Most people have heard of MSG but don’t fully understand what it is and what its health implications are. MSG is a very commonly used flavor enhancer in a large amount of processed foods. It was formerly associated with Chinese food, but is increasingly found in the boxes and bags in the center of our supermarkets. Many people have experienced negative reactions to consuming MSG which has led to new research to identify how this substance affects the human body.
What is MSG?
Monosodium glutamate represents the sodium salt of glutamic acid. MSG is used in many processed foods in today’s grocery market. Glutamate also known as glutamic acid, is a naturally-occurring nonessential amino acid in the body, which serves as the primary excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain. This is to say – glutamate “turns things on.” As a component of MSG, this means that Glutamate triggers the firing of nerve cells in the brain and body. Consuming MSG can stimulate the firing of these nerve cells. Overstimulation and over firing of these nerve cells can lead to negative health implications.
Why does MSG cause problems?
There are a number of reasons why many individuals choose to stay away from MSG. MSG consumption been connected to what has been coined as the Chinese restaurant syndrome (because of the high levels of MSG associated with Chinese food). The Chinese restaurant syndrome can cause scalp tightness, tingling in the extremities, flushing, chest pressure, palpitations, thirst, headache, nausea, abdominal pain, and urinary urgency. In my patients, headaches and a general sense of feeling ill are the most common symptoms reported.
If we recall that glutamate is an excitatory signal, we can extrapolate that excessive glutamate such as that in MSG can relate to overstimulation of neurons which can cause cell damage or death.
Recent animal studies have indicated that MSG may cause brain damage in infants which has resulted in the recommendation (with varying research support) that infants not be given MSG-containing foods.
MSG consumption has been known to trigger or exacerbate chronic illnesses such as fibromyalgia, depression, asthma, epilepsy, as well as heart conditions such as ventricular premature beats and ventricular tachycardia.
What foods is MSG found in?
MSG is an ingredient present in tons of commonly eaten foods on the market. From soup, to sausage and potato chips, it can be hard to find snack foods without this ingredient. MSG is most commonly used as a flavor enhancer in processed foods. Foods such as canned soups, bouillons, chips and snack foods, salad dressings, frozen dinners and international food products are high in MSG. MSG is not going to be found in fresh fruits and vegetables or unprocessed meat. It does not occur naturally in food products and when it appears in food it is because it has been added. Many food labels and some restaurants will boast “NO MSG” making it easy for consumers to identify products lacking this additive.
What is the interaction of Vitamin B6 and MSG?
Recent research has indicated a connection between Vitamin B6 and MSG. Vitamin B6 is necessary for the activity of the enzyme glutamate dehydrogenase. Glutamate dehydrogenase is essential for breaking down glutamate-containing substances, including MSG. Studies completed on rats indicated that those rats deficient in Vitamin B6 held higher blood levels of glutamate and took longer in clearing the glutamate from the blood. Rats with adequate amounts of Vitamin B6 were able to more easily metabolize MSG. Essentially, Vitamin B6 plays a huge role in an individual’s ability to metabolize MSG. Individuals deficient in Vitamin B6 have been shown to be more likely to experience adverse reactions to consuming MSG when compared to those with adequate levels of Vitamin B6.
The Long and Short
MSG is an ingredient found in many processed foods, which are an increasing component of the American diet. The amino acid component in MSG can overstimulate neurons which can result in their damage or death. In addition, MSG use is associated with Chinese restaurant syndrome which may result in the experiencing of any host of negative symptoms including nausea, headache, and abdominal pain.
Research has shown a connection between Vitamin B6 levels and MSG metabolism; Vitamin B6 deficient individuals have a more difficult time metabolizing the MSG than those with adequate levels of Vitamin B6.
To avoid the negative health effects associated with MSG use, the simplest answer is to cut out MSG from the diet. This can obviously be challenging given the amount of products it is contained it. If this is not possible, or you’re occasionally dying for Chinese takeout, consider supplementation with Vitamin B6 or inquire with your favorite restaurant to ask if it is used in their kitchen. Remember to talk to your doctor about any supplementation prior to initiating it.