Health

Is MSG Actually Terrible for You?

Published On 10/19/2015 Published On 10/19/2015
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Ordering from Seamless doesn’t just mean you can continue your Netflix binge uninterrupted. It also means your food prep is in the hands of a total stranger. Who knows what’s going in that sesame chicken? It could be MSG! That’s supposed to be bad for you, right? Probably? Didn’t your mom read something about it in the ‘90s?

But is that actually the case? Do restaurants even use MSG anymore, and if they do, what effect does it have on your body?

If you’ve ever felt like crap after enjoying your beloved Thai, Chinese, or any other processed food -- and not just a stomach ache from eating too damn much -- here’s what you should know.

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What is MSG?

To put it simply, monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a flavor enhancer. The Japanese loanword “umami,” meaning a savory taste, can be achieved by adding low concentrations of MSG to certain foods.

MSG is best known for its presence in Chinese fast food. However, the seasoning is added to thousands of foods you eat on the reg -- especially if you’re dining out, ordering in, or are just a cash-strapped Millennial who can’t exactly afford a membership at the community co-op. Think canned vegetables, soups, salad dressing, frozen dinners, processed meats, and yes, even delicacies like Pringles.

Although the Food and Drug Administration has classified MSG as an ingredient that’s “generally recognized as safe,” the flavor enhancer remains controversial, with some people swearing it’s the devil sent straight from hell to ruin digestive systems.

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How did it get such a bad rap?

After MSG was introduced to the public in the late 1960s, a letter written by Chinese-American physician Robert Ho Man Kwok to The New England Journal of Medicine sparked rumors that the food additive was dangerous. Dr. Kwok described experiencing numbness, palpitations, and weakness after eating in Chinese restaurants in the United States, blaming these symptoms on the MSG used by Americanized chefs, an ingredient that wasn’t used in China.

Self-diagnoses of “Chinese restaurant syndrome” snowballed from there, with individuals claiming it caused headaches, exacerbated asthma, and was responsible for a host of other problems. In fact, MSG has been so vilified that in more extreme circles it’s called a “silent killer” lurking in your kitchen.

So the FDA says it’s safe, but Chinese food consumers have been wary of it since the ‘60s. What gives? We asked a nutrition expert to help us get to the bottom of the MSG puzzle.

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Is MSG the devil?

In a nutshell, no, says Erin Palinski-Wade, author of Belly Fat Diet for Dummies.

“MSG is a form of the naturally occurring chemical glutamate,” Palinski-Wade said. “For most people it is safe and occurs naturally in many foods we eat daily.”

Research over the past decade backs this up. Double-blind studies of MSG's effects on the body have failed to reveal any of the unpleasant symptoms reported anecdotally after housing a plate of General Tso’s. A 2006 study found that despite a widespread belief that MSG could elicit headaches and other sickening symptoms, there’s no durable, consistent clinical data to support this claim. Nor is there evidence that suggests individuals are sensitive to the flavoring.  

But the demonization has to come from somewhere, right? That’s where allergies come in.
 

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If MSG is so safe, why does this rumor persist?

Palinski-Wade suspects allergies are to blame.

“In the same way that gluten is safe for most but needs to be avoided by those with an allergy, if you have a reaction [to MSG], you should limit your exposure,” she said.

MSG-filled food pairings could also be to blame. “It’s quite possible that other foods and ingredients, or even a combination of foods and ingredients may be the cause of symptoms,” Palinski-Wade said. “For example, a high sodium dish along with a glass of wine [could cause unpleasant symptoms].”
 

So… what do I do now?

To rule out an MSG allergy, Palinski-Wade recommends limiting the ingredient but eating and drinking similar foods and beverages to rule out a different cause of your discomfort. For the seriously concerned, seeking out a medical practitioner is always a smart move to ensure that nothing seriously wrong is going on. And if you discover you do have an MSG allergy, limit your exposure.

(Duh.)

While MSG might not be the devil you grew up believing it to be, eating really is as simple as not consuming food that puts you into a state of distress. If your delivery is making you feel like crap, it’s probably time to start paying closer attention to those ratings on Seamless.

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Erin Kelly is a writer, marathoner, and triathlete living in New York City. She’s risking MSG consumption these days. Follow her on Twitter.

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