Dear Clean Plates: Why Do I Get MSG Reactions from MSG-Free Food?

Photo by Andrea Nguyen

Dear Clean Plates,

I know that not everyone reacts to MSG, but I’m one of the unlucky ones. My nose, chin and cheeks flush, I get lightheaded, and my throat tightens. Even when the label doesn’t list monosodium glutamate, I sometimes get the unmistakable reaction. It’s even happened to me at a restaurant that claims not to use MSG. Why is this, and how can I avoid it?

Thanks,
Red in the Face

Dear Red,

The frustrating truth is that although the FDA requires that monosodium glutamate (MSG) be listed on product labels when added to food, processed free glutamic acid—a.k.a. MSG—is usually a component of another ingredient, and therefore doesn’t have to be labeled.

Discovered in Japan in 1908,  MSG was originally created by extracting glutamic acid (an amino acid) from seaweed, as a way to bring out savory, “umami” flavor. The US began producing it in large quantities during the 1950s, and today, up to 50% of Americans may be sensitive to it. For some, all it takes is a small amount, while others won’t be affected unless they have an MSG-saturated meal. Sufferers describe headaches, flushing, sweating, facial pressure or tightness, numbness, heart palpitations, chest pain, nausea, weakness, and tingling or burning in the face, neck and other areas.

To avoid it, you’ll also need to steer clear of additives containing MSG. These include hydrolyzed protein, textured protein, plant protein extract, sodium caseinate, hydrolyzed plant protein, yeast extract, autolyzed yeast, calcium caseinate, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, and hydrolyzed oat flour. Additives that often contain MSG include malt extract, malt stock, “flavoring,” “spices,” “seasoning,” bouillon broth, and “natural flavoring.” Plus, some food ingredients, such as malted barley, may not contain processed glutamic acid on their own, but when added to certain proteins during processing, they do. Glutamic acid also appears naturally in some whole foods such as tomatoes and mushrooms, but reactions aren’t usually noted.

Though there isn’t a definitive study proving that MSG is unsafe, some researchers claim associations with of a host of diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s.

Trust your body, and if you feel any sensitivity when eating certain foods, always be mindful of the ingredients you are consuming. And remember that the more whole, unprocessed foods you choose, the easier it will be to avoid MSG.

Photo by Andrea Nguyen

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