Is MSG as bad as it's made out to be?

Nutrition Digestion

Is MSG bad for your health?

When it comes to food intolerances, I get asked a lot of questions. Whether it’s about the difference between an allergy and an intolerance, the types of foods people should stay away from or how the foods you eat can affect your energy levels and wellbeing, the list can go on. So when I had one of my patients recently ask about MSG , what it is and whether all the concern about it is legitimate, I thought it could be useful to write about since it’s such a common query.

What is MSG?

MSG or Monosodium glutamate is a flavour enhancer designed to make your next mouthful that much more enjoyable. In the same way that we know about sweet, salty, sour and bitter taste sensations, the Japanese introduced umami as a way to describe the taste often associated with MSG and other foods containing glutamate (usually meats).

Whilst it naturally appears in meats, tofu, mushrooms and a few other foods, it’s the additive form that has given MSG a bad reputation. Commonly found in Chinese food, the additive is also included in many other fast food options and packaged or processed snack food (especially from the USA).

Is MSG that bad for you?

This is where things get tricky. You see, from a food safety standpoint, FSANZ (our Australian food regulator) has determined that it’s perfectly ok to use in foods, provided it’s for the intended purpose and that the quantity is capped at the amount set by the regulator. The willingness to include MSG in food is because from research to date, studies have been unable to show a direct allergic reaction with a response detected in immunoglobulin levels, opting instead to label it as an ‘intolerance’.

However, just because it isn’t causing an allergic reaction, doesn’t mean it’s good for you. In fact, a 2016 study found that MSG is genotoxic which means that it causes damage to genetic material in your cells, especially lymphocytes (white blood cells). Furthermore, even though studies haven't shown it to cause allergic reactions, it is widely accepted that many people can have an intolerance to foods containing MSG.  

Should you avoid MSG?

If you find that eating foods with MSG leaves you feeling unwell, it’s probably a good idea to try and avoid them.

For those with an intolerance to MSG, typical symptoms include:

• Headache

• Hives

• Runny nose/congestion

• Hot flushes/sweating

• Nausea

• Fatigue

• Digestive problems

• Itchy/scratchy throat

• Mood swings/irritability

As an advocate for natural, healthy, clean foods, ideally I’d recommend staying away from foods with added MSG. The good news is that because of all the publicity around MSG, it’s now a lot easier to identify and avoid.  Since it must be labeled on packaged foods and many restaurants now promote the fact that they do not use MSG in cooking, all you need to do is ask or check. So if you find that you typically feel a bit under the weather after a Chinese takeaway dinner that tasted oh so delicious, consider whether MSG may be the cause.

Wishing you great health,

Dr Pete

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