Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), the Neurotoxin You Consume Every Day

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MSG, monosodium glutamate, is everywhere these days. And yes, it’s a neurotoxin. Not only that, but you consume a bit of MSG with nearly every meal you eat unless you’re a true purist, a label reading maniac, and cook most if not all of your own food at home.

There are dozens of websites on the Internet that tout the complete and utter safety of MSG, claiming that it’s never yet been proven dangerous in even one double blind scientific study. Wikipedia loves it. Make a statement about the dangers of MSG, and you’ll have oodles of attackers all over your thread, pooh-poohing your concerns and, if you’ve had a negative response to ingesting MSG, you must be a complete psychosomatic sucker who knoweth not your own body.

So there.

MSG has been used in a food additive for more than 100 years, and the controversy over the substance has been raging for at least 50 of them. My own sensitivity became apparent one afternoon in a Chinese restaurant in Rapid City, South Dakota, circa 1992–and there was no way I imagined it because, as luck would have it, I wasn’t even thinking about MSG at the time. My family and I had tucked into great bowls of won ton soup and other goodies. I’d just finished my meal when I happened to notice that my heart seemed to be running a lot faster than it should be when I, myself, was not running. When I’m in reasonable physical condition, as I was that year, my resting pulse rate hits 72 beats per minute, give or take. Curious but not alarmed, I checked my pulse.

94 beats per.

“I’m 22 beats above normal,” I told the others. It was my wife (who later became ex-wife #6) who thought of MSG as a possible cause. We asked our waitress: Did the restaurant add MSG to its scrumptious dishes?

Yes. It did.

The speedy pulse rate did not last all that long, dropping back to its usual 72 beats per minute within a couple of hours. There were no other symptoms. I did not get a headache or angina or anything else that other people sensitive to MSG have reported over the years. But now I had an internal “MSG meter” that has proven itself time and time again in the ensuing years. Every so often, especially with Chinese restaurants I’ve not tried before (many of whom use MSG quite liberally but without advertising the fact up front), I’ll apply the pulse test as follows:

    1. Check pulse rate prior to eating.

    2. Check pulse rate after eating.

    3. Ask restaurant staff if they use MSG.

So far, the pulse test has never failed. If there’s been a jump of 22 beats per minute, give or take (never less than 20 nor more than 24 beats higher than the base measurement), the waitress will admit that yes, they do use MSG. If there’s been no noticeable increase, it will turn out that they do not use MSG.

This post was inspired by a radio program I caught while driving to Home Depot today. The speaker (I didn’t catch her name) stated unequivocally that monosodium glutamate is a neurotoxin that stimulates brain cells to the point that they die.

All of the “debunkers” on the Net deny that, of course. “Where’s your proof?” They cry, “You have no proof!”

As far as I’m concerned, though, the best kind of proof has nothing to do with test tubes and laboratories and printed research. It has to do with what I know from experience…and I’m not alone. One of the best anti-MSG (i.e. pro-consumer) websites out there is truthinlabeling.org. It’s definitely worth a quick look. It must be; I don’t include an outbound link in more than one out of every hundred posts.

Here’s just a quick little quote from that page:

Ban MSG? Not a chance. If the FDA banned MSG, the drug companies would lose billions. Think about how much money they make treating asthma, migraine headache, seizures, depression, heart irregularities and all of the other reactions to MSG. And cancer, too. Acid hydrolyzed proteins contain carcinogenic propanols.

That food label you’re checking shows no monosodium glutamate but does list hydrolyzed protein? Uh, yeah. Different words, same substance.

The reason MSG is currently found in so many processed foods is not controversial. Quite frankly, it does act as a potent flavor enhancer, making a wide variety of foods taste better. The manufacturers of MSG undoubtedly make a lot of money, and any food seller who does not include the stuff…hey, that’s just giving the competition a leg up, right there. It also helps you decide to eat more, so you get fatter.

Sound familiar, America?

It’s also reported to be addictive–perhaps because food without it tastes like cardboard by comparison, perhaps due to other factors, but one way or another, if you chomp down some of it in a given food, you want more.

Which certainly explains a lot about the original Pringles potato chips slogan: “Bet you can’t eat just one.”

Yep. I just looked, and sure enough, my favorite sour cream and onion Pringles chips do have monosodium glutamate right there in the list of ingredients. It must not be as much of the stuff as some of the Chinese restaurants use–I’ve not detected any speeded up heartbeats after munching a fistful of chips–but it’s some, and as far as I’m concerned (now that I’m aware of it), any amount is too much. I killed off enough of my own brain cells during my drinking days; I don’t need to murder any more. Bye-bye, Pringles.

