Is monosodium glutamate harmful?

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is only harmful when consumed by sensitive persons, consumed more than 3g each time and not consumed with food.

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a flavor enhancer commonly added to some Asian countries’ food, canned vegetables, soups and processed meats. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has classified MSG as a food ingredient that's "generally recognized as safe," but its use remains controversial. For this reason, when MSG is added to food, the FDA requires that it be listed on the label. 

Monosodium glutamate is the sodium salt of glutamic acid.

MSG has been used as a food additive for decades. Over the years, the FDA has received many anecdotal reports of adverse reactions to foods containing MSG. 

Monosodium glutamate’s notoriety took off in 1968 when Dr Ho Man Kwok wrote a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine musing about the possible causes of a syndrome he experienced whenever he ate at Chinese restaurants in the US. In particular, he described a feeling of numbness at the back of his neck that then spread to his arms and back, as well as general weakness and heart palpitations. 

After Kwok’s letter, a flurry of experiments followed in which various animals, including humans, were subjected to large doses of monosodium glutamate both orally and intravenously. 

At first, it looked like Kwok might have been onto something.  

Washington University researcher Dr John W. Olney found that injecting enormous doses of monosodium glutamate under the skin of newborn mice led to the development of patches of dead tissue in the brain. When these mice grew into adulthood they were stunted, obese, and in some cases, sterile. Olney also repeated his study in infant rhesus monkeys, giving them the MSG orally, and noted the same results. But 19 other studies in monkeys by other researchers failed to show the same, or even similar results. 

A collection of symptoms now associated with MSG used to be called ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.

These reactions — known as MSG symptom complex — include: headache, flushing, sweating, facial pressure or tightness, numbness, tingling or burning in the face, neck and other areas, rapid, fluttering heartbeats (heart palpitations), chest pain, nausea and weakness. 

However, researchers have found no definitive evidence of a link between MSG and these symptoms. Researchers acknowledge, though, that a small percentage of people may have short-term reactions to MSG. Symptoms are usually mild and don't require treatment. The only way to prevent a reaction is to avoid foods containing MSG. 

It’s reassurance to the many fans of MSG-containing dishes.

By: Christina Baker

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