That Happy Satisfied Feeling

My quip about monosodium glutamate last week earned me several emails. Readers have been commenting that if MSG is so darn happy-making, why does it cause people to feel ill, itchy, depressed, nervous or hyperactive, and cause headaches, rashes, ADD, asthma, redness of the face, chest pains, seizures, anaphylactic shock, strokes and brain tumors? The answer, painful as it will be for some out there to hear, is that the overwhelming scientific evidence is that MSG does none of those things.

Now I want all of you who are about to send me articles about “independent studies” that link MSG to irritable bowel syndrome and fibromyalgia to push away from your keyboards and take some deep breaths.

Because — and please hear me out on this — the reality is that no major scientific body that has studied MSG seriously has ever found a connection between MSG and any of the health problems that are routinely attributed to it. Let me put that another way because it’s important: of all the academic labs and governmental food agencies that have studied MSG, up to and including the U.S. (which has evaluated it three times, in 1958, 1991 and 1998), Japan, Australia, Great Britain, the EU and the United Nations…in fact every nation on Earth that has a food licensing body…not one of them has ever turned up any evidence that MSG is bad for you.

Why might that be? Most probably because glutamate, a protein building block that is fundamental to life on Earth, is everywhere around us. It’s in our own bodies (we manufacture some 40 grams of it each day). It abounds in human breast milk. It’s found in virtually all food, but notably in tomatoes, mushrooms and seaweed.

It occurs in especially large quantities in anything fermented, including cheese, bread, beer, wine, pickles, olives, cured meats and sausages, soy and Worchestershire sauces. And why is that? Because the yeasts and bacteria that are present in fermenting cultures eat protein molecules, and in their mad rush to digest them they leave a lot of detritus lying around, much of which is free glutamate.

Aha, you might say. Glutamate is different from monosodium glutamate. In fact no, there is no meaningful difference. Monosodium glutamate is what you get when you stir glutamate together with water and table salt, which is done by commercial processors to make glutamate crystals that dissolve easier in food.

But then why do so many people complain of adverse physical effects when they consume MSG? That phenomenon itself has been studied and there are many hypotheses. One of them is the so-called “placebo effect”, whereby people who have been mentally conditioned to expect physical symptoms from eating a certain substance actually do, despite the fact that there’s no actual, physiological cause. Another that I find even more convincing is that so-called “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” (CRS) is actually the result of allergic reactions to other ingredients in Chinese food, like peanuts, exotic fungi or shellfish.

Ultimately there may be no explanation for what is essentially a popular phenomenon in the West. For indeed hundreds of millions of people in the East consume MSG daily without incidence of itchiness, depression, nervousness, hyperactivity, headaches, rashes, ADD, asthma, redness of the face, chest pains, seizures, anaphylactic shock, strokes or brain tumors.

Please make no mistake, those of you who are about to write me angry letters, it’s not that I don’t believe that you or your family member or friend ever suffered after eating at a Chinese restaurant (or consuming something with MSG in it). I believe something genuinely unpleasant happened. The preponderance of evidence, though, is that it wasn’t the MSG that caused it. So please consider not sending me that nasty note you’re even now composing in your head…pretty, pretty please?

18 thoughts on “That Happy Satisfied Feeling”

  1. It might be useful if you could link to the studies you’re citing – I’m especially interested in the MSG placebo effect one. I have no problem with MSG, but there are other things that just don’t work out well for me (including on occasions where I haven’t known they were in the food, so I don’t think it’s a placebo effect), so I’m a bit more inclined to believe that some (although probably not all) of the people who claim to have problems with MSG are actually having problems with it (or with certain quantities of it, or with certain quantities of it without drinking enough water, or whatever).

    The “it’s a problem in the West, but people in the East do just fine with it” is a good argument, but is a bit weaker due to the different rates of, say, lactose intolerance by geography/genetics. I would also argue that different cultures expect different things as more or less unavoidable and sort of acceptable (malaria; diabetes; parasites; death in childbirth; obesity), so just because a culture is not complaining about something (headaches, for instance) doesn’t mean it’s not happening. And, of course, combinations of different foods can affect people differently than foods in isolation, and quantities may also matter (as with caffeine, or that guy who had entirely too much microwave popcorn).

    That said, MSG (and gluten, and all the other popular culprits) have been blamed for waaaaay more than they can possibly be responsible for. But some people might actually have a problem with certain concentrations or combinations of MSG?

    (Partially I’m reacting to this because I have significant unpleasant digestive issues after eating specific foods, and my life is occasionally made much more challenging by people who think all food allergies/intolerances are fake or psychosomatic. Some may be; I can tell you, though, not all of them are, and I’d rather be on the safe side than doom a dinner guest to an evening of misery!)

    1. Hey Mary!

      You can dig up all kinds of stuff with a few google searches. Try “MSG” and “safety” and you’ll find no end of things. The studies I cited are only the most well known, which is to say, you see them referenced in lots of places. But overall I ‘d say that there are so many more things out there that can cause allergic reactions…MSG seems to be the least of ur problems.

      Thanks for the email!

      – Joe

      1. Yep, I definitely don’t have problems with MSG (and, actually, I don’t know anyone who does). Garbanzo beans? yes (ah, hummus, how I miss you!). MSG? no problem.