Monosodium glutamate, MSG, well up in the Pringles sour cream and onion potato chips ingredient list.

Monosodium glutamate, MSG, well up in the Pringles sour cream and onion potato chips ingredient list.

Other websites already show long lists of foods that currently contain MSG, including pretty much every processed product from every fast food chain out there plus many, many, many of the canned goods and such that we have in our own pantries at this moment. I decided to see just how bad it was. Ramen noodles have it, but there were a number of items on hand here at the Border Fort that do not include monosodium glutamate or hydrolyzed protein in the ingredient lists. The cereals were clean (though some of those did contain high fructose corn syrup, which isn’t great, either). Pam’s Triscuits were okay, too; so were the refried beans and, surprisingly, the cans of Mary Kitchen/Hormel corned beef hash.

The soups were another matter. All but one flavor of Campbell’s (in both chunky and condensed versions) included MSG. Chunky Baked Potato with Bacon and Cheddar Bits avoided the curse…only to include high fructose corn syrup. We have plenty of soup on hand, so I didn’t bother to check all of them, but the following Campbell’s flavors were checked and definitely included monosodium glutamate:

1. Cream of Potato
2. Beefy Mushroom
3. Country Sirloin Burger with Country Vegetables
4. Chunky Baked Potato with Steak and Cheese

We only have one can of Progresso soup in the house at the moment–and it, too, contains MSG.

5. Vegetable Classics, Hearty Penne in Chicken Broth (MSG as “Corn Protein, hydrolyzed”)

About ramen noodles: The Maruchan brand of chicken flavored (or beef flavored) ramen noodles we have on hand are now being consumed by our housemate, Alta, but I swore off ramen a couple of years ago. One container per night, a nice warm snack before heading to bed around 4:00 a.m., was speeding up my heart rate, and I finally decided enough was enough. Continuing to consume a food that affected my body that way would be–well, there’s stupid, and then there’s stupid.

When I finally thought to check for MSG in the ramen, it was there with bells on, both as monosodium glutamate per se and as three kinds of hydrolyzed protein.

Campbell's Beefy Mushroom soup:  Contains MSG.

Campbell’s Beefy Mushroom soup: Contains MSG.

Campbell's Cream of Potato soup:  Contains MSG.

Campbell’s Cream of Potato soup: Contains MSG.

Campbell's Chunky Sirloin Burger with Country Vegetables soup:  Contains MSG.

Campbell’s Chunky Sirloin Burger with Country Vegetables soup: Contains MSG.

Campbell's Chunky Baked Potato with Steak and Cheese soup:  Contains MSG.

Campbell’s Chunky Baked Potato with Steak and Cheese soup: Contains MSG.

Campbell's Chunky Baked Potato with Cheddar & Bacon Bits:  No MSG; includes high fructose corn syrup instead.

Campbell’s Chunky Baked Potato with Cheddar & Bacon Bits: No MSG; includes high fructose corn syrup instead.

Progresso Hearty Penne soup:  Contains MSG (as Corn Protein [hydrolyzed]).

Progresso Hearty Penne soup: Contains MSG (as Corn Protein [hydrolyzed]).

Maruchan ramen noodles are LOADED with MSG, both as monosodium glutamate and as the more "hidden" hydrolyzed protein (corn, wheat, AND soy).

Maruchan ramen noodles are LOADED with MSG, both as monosodium glutamate and as the more “hidden” hydrolyzed protein (corn, wheat, AND soy).

So…is the current drenching of our national food supply in MSG cause for concern? If you’re sensitive to the substance or you would like to keep a few of your brain cells alive or you eat too much because MSG-enhanced foods urge you to do so, then yes.

If you’re a methane breather from Uranus who’s utterly immune to such things, then perhaps not.

14 thoughts on “Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), the Neurotoxin You Consume Every Day

  1. I truly believe that MSG and high fructose corn syrup should be banned from our food. They are causing the people of this country to balloon up and become unhealthy. Then they complain about everyone being fat and unhealthy in this country. It is hard to keep trim when they are pumping all those chemicals into your food. Oh, and the growth hormones in meat producing animals. They need to stop those too. Young girls are developing larger and sooner than they should be. This causes back problems you would not believe.

  2. We’re in total agreement, yes, they should be banned.

    Bright spot: Pam’s preferred potato chips, Lay’s original, do NOT have MSG in them. No high fructose corn syrup, either.

