Monday, November 4, 2013

Why You Should Avoid MSG

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We all know that food additives are bad, but I am not sure we all knew just how bad MSG could be. When I came across a new study suggesting that MSG may be associated with weight gain, I decided to delve a little more deeply into this ubiquitous food additive and what I found reveals an even more disturbing potential for harm. 

MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is a sodium salt of glutamic acid, one of the most abundant naturally occurring non-essential amino acids. It was discovered by Kikunae Ikeda, who noticed that a Japanese broth derived from seaweed had a peculiar taste that had not been scientifically described at that time and differed from sweet, salty, sour and bitter. He named this taste "unami" and eventually discovered and patented this compound as an isolated glutamic acid derived from kombu seaweed. Doesn't sound too bad, right?

Well, research going back as far as 1975 reveals otherwise... Early animal studies reveal that MSG causes neuronal injury to the hippocampus of the brain, an area vital for learning, memory and emotional development. In one study mice exposed to MSG soon after birth showed significant difficulties adapting to stress. Another study showed that prenatal exposure of mice to MSG through the mothers diet caused decreases in choline uptake in the frontal cortex. Some findings even suggest that the changes that occur from consuming MSG alter the brain structure early in life, but persist through adulthood. 

MSG may also contribute to weight gain. A recent study fed 24 non-obese men a protein-rich soup that did or did not contain MSG. While MSG increased satisfaction in the soup, men fed soup containing MSG felt hungrier and less satisfied. Particularly startling is the fact that they felt significantly hungrier 30 and 60 minutes after eating the soup. In an uncontrolled setting, I can just imagine them going back to the refrigerator for more! 

Unfortunately, foods targeted for kids can by loaded with MSG. Processed foods such as canned pasta, chips, processed meats and salad dressing all contain MSG. Hidden sources include:

  • Monosodium glutamate
  • Monopotassium glutamate
  • Calcium glutamate
  • Monoammonium glutamate
  • Magnesium glutamate
  • Anything "hydrolyzed”
  • Calcium caseinate
  • Sodium caseinate
  • Yeast extract, yeast food, yeast nutrient or autolyzed yeast
  • Gelatin
  • Textured protein
  • Whey protein (high in free glutamic acid)
  • Soy protein (high in free glutamic acid)
  • Soy sauce
  • Anything containing "enzymes"

Just look at a Doritos label and you will see monosodium glutamate, enzymes AND sodium caseinate! In  addition, Doritos contain the "flavor potentiators" disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate, which both act to amplify our perception of glutamates by up to 30 times... not to mention the naturally rich glutamate sources of Romano cheese, cheddar cheese, tomato powder, onion powder, garlic powder and whey. 

To avoid MSG and other additives choose foods in their most natural state, for example look for potato chips that contain just potatoes, oil and salt.

Favorite MSG-free snacks:
  • Plain Unflavored Pretzels (salted is ok)
  • Plain Unflavored Nuts (salted is ok, but ideally nuts should be raw)
  • Popcorn (I like Skinny Pop!)
  • Simply Snackin Beef Jerky
  • Potato Chips made with just potatoes, oil and salt (I like Cape Cod Reduced Fat Potato Chips!)
 Make sure to read food labels!

... I think we are all done with even the occasional bag of Doritos!


  1. Masic U, Yeomans MR. Does monosodium glutamate interact with macronutrient composition to influence subsequent appetite? Physiol Behav. 2013 May 27;116-117:23-9. 
  2. Lemkey-Johnston N, Butler V, Reynolds WA. Brain damage in neonatal mice following monosodium glutamate administration: possible involvement of hypernatremia and hyperosmolality. Pharmacol Biochem Behav. Exp Neurol. 1975 Aug;48(2):292-309.
  3. Wong PT, Neo LH, Teo WL, Feng H, Xue YD, Loke WH. Deficits in water escape performance and alterations in hippocampal cholinergic mechanisms associated with neonatal monosodium glutamate treatment in mice. Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 1997 May-Jun;57(1-2):383-8.
  4. Frieder B, Grimm VE. Prenatal monosodium glutamate causes long-lasting cholinergic and adrenergic changes in various brain regions. J Neurochem. 1987 May;48(5):1359-65.
  5. Ureña-Guerrero ME, Orozco-Suárez S, López-Pérez SJ, Flores-Soto ME, Beas-Zárate C. Excitotoxic neonatal damage induced by monosodium glutamate reduces several GABAergic markers in the cerebral cortex and hippocampus in adulthood. Int J Dev Neurosci. 2009 Dec;27(8):845-55. 

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