Hold The MSG, Please!

Greetings Everyone! I apologize for the spontaneous summer hiatus from blogging, but I suppose that is natural in life. I wanted to kick off a renewed effort to make consistent posts, especially after being encouraged by my blogging pal over at Sweet On Greens!

I want to talk about something that has really concerned me this summer, MSG! During one week this summer I was getting terrible headaches during the day, which I normally never get. I stopped to think about what could be the cause of the problem. In engineering we call that a root cause investigation. One of the first things we ask when we encounter a new issue is “when did the issue first occur, and what might have changed in the system around that time?”

So I started to look at potential changes in my life that happened that week. Maybe it was a new stress from work, or perhaps the stress of taking care of 2 exchange students, or a sudden lack of sleep. Those can certainly play a part, but I didn’t think they completely explained my issue. Then I realized that I had started eating eggs for breakfast those weeks, and I also realized I started using a new seasoned salt spice to flavor them. And you already know from the title that the culprit was sitting on the label of my spice, Monosodium Glutamate or MSG!

Here is the spice I was using to flavor my eggs, prominently featuring the dreaded chemical as the 3rd ingredient!

Here is the spice I was using to flavor my eggs, prominently featuring the dreaded chemical as the 3rd ingredient!

So what is MSG? Monosodium Glutamate is a flavor enhancer that will give whatever food you are eating a much improved taste. MSG is a man-made synthetic chemical and is a concentrated form of the 5th taste called Umami which is a savory flavor (the other four being Sweetness, Sourness, Saltiness, Bitterness, and a possible newly discovered 6th being Fat) This seasoning finds its way into many spices, salad dressings, and processed foods. Even my favorite salad dressing, Ranch, commonly has this substance!

Why should you be concerned with MSG? As I mentioned I received chronic headaches for a week while eating higher amounts of it. MSG acts as an excitotoxin which excites your cells to death, and you can imagine can have catastrophic effects on your brain! Prolonged use is linked with many cognitive decline disorders – not a good thing!

If all of this isn’t bad enough, avoiding this chemical completely is proving very challenging as Monosodium Glutamate isn’t the only name that the dreaded chemical goes by. I commonly see Yeast Extract and Autolyzed Yeast as two variations as I read labels. These claim to be formed from natural sources, and potentially do not have as harmful of an effect, but knowing myself and my reaction to the real stuff – I think I am better off avoiding it completely.

Another one of my favorite spices, with the Yeast Extract. Not super happy about the Cane Syrup there either.

Another one of my former favorite spices, with the Yeast Extract. Not super happy about the Cane Syrup there either.

Well, what can we do? We must be mindful and ever vigilant in reading labels and knowing the red-flag ingredients. I’ve switched to a few spices below that have no red-flag ingredients. When I am craving a flavor enhancer, I turn to good-old sea salt or Himalayan salt!

A few of my go-to mixed spices now. They avoid many of the red flag chemicals and have great taste!

A few of my go-to mixed spices now. They avoid many of the red flag chemicals and have great taste!

And now when I need a Ranch Dressing, I prefer to make my own Cashew Ranch Dressing. The recipe is embedded in the link. I think this is a great alternative to real ranch, not only does it avoid the MSG, but it also brings in a lot of good health benefits with the cashew and fresh garlic. I love how easy it is to make, literally just throw all the ingredients in a blender and let it run until smooth! I can make a big batch and have it ready for 1 or 2 weeks at a time. If I am really feeling lazy I can add some olive oil and shake it in to extend the batch further!

Has anyone else experienced issues with MSG? Are you surprised that this chemical is still so pervasive in our everyday foods?

-Andrew

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3 thoughts on “Hold The MSG, Please!

  1. I was psyched to see a new post from Sustenance Kaizen in my inbox today! So glad you are back to posting along with us and love your engineering approach to nutrition!!! Great article about MSG and to watch out for it in unsuspecting foods. We are always encouraging people to read the ingredient list on all products, pushing for people to only consume foods with ingredients they can pronounce and are familiar with. As you know, companies have a way of sneaking in all sorts of flavor additives, dyes, etc. that cause extra stress on the body when digesting and breaking them down (hence your headache from MSG). Spices are a great way to add flavor to dishes for variety and keeping your taste buds interested, but we are glad you brought to attention how even healthy things like spices can be burdened with unwanted products for optimal health!

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  2. Great post Andrew! I always heard that MSG sensitivity was a myth. I just did a quick google search for “MSG allergy studies” and found a couple of interesting studies. The first one (here- http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9215242v ) published in 1997 did find a minor correlation, but this more recent study (here- http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19389112 ) says- “Despite concerns raised by early reports, decades of research have failed to demonstrate a clear and consistent relationship between MSG ingestion and the development of these conditions.” I didn’t investigate much further, but most of the other links seemed pretty negative about MSG sensitivity.

    But that’s my biggest problem with nutritional research… There is never a consensus! and that first study only had 61 participants! Are we supposed to base all of our nutritional knowledge on a study with just 61 people, only 22 of which reported sensitivity to MSG? A simple study like this will generate hundreds of headlines about how MSG can give you headaches, all based on just 22 people.

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    • That’s interesting research. There are a bunch of studies in Science Direct when you search Monosodium Glutamate about their effects on neurotoxisity and depression in rats…. but that doesn’t always translate the same to humans ;). I’m sure it’s hard to find willing test subjects for a study on various toxins, even harder to find schools with the ethics to subject people to those studies.

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