Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), a popular flavouring substance commonly used in home-cooked and restaurant foods — as well as in most processed, packaged and frozen foods — is a long-trusted food seasoning in Malaysia.
The food industry tells us it’s “natural” and “safe”. But eater, beware: A growing mountain of evidence indicates that MSG may be more toxic than we know.
MSG is now recognised by many in the medical profession as an “excitotoxin”, a type of drug that damages brain cells. It has been reported to be an addictive substance, and has been described as a slow “public poison” in the west. It can even be fatal, in large enough doses.
Yet most doctors, dietitians and the public know very little about the toxic effects of MSG. That’s because the billion-dollar processed food industry and MSG producers spend a fortune on advertising and public relations, which hail MSG as “natural”, to make all of us believe MSG is safe for the majority of the population.
Find out how MSG cures commercial food producers’ pocketbooks and kills consumers’ health.
IT makes cheap, low-quality, bland foods taste better. It removes the “tin-ny” taste from canned foods. It stimulates your tastebuds and makes you want more, so you buy and use more. And it makes tons of money for food corporations. The magic ingredient: MSG.
MSG not only has a place in our home kitchens, but probably also in our hearts. Since it has a long history of use, and is “natural” (as is often trumpeted in ads and by the media), surely it must be safe, we may think.
The answer is no — and there are volumes of statistics, scientific data and case studies to back this verdict. Unfortunately, such information is not well publicised, so the truth about MSG has not really reached the public.
CAP’s investigation shows that far from being a “natural” food additive, MSG is actually a poison that can harm your body from head to toe. You’ll be shocked to know the extent of the harm that this innocent-looking seasoning poses to health.
But to fully understand the immense threat that this all-too-simple additive poses to human health, we need to first, strip MSG to its core.
What is MSG?
MSG is a white, crystalline powder, which has little taste of its own, but enhances the flavour of foods. It is man-made from glutamic acid, an amino acid found in all complete proteins. It was first isolated in 1908 by a professor at Tokyo University who became a partner in what is now the multi-billion dollar Ajinomoto company, which provides more than half the world’s MSG.
As a product, and a concentrate, MSG could easily be added to any foods in much greater quantities than in nature. But before you rush out to buy a packet, know this: Present-day evidence indicates that this laboratory-synthesised product may do the body more harm than good. In fact, the deleterious effects of MSG toxicity have been known for over 40 years.
But before we explore its toxicity, take a look at what exactly is MSG.
5 Things You Should Know About MSG
There are many hidden truths about MSG most Malaysians are not aware of, and probably won’t get to know, unless you do a thorough probe of the subject — which is what we have done. But before we let you in on the whole story, for a start, know these 5 facts about MSG:
MSG is a salt that is made from glutamic acid. Glutamic acid or glutamate, is one of the most common amino acids found in nature. It is a major component of many protein-rich foods such as meat, fish and milk, as well as plants such as wheat, corn and sugar beets.
Virtually every food contains glutamate. It is also produced by our bodies, and plays an essential role in human metabolism.
But there’s nothing “natural” about the MSG in wide use today. Here’s why.
• NATURAL glutamate consists of 2 amino acids (glutamic acid and glutamine), which are bound up in the protein molecules of a food. In the body, these proteins are slowly broken down, which means the glutamate is produced gradually and can be absorbed naturally. This natural form of free glutamate is not dangerous and does not cause adverse reactions in people allergic to MSG.
• Artificially created MSG involves processes that break down and change naturally bound glutamate (usually from corn, grain, starches and molasses) into various free forms of glutamate. One form, D-glutamic acid, is never found in nature. Because MSG, a manufactured free glutamate, is not bound in a protein molecule and is free, it is absorbed by the body at a faster level than natural glutamate. Free glutamic acid from food sources can get into the brain, injuring and sometimes killing neurons (nerve cells) (See also “How MSG Harms Health” in Utusan Konsumer May-June 2008).
• MSG also contains much higher levels of glutamate than occurs naturally in foods. If the levels of glutamate in the body are too high (as is the case when we consume MSG), this will overexcite cells in our body to the point of damage. An excess of naturally occurring glutamate is well known by neuroscientists to be a problem in many disease states. More specifically, the neurons in our brain will become over-stimulated and die.
Processed MSG, which frees bound glutamic acid from foods, is created chemically by hydrolysing vegetable protein — ie splitting the amino acids apart — or by fermentation of glucose from starchy foods (see “How is MSG Processed?” in Utusan Konsumer May-June 2008). As a result, there are contaminants in processed MSG.
