The Ubiquitous MSG: How to know if you’re eating an excitotoxin

31 Oct

Have you ever had stomach cramps, indigestion, or gas after eating Chinese take-out? Do you wonder why it’s so hard to stop eating Doritos once you’ve started munching? Do you suffer from frequent migraine headaches? If so, you may be one of millions of Americans that share allergic sensivitiy to a common food additive, monosodium glutamate.

Chinese buffet restaurants often use MSG in their foods, which gave the list of symptoms its name: Chinese Restaurant Syndrome (CRS). Yet, this excitotoxin can be found hidden in the majority of restaurant and home processed foods .

Monosodium glutamate, better known as MSG, is a flavor enhancer composed of the salt of the “non-essential human amino acid”, L-glutamic acid. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, which are the building blocks of our bodies. Essential amino acids are those that must be obtained through the diet, because the body cannot synthesize them on its own. Non-essential amino acids, on the other hand, are not a dietary requirement because the body is able to produce them as needed. L-glutamic acid is composed of glutamate, which is both a “key molecule in cellular metabolism” and the “most abundant excitatory neurotransmitter in the mammalian nervous system.”

Excitatory is defined by Merriam-Webster’s Online Medical Dictionary as that which “tend[s] to induce excitation (as of a neuron)”. Excitation is further defined as “the disturbed or altered condition resulting from arousal of activity (as by neural or electrical stimulation) in an individual organ or tissue”. So, as an excitatory neurotransmitter, it’s job is to chemically-stimulate the neurons into firing in an excited state.  If you think of neurons firing, each signal that is fired is like a key and it goes out across the synapse until it hits its receptor, the lock.  This process goes on trillions of times per day.

The neurotransmitter glutamate is believed to be involved in memory and learning in the brain, and is known to be key in the removal of nitrogen waste in the body (air is approximately 78% nitrogen and nitrogen is a key component in amino acids). Glutamate naturally occurs (called free glutamates) in meats, tomatoes, dairy products, eggs, mushrooms and sea vegetables like Kombu (seaweed) and can be assimilated quite easily by the body.  However, large amounts of glutamate in the system can be problematic as it disrupts the delicate balance in the brain between neurotransmitters that tell the neurons to fire and those that tell the neurons to stop firing.

As an excitatory neurotransmitter, glutamate tells the neuron to fire and keep firing. If too much glutamate is in the blood, the neurons continue to fire leading to an overactivation of receptors in the brain which receive the messages. This leads to a condition known as excitoxicity, which can frequently result in damage to neurons. Excitotoxins like glutamate have been linked to more serious health problems, such as stroke, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Multiple Sclerosis (to name a few). Another excitotoxin related to MSG is aspartame, better known as Nutrasweet or Equal.

The common American trade name for man-made MSG is Accent, which can be found in nearly all supermarkets across the country, as well as in its generic form, monosodium glutamate.   The ubiquitousness of MSG is nowhere more apparent, however, than in restaurants and in packaged, processed foods available at the grocery store. Just look – it is in everything.  Don’t stop reading just yet, though, or you’ll probably not even see it.  Because of rising health concerns and related health incidents involving the overconsumption of MSG, product manufacturers have become quite efficient at hiding monosodium glutamate in a surprisingly large amount of products, including those labeled as “No MSG” or “No MSG added”.  They do this because of a loophole created by the FDA, which requires that the label list “monosodium glutamate” in the ingredients only if it is an added ingredient.  Some of the ingredients listed on the label, however, may contain MSG as an ingredient, but that does not have to be listed because, at that point, MSG is a constituent of an ingredient, not the ingredient itself.

The truth is, MSG can be found in a number of different ingredients and can be recognized by a list of names, including the most common: yeast extract, hydrolyzed protein, autolyzed protein and disodium inosinate. If you read your food labels, chances are high that you will find one of these ingredients listed.   Don’t stop there, however, “seasonings”, “spice”, soy sauce, protein isolate, textured protein, carageenan, Worcestershire sauce, “natural flavors”, and even malted barley all contain MSG. I challenge you to open your pantry and search for any of these ingredients. Chances are, you expose yourself and your family to this excitotoxin many times each and every day and you aren’t even aware of it. Furthermore, if you eat out alot, your chances are very high that you consume large amounts of MSG. For an extensive list of items that contain MSG, click here and here.

The widespread use of MSG in processed foods can make avoiding it very difficult. On the other hand, ignorance about MSG and its effects on the human body might be a large contributor to the many growing health problems Americans suffer from, including our nation’s epidemic obesity. MSG has been linked to cardiac, circulatory, gastrointestinal, muscular, neurological, visual, respiratory, urological and skin problems, including: arrhythmia, angina, palpitations, swelling, diarrhea, irritable bowel, rectal bleeding, joint pain and stiffness, depression, light-headedness, anxiety, mental confusion, hyperactivity, attention deficit, insomnia, seizures, blurred vision, asthma, chest pain, swelling of the prostate, hives, mouth sores and bags under the eyes. For a more complete list of these symptoms, click here.