  3. Ghost, I’m an avid label reader. I won’t buy anything with high fructose corn sryup or any of the ‘oses’, for that matter. However, I had no idea what hydrolyzed proteins are. I just checked a can of Progresso Light Chicken and Dumplings and it has corn protein (hydrolyzed) in it. Now I know. I eat very little processed foods. I keep soup on hand when I’m feeling lazy in the kitchen. Now I’ll read carefully if and when I buy canned soup again.

    As far as the Chinese restaurants, you can request they eliminate MSG from your dish at the time you place your order. That way, you also know your meal is made to order and not being warmed in a big tin bowl.

    I’m glad you posted this. I don’t buy anything with MSG in it, but wasn’t aware I was being dooped by hydrolyzed proteins. Thanx for the heads up. (BTW, it’s Lay’s that says bet you can’t eat just one.)

  4. Ah! That’s right; Pringle’s was, “Once you pop you can’t stop!” But I think I’ll leave the post incorrect, just the way it is, in hopes some other reader will take the time to offer a correction. 🙂

    I didn’t know what hydrolyzed proteins were, either, until it came time to do research for this article. As for requesting “no MSG”, yeah, I suppose I could do that–except that when I do stop at my favorite Chinese restaurant, I’m usually in a hurry, just trying to cram something down en route to various errands in town.

  5. Dear GhostWriter,

    I was innocently surfing the internet and came across your strange little blog. After reading the above article I was compelled to leave you to your rant and simply press the little white cross in the top right hand corner. Yet for some reason I am still here responding to your wall of hype and gibberish.

    I will compress a long, scathing reply with this one point.

    a) MSG is not a neurotoxin. This claim is ludicrous, and sets the tone well for the rest of your post.

    Have you even read the paper which this belief is founded upon? -Probably not.
    Do you have the qualifications to extrapolate the data, compare rodent and human biology and make an assessment as to whether MSG poses a risk to humans (let alone if it is a neurotoxin)? -Probably not.
    Do you even know off the top of your head what a neurotoxin is? -Probably not.
    Have you read ANY papers regarding diet, health or toxicity? -Probably not.

    I usually refrain from getting involved with idiots who post garbage online, but you sir take the biscuit. Try going back to school, get yourself a degree in something applicable (try bio-chemistry) and then actually do some research into your way of thinking.

    Cheers,

    Tom. (MD, Phd Bio-chemistry, MA Advanced Nutrition).

    P.S. You were right about one thing. High-fructose corn syrup. That IS a real killer.

  6. Thanks for validating the second paragraph in my post, Tom. It doesn’t seem overly brilliant, crassly insulting an author on a page he controls, and it’s certainly not what you’d call courteous. But I was impressed that someone with your lengthy list of degrees was willing and able to take the time to type even the short version of your “long, scathing” reply, and I’m leaving your comment in place as a springboard for my response.

    Off the top of my head, yes, a neurotoxin is generally defined as any substance that is destructive to, or poisonous to, nerve tissue. But, leaving you to your firmly stated opinion on that specific aspect of the topic, let’s explore your “no risk to humans” presumptions.

    Yes, I’ve read extensively in the areas of which you accuse me of being clueless. And yes, I have read the original study to which you refer. Additionally, I made my living in the alternative health field for more then twenty years at one point, and those of us in that field were (and are) very clear on several points:

    1. To a dedicated rat runner such as yourself, nothing can be true unless it’s meets “scientific” parameters–double blind studies, placebos, yada yada yada.

    2. Anecdotal evidence is summarily dismissed, often with lip-curling, sneering scorn.

    3. On the flip side, we low life types tend to trust our personal experiences and the experiences of those who share their stories with us, applying healthy doses of common sense, which the “hard science” types so often lack.

    4. As for “risk” to the human body, the core of this post (which I doubt you read in detail, choosing rather to leap fang-and-claw on the title alone) details my own experience with MSG. It does not rely on formal “studies”.

    The inability for the two camps (“yours” and “mine”) to truly communicate effectively would thus seem a chasm too deep and wide to cross–except for your P.S. I appreciate your concurrence on the subject of high fructose corn syrup.

    =========================

    To our other readers (who may find this of interest even if Tom doesn’t): I just chowed down on a KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) chicken breast about 30 minutes ago. KFC, according to one online report, is just about the “worst offender” out there when it comes to the amount of MSG the company adds to its chicken products. Thus, based on past experience in which my pulse rate jumped after ingesting MSG and stayed there for a while, usually starting to taper back down toward normal after half an hour or so (though not always getting there for a while after that), I figured my pulse should be up around 94 or so.

    No, not because of Tom firing up my adrenaline. If a writer on controversial topics is affected by a “scathing” comment, he (or she) is probably too thin skinned to be in the game at all. I’ve had death threats (not over nutritional writings) that didn’t bump my pulse one bit. So, IF my pulse was up, the most likely trigger was the MSG used by KFC.

    Note: We still love KFC and don’t intend to quit eating KFC chicken because of the MSG additive–but then again, we don’t bring home a bucket of chicken breasts from that chain more than a couple of times per year. It’s not an everyday deal.

    Okay, so I began taking my pulse every 5 minutes. The results:

    30 minutes after KFC ingestion: 100 beats per minute.

    35 after…92 beats.

    40 after…88 beats.

    45 after…88 beats.

    50 after…86 beats.

    At that point, I said “enough” and went to do other things until…

    …90 minutes after…78 beats.

    Not everyone has a noticeable sensitivity to MSG, but some of us definitely do. And finally, six hours after eating the KFC chicken breast laced with MSG (I forgot about checking between the 90 minute mark and now), my pulse rate came out at:

    72 beats per minute, right on target.

  7. I wanted to let you know that MSG has other names for it, I was hoping that you would of said them. I know that yeast extract is another name for MSG. By the way, Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup has MSG in it.
    I happen to come to your site because I was looking for info about MSG. I was reading someones comment, they were talking about getting a lot of migraine headaches, so I was trying to give them a little info about MSG. I wanted to make sure it was a neurotoxin, since I was writing it down & wanted to check if it gave migraine headaches, which you mention both in your article.
    Thank you for the info.

  8. Thanks for commenting, Debra. I did know that Campbell’s soups–a lot of them, not just Cream of Mushroom–included MSG. There are so many other names for MSG, though, that I was kind of overwhelmed by the idea of trying to list them all and ended up listing none instead. Sloppy reporting on my part; I appreciate the upgrade to this page. 🙂

  9. So glad for your critical thinking skills. I have been afflicted since 2004 by the food additives industry. I believe MSG is categorized as an excitotoxin, but all the same in my opinion. Sodium benzoate is also a neurotoxin. I love how all these MDs sat it is safe. Do they not think we can comprehend that is akin to having a bit of rattle snake venom, black widow venom, or nerve gas AKA nerve gas in our food/drink. How in the sam hell does this sound like a good idea unless you are the wicked witch if the west brewing a deadly potion? I commend you sir, as most ppl do not put two and two together. For me, msg causes a myriad of symptoms for me and my family. Sodium benzoate causes anaphylaxis for me. In general it causes oxygen deprivation in the entire body for everyone causing “crashing”. My BP is already low so, anaphylaxis occurs.

    As for Mr. MD/PH.D. you can keep all your alphabets as they mean nothing more than you are most likely well paid to keep people sick and running to your door for more prescriptions to cover the effects. Children don’t need your made up disorders of ADD, ADHD, BI POLAR etc. If you truly cared about people you would be prescribing dietary cures,and not pharmaceutical treatments. Write a new kind of prescription for a change. Like, stop eating junk and grow a garden. What was that oath you took…first do no harm? Lying by omission is still as bad.

  10. I would also like to mention that there is a huge different between glutamic acid naturally occurring in foods such as tomatoes, mushrooms, seaweed etc and the manmade version of monosodium glutamate which is carcinogenic.

    Peace, Lea

  11. And you are spot on about the more you talk about it, the more they attack you. Try talking about no GMOs, monsanto will come at you with a vengeance.

  12. Thanks for your comments, Lea. I have nothing to add to them–except a smile, a nod in agreement, and a chuckle when it comes to Monsanto. Many years ago, when I was a relatively young buck, I worked for a while in an underground phosphate mine in Montana. The phosphate ore was shipped to a single customer, i.e. Monsanto, to be reformed into fertilizer–the kind that can also be used to make explosives. I don’t suppose the fertilizer had MSG in it, but it always struck me as humorous that the stuff could “multitask”, i.e. either grow stuff or blow it up. 🙂

  13. The term MSG is seldom seen listed on a food label, but MSG is most likely contained in the food, in a disguised form. Here are some of its many disguises: Hydrolyzed vegetable protein, autolyzed vegetable protein, textured vegetable protein, hydrolyzed yeast extract,autolyzed yeast extract, plant protein extract, sodium caseinate, calcium caseinate, yeast extract, textured whey protein, textured soy protein.

  14. Thanks, Ben. About the only way I can see to totally avoid the stuff would be to grow one’s own food from scratch, and I do believe I’d need to move out of this harsh desert climate to rig the sort of farm that would cover all the bases. In the meantime, your “partial list” isn’t a bad start for those of us who’d like to at least cut down on the total amount of MSG we’re ingesting daily.

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