Truly natural glutamate is L-glutamic acid only. However, processed, fermented, or manufactured glutamate contains L-glutamic acid plus other chemicals.
Processed free glutamic acid (MSG) carries with it material not found with unprocessed glutamic acid — it is both L-glutamic acid and D-glutamic acid, and is accompanied by pyroglutamic acid and other contaminants.? The contaminants differ according to the materials and methods used to produce the glutamic acid.
In Thailand, the Bangkok Post (29 October 2000) quoted Pichai Tovirich, president of the Bangkok Vegetarian Association, as saying that MSG was not made from natural products as advertised, but included chemicals like sulphuric acid and urea.
Pichai, who was former head of the chemistry department of Chulalongkorn University, said apart from causing allergies, excess consumption of MSG could lead to risks for people suffering from kidney, high blood pressure or heart problems.
He warned that over-indulgence in MSG could also affect pregnant women and lead to brain clots in children.
MSG may even be carcinogenic. Under certain circumstances, processed free glutamic acid is accompanied by mono and dichloro propanols (which are carcinogenic) or heterocyclic amines (which are also carcinogenic).
Even the US Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) — the US government agency that administers federal laws regarding, among others, the purity of food — has admitted that processed free glutamic acid found in reaction flavours which are produced from a combination of specific amino acids, reducing sugars, and animal or vegetable fats or oils, and optional ingredients including hydrolysed vegetable protein is carcinogenic (“Regulatory status of Maillard reaction flavors”, Lin, L.J., Division of Food and Color Additives, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, FDA, 24 August 1992; Food Chemical News, 31 May 1993, p16).
The glutamate in MSG is toxic. It kills brain cells in laboratory animals, causing the most harm to the youngest animals. When given to infant animals, it also causes gross obesity, reproductive disorders, and learning disabilities later in life.
The glutamate in MSG also causes adverse reactions in MSG-sensitive people. Those reactions can be mild or severe. They can come and go quickly, or be long lasting. Migraine headache is the reaction most often reported.
Reports of cardiac arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat), tachycardia (rapid heartbeat), and asthma are increasing dramatically. A general feeling of malaise — fatigue, loss of energy, fuzzy thinking, and, sometimes, depression — seems to accompany most reactions.
The glutamate in MSG is also implicated in a variety of human disorders including addiction, stroke, epilepsy, degenerative disorders such as ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis — also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease and Motor Neuron Disease — a neuromuscular disorder that causes progressive paralysis and ends in death), Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, brain trauma, neuropathic pain, schizophrenia, anxiety, and depression.
Neuroscientists now call it an “excitotoxin” or neurotoxin because of its degenerative and deadly effects on the brain and nervous system. It harms the brain by overstimulating neurons* to the point of exhaustion and cell death.
(*Neurons are the main cells of the nervous system. There are about 100 billion of them in the brain. These cells send and receive electrical signals over long distances within the body, thus allowing different parts of the body to communicate with each other.) (See also “MSG, Excitotoxins & Disease” Utusan Konsumer May-June 2008)
MSG, like common table salt (which it resembles), is not a necessary additive. It is not a preservative and it has no nutritional value. (TIP: If you want to spice up a dish without using MSG, try adding a bit of sugar instead.)
MSG is of benefit only to manufacturers who can use inferior ingredients to make a mediocre product seem tastier. It is a powerful flavour enhancer that stimulates your taste buds, so that your brain thinks your food tastes better than it actually does. With MSG use, higher profits and low-quality products of little nutritional value prevail at the expense of consumer health.
MSG is also addictive. Manufacturers like it because it makes you want to eat more and more of the foods that contain them.
MSG is the salt version of glutamic acid. Glutamatic acid is one of a chain of 20 amino acids that make up a protein molecule. It is a non-essential amino acid, which means that the body produces what is needed and we don’t need to make it up in our diet.
Please see Utusan Konsumer May-June 2008 for the following informational articles on MSG:
• Children, Unborn & Elderly at Greater Risk
• MSG, Excitotoxins and Disease
• Drugs Created to Protect Against Glutamate Toxicity
• Body Systems Affected b y MSG
• What MSG Makers Don’t Tell You
• If MSG Isn’t Harmful, Why Is It Hidden?
Find out how MSG cures commercial food producer's pocketbooks and kills consumers' health in the CAP Guide, Is MSG Safe?