Some of these symptoms, like headaches, anxiety and asthma, I suffered from quite frequently before I became more conscious of my diet and began eating all natural, organic whole foods.  Many times, I didn’t know the cause of my suffering and took over-the-counter medications to ease my discomfort. Yet, as they say, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” By avoiding MSG, I have personally found that I suffer from fewer migraines and asthma.  It is quite possible that MSG, acting as an excitotoxin, was responsible for much of my previous discomfort. I was absolutely astonished at how many foods I was eating that contained one form or another of MSG, even those foods labeled “natural” and deemed more healthy alternatives.  I rarely eat out, but I will occasionally eat something at a restaurant and suffer some ill effects because of it. My first suspicion is always that MSG is the culprit.  It’s in the sauces, the marinades, the guacamole, the parmesan, the salad dressing and croutons …

If you suffer from any of the above symptoms and health issues and suspect that MSG might be the cause, you can very easily change your diet to determine this. Just be careful to watch out for all of the ingredients that like to hide MSG in them.

For more information, visit:

Truth in

Also see:

Campbell’s Selects Soup (“No MSG” means they still add “spice extract” and “yeast extract” – both containing glutamate)

Soup Base (states MSG “naturally occurs” in yeast extract and hydrolyzed proteins)

Disodium guanylate entry at Wikipedia (if you see this food listed, it’s because MSG exists somewhere else in the ingredients)



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4 responses to “The Ubiquitous MSG: How to know if you’re eating an excitotoxin

  1. msfields

    November 25, 2008 at 9:28 pm

    I’m one of the millions of Americans who is sensitive to MSG. Nothing gives me a migraine more quickly. I have to read the labels of all the foods that I eat and sometimes things still slip by. Thanks for posting this. It was very informative.

  2. withonebreath

    November 25, 2008 at 9:39 pm

    I appreciate you reading, Ms Fields. It took me awhile to make the MSG-migraine link, but now that I have, my headaches are a lot less frequent and severe. Now, … if I could just manage to kick the caffeine … I continue to go back and forth with that one. Do you have any personal testimonies you’d like to share? I’m interested in hearing about your experiences with MSG and it’s other many forms.

  3. msfields

    November 26, 2008 at 3:38 am

    Figuring out the triggers for migraines is often a difficult and frustrating process. The first one that I noticed was onions. Not only because I ate them rarely and so it was easier to make the connection, but also because my mother suffers from the same problem.

    MSG was a much harder one to pinpoint. It started when I was a student and became more dependent than I should upon vending machines to suplement my diet. I began making a link between the violent headaches that I got not long after eating with the chips I would have with my sandwich. Once I made that connection, I started reading labels and saw monosodium glutamate listed among the ingredients. I knew that many people are sensitive to MSG, so I started paying attention. What really helped was when I started looking beyond snack food. Most of the frozen foods or cans of pasta that I relied on for a meal when I came home from a long day of classes and work were apparently loaded with MSG.

    What really made me mad was when I started doing research on-line and found out how companies hide their use of glutamates by calling them other things. It’s so difficult to know what you’re really eating. I find it helpful, though, to look for the allergy warnings that mention soy. I’m usually able to drastically reduce the number of migraines I suffer from if I avoid those products, onions and aged cheese.

  4. withonebreath

    November 26, 2008 at 12:31 pm

    Thank you for that!

    Even after I changed my diet and started eating “healthier”, I noticed that, occasionally, I would still suffer from headaches and other gastrointestinal issues. Then I started being a label nazi of sorts, which drove my family crazy at first, but now they’re label nazi’s, too. It didn’t take long to find that many “natural” products contain MSG or some form of glutamate hidden under: yeast extract, hydrolyzed soy protein, autolyzed soy. I found that MANY vegetarian products contain these ingredients. Still, it took awhile for me to embrace the fact that anything containing soy sauce also contains MSG – I frequently used soy sauce a lot for seasoning, marinades, etc. Now, I’ve switched to Liquid Aminos, or I simply have to find other ways to season my food.

    Every once in awhile, something will slip by me and I’ll turn the product over to look at the ingredients and there it is! It really steams me up that the food manufacturers can get away with sneaking this toxin into our food, even that stuff they label as NO MSG or NO MSG ADDED. Consumers cannot rely upon these types of notices on labels. Unfortunately, we have to be aware and read carefully to make sure it’s not being slipped in “under the radar”, hidden in things like “spices”.

    Michelle and I make it a practice, when we go to our family’s houses, to dig in their pantries and point out the stuff containing MSG. Most of the time, our families are shocked at what they are eating.

    Best bet: cook your own, all-natural, organic whole foods and you really won’t have to worry much. Just avoid MSG seasonings. When you start purchasing processed and prepared foods, however, that’s when you find that everything is laced with poison.

    Thank you for sharing, Ms. Fields!


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