        But having ended up with a “wow, that’s rare!” sort of thing, I like to defend the possibility of other people possibly having unusual sensitivities until it’s proven otherwise. 🙂

        The survey of placebo studies linked in a comment below does have very small sample sizes (which is understandable; finding people who believe they’re MSG-sensitive who are willing to be given MSG must be a challenge!), but it does definitely come down on the side of not causing differentiable problems in small amounts or when taken with a meal.

        So, if I ever had a dinner guest who indicated an MSG problem, I’d probably still try to avoid the bonito/anchovies/parmesan/vegemite and other “big” sources of MSG just in case… but if they were the adventurous type, I might suggest they offer themselves to medical research to increase those sample sizes and/or find out for themselves whether they’re sensitive to MSG itself or not! 🙂

  2. Not only is there no meaningful difference between monosodium glutamate and glutamate, once monosodium glutamate (or any other salt) is dissolved in water it dissociates into its component ions. So what you end up with is a bunch of glutamate ions and a bunch of sodium ions, all floating around separately. No difference at all.

  3. I lived in China for a year and likely ate a TON of MSG. Good GRIEF. Food there was so unbelievably tasty.

  4. Thank you for writing about this! As a former chef with a chemistry background, I’ve had this discussion more than a few times with well-meaning friends and relatives who feel that ‘MSG is evil.’ My stance has always been, ‘But you don’t seem to mind it when we eat ____?’ And feel free to fill in that blank with anything from ‘sushi’ to ‘ballpark pretzels.’ MSG exists in most savory foods to some extent, and glutamate is a naturally-occurring, non-essential amino acid salt. It exists in our food supply and additional amounts make things taste better. From anchovies to miso, it’s the delicious umami flavor that makes food so yummy!

    As far as actual allergies go, I would be more likely to look at the small amounts of shellfish-derived additives that are commonly used to flavor Asian cuisines such as and dried scallops. I know that on more than one occasion, I’ve had a vegetarian friend ask about the ingredients of a dish only to be told, “It’s vegetarian, only a little shrimp are used for a flavor.” Most restaurants wouldn’t even think about listing it in as an ingredient, or thinking that it could ever cause problems, because most diners love the flavors and keep coming back!

    To satisfy the previous commenter, here are a few abstracts:

    These are just a sample of the studies that can be found through a quick search; none of them have shown any correlation between MSG consumption and allergic responses, sensitivities or other physical reactions.

    1. Apparently my use of HTML is not as awesome as I thought!
      Monosodium L-glutamate: A double-blind study and review
      Reconsidering the effects of monosodium glutamate: A literature review
      Review of Alleged Reaction to Monosodium Glutamate and Outcome of a
      Multicenter Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Study
      The significance of excursions above the ADI. Case study: monosodium glutamate.

    2. It’s my great pleasure, Laurie! I’ve stepped into it with MSG before, but I figure…why not? It needs to be said! 😉

      Thanks so much for the insights and all the great links!

      – Joe

  5. Are you saying we should trust randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials published in peer-reviewed journals to something overhead in the aisles of Whole Foods? If you’re right, then a lot of what we think about eating is going to be up for grabs.

    1. Anarchy! That’s what I’m creating here….anarchy! Those Chinese really are right about me…thought maybe they’ll be kinder now that I’m in the position of defending their culinary way of life.

      – J

  6. Dear Joe, I’m commenting on this old post because I’ve just recently rediscovered your blog (my last time being here thanks to your banana bread recipe).

    I cannot decide if I am allergic to MSG or not. I am Chinese and down plenty of soya sauce and am quite generous with a tiny pinch of MSG in my stir-fries.

    However, when I eat textured vegetable protein (soya chunks) or Quorn (a vegetarian meat substitute in UK), which both contain high amounts of MSG as a meat flavour booster, I get a numb feeling of pins and needles starting from the base of my tongue, radiating down the back of my jaw and neck, all the way to the top of my shoulders and upper arm. What it literally feels like is a crotchet hook in my dull nerves poking about my muscle fibres, twitching a little, but for some reason I cannot feel pain. My throat gets parched and my head dizzy, I am fine and not hypoglycaemic. It sounds like the ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’ in all of the literature quoted.

    What I am proposing is this:
    1. MSG when devoured with other ingredients (natural meats) are bound and less problematic for the allergy-prone OR
    2. MSG in quantities far surpassing the normal distribution in a dish (pinky-nail sized spoonful for a wok) triggers allergies OR
    3. MSG comes in many forms and those pre-added to meats, as opposed to cooking, may change chemically and affect individuals differently.

    In all my suppositions I do not wish to demonise MSG … after all, even medicine in a large enough quantity is poison.

    1. Of course I remember you, Jasmine! Nice to have you stop back, and with an excellent comment. It’s a very useful addition to the post.

      Come back again soon! 😉

      – Joe

  7. I’ve reached this weird point where I know my allergy is placebo-based, but I still experience symptoms. I can eat kumquats, meyer lemons, grapefruits, but if I try to eat an orange, just a plain old orange, I break out in hives.

    So yeah, there’s no scientific basis for it, but I still have to deal with it.

    1. Which is a gigantic bummer, I can only imagine. Here’s to growing out of allergies eventually, as many people do, in any stage of life.

      Thanks for the comment, Nipper!

      – Joe

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *