As a consumer, one would be hard pressed to find a food in any American grocery aisle, freezer section or American restaurant that does not contain food with msg. Msg is everywhere in nearly everything we eat (see Msg in Foods box). This widespread usage of msg in America is quite significant considering msg didn’t even enter the American food supply until 1947, when it was introduced as the flavor enhancer called Ac’cent. This is not surprising when we consider that the anticipated result of msg flavor enhancement is that we eat more of the msg enhanced foods. As it relates to the bottom line, when people eat more of an msg enhanced food, the companies that supply this food increase profits. As the controversy continues, different methods of getting msg into foods have been incorporated. One of the most successful being the addition of msg to seeds used for grains and livestock feed. But before moving on, let’s see where msg came from and why.
First isolated in 1866 by a German chemist, the flavor enhancing potential of monosodium glutamate better known as msg wasn’t discovered until 1908. Seaweed, used by the Japanese for centuries as a flavor enhancer, was understood to contain glutamic acid which made that flavor enhancement possible. Further scientific research and development of glutamic acid uncovered an amazing scientific discovery. Professor Ikeda of Tokyo ImperialUniversity was analyzing a specific but was not one of the four known tastes of sweet, sour, taste in food. This taste was common to asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat bitter and salty. In 1907, Professor Ikeda began experiments to identify the source of this distinctive taste was. He knew that it was present in kombu broth made from seaweed found in traditional Japanese cuisine. Ikeda succeeded in extracting crystals of glutamic acid or glutamate from the kombu broth. Ikeda found that glutamate had a distinctive taste, different from sweet, sour, bitter and salty, and named it "umami".
Ikeda decided to make a seasoning using his newly-isolated glutamate. To be used as seasoning, glutamate had to have some of the same physical characteristics found in sugar and salt, easy solubility in water without being absorbent of humidity, nor able to solidify. Ikeda found that monosodium glutamate had good storage properties and a strong umami or savory taste. Msg turned out to be ideal for a seasoning. Monosodium glutamate had no smell or specific texture of its own thus it could be used in different dishes where it naturally enhanced the original flavor of the food.
Fundamentally, Monosodium glutamate, msg is a salt of glutamic acid and one of the 20 amino acids that make up proteins. Glutamate is in many living things. It is found naturally in our bodies and in protein-containing foods. Msg is a non-essential amino acid synthesizing in our bodies in two ways. In its’ ‘bound' form, msg links to other amino acids to make proteins. In its’ ‘free' form, msg is a single amino acid. Only this free form glutamate plays into the flavors of food. It is found naturally in virtually all protein-containing foods such as meat, poultry, seafood, vegetables and milk. Many Asian dishes characterized by the taste of glutamate, get it both from soy or fish sauces plus added glutamate flavor enhancer. In the case of Italian food, glutamate from cheese and tomatoes makes it taste better. Msg increases the original taste of the food and makes the original taste even more intense. Msg in meat, fish, vegetables or grains is in the protein-bound form. Msg in its free form is in tomatoes, milk, potatoes, soy sauce and many cheeses.
As methods of producing msg were perfected and streamlined by means of fermentation, glutamic acid production became large scale in Japan. The Ajinomoto Company was formed to manufacture msg in Japan. 'Aji no moto' means "essence of taste" in Japanese. The Ajimomoto Company soon became the world’s premiere supplier of MSG currently producing and distributing around 33% of the world's msg to 23 countries. In fact, the Ajimomoto Company is so synonymous with msg that in some Asian countries, Ajinomoto is the generic name for msg.
Recent studies show that food-derived glutamate is the main source of energy for the intestines. Any glutamate in the food, whether bound in protein, free form or added, is converted in the intestine into free glutamate to be used for the intestine’s energy production. The intestine requires so much glutamate that of all the glutamate consumed through our food, only four percent (4%) passes into the body. This indicates that the rest of the body has to synthesize nearly all of its own glutamate.
The brain uses glutamate as a neurotransmitter. However, the brain has to synthesize its own glutamate from glucose and other amino acids because the blood brain barrier which controls what type of molecules can enter the brain, does not allow its passage. Glutamate also has a central position in metabolism.
MSG symptom complex
This is the catalyst for the controversy regarding msg. The ingredient that causes reactions in msg-sensitive people is processed free glutamic acid. Only meat, fish, or vegetables that have been subjected to a manufacturing or fermenting process will cause reactions in msg-sensitive people who consume amounts that exceed their tolerance for msg. Dairy products can also cause reactions in msg-sensitive people because some dairy products are ultra-pasteurized, some are fermented, and many contain food additives. All processed free glutamic acid contains contaminants. People have reactions because msg is absorbed so quickly into the bloodstream. Because of this accelerated absorbency, msg has the potential to spike blood plasma levels of glutamate. Glutamic acid is in a class of chemicals known as excitotoxins. Scientific research indicates that high levels of excitotoxins have been shown in animal studies to cause damage to areas of the brain unprotected by the blood-brain barrier. In the early 1970s, Dr. John Olney found that high levels of glutamic acid caused damage to the brains of infant mice. A variety of chronic diseases can also arise out of this neurotoxicity. The debate surrounding MSG has focused on several areas including the following:
- Is the increase in glutamate levels from typical consumer levels of MSG enough to cause neurotoxicity in one dose or over time.
- Are humans susceptible to the neurotoxicity from glutamic acid seen in research animal experiments.
- Is neurotoxicity from excitotoxins caused by the combined effect of glutamic acid and other excitotoxins
Part of the debate stems from disagreement between scientists as to the human reaction to msg. Some scientists theorize that humans and other primates are not as susceptible to excitotoxins as rodents and therefore there is little concern with glutamic acid from msg. Other scientists think that primates are susceptible to excitotoxic damage and that humans concentrate excitotoxins in the blood more than other animals. Based on these findings, they feel that humans are approximately 5-6 times more susceptible to the effects of excitotoxins than rodents. While scientists agree that typical use of msg does not spike glutamic acid to extremely high levels in adults, they are concerned with potential effects in infants and young children as well as the potential long-term neurodegenerative effects of small to moderate spikes on the blood’s excitotoxin levels.
In 1995, the U. S. Food and Drug Administration released a report on msg. The following excerpts are from that report. “A report from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), an independent body of scientists, reaffirms the Food and Drug Administration's belief that msg and related substances are safe food ingredients for most people when eaten at customary levels.”
The FASEB report went on to identify two groups of people with the potential to develop the condition referred to as msg symptom complex. One group consisted of those who might be intolerant to msg when eaten in large quantities. The second group consisted of people with severe, uncontrolled asthma. This group might suffer temporary worsening of asthmatic symptoms after consuming msg.
The FASEB report provided the basis the FDA used for its requirement of glutamate labeling. Based on the FASEB report, the FDA requires that foods containing significant amounts of free glutamate (not bound in protein) declare glutamate on the label. The FDA determined that this would allow consumers to distinguish between foods with insignificant free glutamate levels and those that might result in a reaction.
That could be the end of the story except that in the 12 years since the FDA required MSG labeling, cases of msg symptom complex have been on the rise. The Truth in Labeling organization has filed extensive studies done on MSG. (see www.truthinlabeling.org)
According to the Truth in Labeling website, “Msg is a neurotoxin, potentially toxic to everyone, even to those people who do not respond with adverse reactions such as migraine headache, asthma, nausea and vomiting, fatigue, disorientation, and depression.”
Truth in Labeling backed that statement with dozens of cited studies done on msg. The following content from that report is particularly disturbing.
“We know that msg kills brain cells in laboratory animals. We know this from studies where msg was given in food and from studies where msg was given in drinking water. We know that msg causes macular retinal degeneration. In one 2002 study (Ohguro, H., Katsushima, H., Maruyama, I., Maeda, T., Yanagihashi, S. Metoki, T., Nakazawa, M.) A high dietary intake of sodium glutamate as flavoring (Ajinomoto) caused gross changes in retinal morphology and function. Experimental Eye Research 75:(3),2002.) No retinal damage was observed when msg was fed to laboratory animals for a month but as time during which msg was fed to those animals increased to 3 months and 6 months, there was observable damage. We must, therefore, postulate that damage done by repeated exposure to msg is cumulative. We know that learning disabilities and endocrine disorders such as gross obesity and reproductive disorders often follow the death of brain cells in animals. We also know that very young children whose blood-brain barriers may not be fully developed and the elderly are most at risk from the toxic effects of msg.”
“Relevant to the toxic effects of msg on the elderly whose weakened blood-brain barriers would be less able to keep excess amounts of msg from getting into the brain, there is sound science that suggests that the glutamic acid in msg may act as a "slow neurotoxin," not resulting in observable damage such as dementia until years after the msg was ingested.”
The last paragraph of the Truth in Labeling” article tells a grim tale. “To counter the research of independent neuroscientists, the glutamate industry sponsored animal studies that essentially looked for brain lesions at the wrong time, in the wrong place, using inappropriate procedures. Based on this seemingly fraudulent research, they claimed that they had demonstrated that msg does not cause brain lesions. However, by 1980, the fact that glutamic acid causes brain lesions in laboratory animals was undeniable; and the glutamate industry changed its defense of the "safety" of msg to the claim that studies of animals are irrelevant to humans.”
In their conclusion, Truth in Labeling stands by the following statements.
Msg-induced brain lesions in the area of the hypothalamus and/or accumulations of glutamic acid have been shown to cause each of the following:
- Retinal degeneration
- Neuroendocrine disorders
- Reproductive disorders
- Stunted growth
- Behavior disorders
- Learning and memory disorders
In addition, there is a copious literature on addiction, stroke, epilepsy, generative disorders (Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, and ALS, for example), addiction, brain trauma, epilepsy, neuropathic pain, schizophrenia, stroke, anxiety, and depression, seemingly diverse disease processes of the central nervous system that appear to be associated with the "glutamate cascade."
In response to these and other allegations of public misinformation regarding the food we consume, the House of Representatives approved the following measure but it has failed to pass the Senate twice, in 2004 and 2005. This information is taken directly from the House of Representatives website.
“EXECUTIVE OFFICE OF THE PRESIDENT OFFICE OF MANAGEMENT AND BUDGET WASHINGTON, D.C.20503
October 19, 2005 (House)
STATEMENT OF ADMINISTRATION POLICY
H.R. 554 – Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act of 2005
(Rep. Keller (R) Florida and 85 cosponsors)
The Administration strongly supports House passage of H.R. 554. Food manufacturers, marketers, distributors, advertisers, and sellers should not be held liable for injury because a person's consumption of legal, unadulterated food is associated with the person's weight gain or obesity. By helping to curb the growing problem of frivolous lawsuits in the United States, H.R. 554 presents an important opportunity to prevent continued abuse of the legal system. At the same time, the legislation would carefully preserve the right of individuals to have their day in court to pursue non-frivolous civil liability actions and, in so doing, respects the traditional role of the States in the Federal system with regard to such actions. The legislation would also ensure that Federal regulatory agencies retain their authority to enforce food safety and consumer protection laws. The Administration looks forward to working with Congress to improve certain provisions of the legislation as it moves forward.”
The Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act, also known as the Cheeseburger Bill aims to protect producers and retailers of foods from an increasing number of law suits and class action suits by obese consumers.
Using precedent from 1990s’suits brought against tobacco corporations, lawyers hope to use the courts to pressure the food industry into providing more prominent health advisory information about its products. Supporters anticipate that more health warnings would change consumer behavior, contributing to a solution to the obesity epidemic. Many state legislatures have passed their own versions of the bill.
So what does all this mean to us? If information is the key, consumers must weigh the facts then decide if the action is worth the reaction. While reading the definition of msg, I was struck by the similarity to all the other highly addictive substances that the US population struggles with. This is the physical description of msg taken from Wikipedia. “Sold as a fine white crystal substance, msg is similar in appearance to salt or sugar.” In view of this, consider not whether msg is good or bad for us, consider why its added at all.
Potential Sources of MSG
* Monosodium Glutamate
Links to more information about MSG
All about MSG being used on growing crops www.msgfacts.NET
Holistic Healing holisticmed.com
Battling the "MSG Myth" msgmyth.com