, now that you can get Thai and Japanese and Indian in most larger towns, Chinese is practically native, as opposed to being the weird foreign stuff, so do as many people feel sick after eating Chinese food?)

@Chronos, were you hallucinating when you read my post? How is your post responsive to what I wrote?

I wrote that I believe small doses of MSG don’t bother me, but I think large doses do. I don’t think there are unhealthily large amounts of glutamate in cheese, tomatoes, mushrooms, or (probably) Campbell’s soup.

Chinese restaurants had a reputation for loading MSG into their foods by the shovelful, at least in certain of their dishes, at least some Chinese restaurants. In recent years (recent decades actually), more and more Chinese restaurants have published that they no longer use MSG. I have no problem eating at those places.

Okay, what other mysterious ingredient do you suppose exists in Chinese restaurant food in restaurants that also use MSG, that doesn’t exist in other foods nor even in Chinese restaurant food in restaurants that don’t also use MSG?

I think Chronos was implying that the soups, etc., that have MSG as an ingredient have at least as much or more MSG than Chinese food. I’m not sure why you think Chinese restaurants load up the MSG more than prepared food – they would surely need less, since their ingredients are fresher than canned soup, and so they would have more natural taste from their ingredients than the boiled to heck Campbell’s soups.

Yes, Chinese restaurants have a reputation for shoveling in the MSG, but that reputation is undeserved. You’ll hardly ever find any Chinese restaurant that uses as much of the stuff as KFC, for instance.

And I have no idea what other ingredient could be causing your problems. I don’t even know what you were ordering, or what restaurants you were eating at.

I’m sure the reputation is undeserved that all Chinese restaurants did that (even many decades ago when that reputation was current). I certainly ate at a lot of Chinese places with no problem. Just certain ones. And even less so in more recent times.

I would like to learn more, or see a cite, about KFC shoveling in the MSG. I have eaten often at KFC with no problems, throughout my entire adult life at least. If they indeed are piling it in, then that would clearly repudiate everything I think I know about my own hypersensitivity to the stuff.

Anyone reading this transcript or listening to the podcast will see that MSG has never been shown to be responsible for any issues at all; it was completely made up and then taken out of context. If you think it’s a problem for you, you’re imagining it and using confirmation bias to make it so. Forget what you think you know about it; you’re wrong.

This is exactly what happens if you eat fish/seafood which has just begun to turn, even before you can taste or smell anything wrong with it. It produces toxins which make your mouth (and hands) tingle and go numb. Often it’s not throughout the whole fish, but in certain spots, so you can share the dish with someone and one of you react and the other one not. For years we thought my daughter was allergic to seafood, but turns out it only happens intermittently, when the seafood is old. The toxins have lovely names such as cadavarine and putrescine.