MSG and Me


Recently, within minutes of eating one of my mother’s egg foo yungs, I found myself developing a splitting migraine headache and growing weak. The onset was so rapid and violent that I became alarmed. Only a few days prior the same incident had happened to me, and somewhere within my consciousness I remembered that it also was after I had had one of her meals. In the past only one ingredient has had this effect on me so quickly after eating. Had she forgotten? Or did she (like so many others) think it was something she could slip past me?

“Mom did you put Vetsin in the omelettes?”
“Yes, just a little though, why?”

Let’s just say that my calmness ended at that point.

MSG sensitivity is no laughing matter however, like most food intolerances, it’s a condition that is easily overlooked and diminished by those who are not affected. My mother has had a severe gluten allergy as of earlier this year, so after a few moments she did apologize, but the damage was done. I popped two Syndol and was off to bed for several hours. Considering that I had an especially large workload that day, you can believe this was not a welcome ‘beauty sleep’.

Last month, the renowned food writer Michael Ruhlman posted a strongly worded essay entitled “A Nation of Culinary Sissies”. In it he links to a NY Times article which he claims ‘thoroughly debunks’ people’s claims of MSG sensitivity. After having read the article however I have to wonder about his reading comprehension skills. Nowhere in the article did it state that MSG sensitivity did not exist.. All it states is that for the vast majority of people negative side effects are not experienced when MSG is consumed in so called normal amounts. Well duh! If it was otherwise, it would have probably been banned by now. What that wording concedes however is that negative effects may occur should consumption excede “normal amounts” and that there is also a minority of the population who may experience side effects with even “normal” ingestion.

If you think I am reading too much into that phrase, keep in mind that the New York Times itself found it fit to add a postscript to the article stating:

An article last Wednesday about the widespread use of monosodium glutamate by cooks around the world misstated the role of excitotoxins, which may include MSG. They can raise levels of glutamate, which can overstimulate neurons, not neurotransmitters. (Glutamate is itself a neurotransmitter.)

This phrase, which at first may seem like gobledygook, is key, because it is this -acknowledged- overstimulation of neurons which lies at the root of MSG sensitivity, more on that later.

The New York Times article then goes on to cite that a 1995 Food and Drug Administration survey cleared MSG as a health risk for the vast majority of consumers. (Again that key phrase ‘vast majority’). Because that phrase ‘vast majority’ is a red flag to my analytical mind I decided to search out that 1995 survey (going over first-hand materials is an obsession I’ve had since my college days). What I found showed that indeed often what is not quoted, is more important than what is.

You can read the report at this link on the FDA’s website, however I will repost here some of the key points:


“A 1995 report from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), an independent body of scientists identifies two groups of people who may develop a condition the report refers to as ‘MSG symptom complex.’ One group is those who may be intolerant to MSG when eaten in a large quantity. The second is a group of people with severe, poorly controlled asthma. These people, in addition to being prone to MSG symptom complex, may suffer temporary worsening of asthmatic symptoms after consuming MSG. The MSG dosage that produced reactions in these people ranged from 0.5 grams to 2.5 grams…

The agency believes that the report provides the basis to require glutamate labeling. FDA will propose that foods containing significant amounts of free glutamate (not bound in protein along with other amino acids) declare glutamate on the label. This would allow consumers to distinguish between foods with insignificant free glutamate levels and those that might contribute to a reaction…

Among the report’s key findings:

An unknown percentage of the population may react to MSG and develop MSG symptom complex
, a condition characterized by one or more of the following symptoms:

burning sensation in the back of the neck, forearms and chest
numbness in the back of the neck, radiating to the arms and back
tingling, warmth and weakness in the face, temples, upper back, neck and arms
facial pressure or tightness
chest pain
rapid heartbeat
bronchospasm (difficulty breathing) in MSG-intolerant people with asthma

“In otherwise healthy MSG-intolerant people, the MSG symptom complex tends to occur within one hour after eating 3 grams or more of MSG on an empty stomach or without other food. A typical serving of glutamate-treated food contains less than 0.5 grams of MSG. A reaction is most likely if the MSG is eaten in a large quantity or in a liquid, such as a clear soup.

“Severe, poorly controlled asthma may be a predisposing medical condition for MSG symptom complex…

“The level of vitamin B6 in a person’s body plays a role in glutamate metabolism, and the possible impact of marginal B6 intake should be considered in future research…

How this report could have been used to support the premise that MSG sensitivity does not exist boggles my mind. In the end it was the power of the food lobbies that blocked the FDA’s proposal to have MSG content clearly identified on commercial products, not a lack of evidence. The food lobbies have also provided substantial funding towards other studies which not surprisingly have shown MSG as benign.

In the end the MSG situation is not much different from those with peanut or shellfish allergies. Overwhelmingly we would never move to have peanuts or lobsters labelled as a public threat or a poison, however we also acknowledge that there is a small percentage of the population that can not consume these items without life threatening consequences and thus most food labels and restaurants have evolved to allow consumers to make informed decisions. I would never make the claim that MSG sensitivity exists on a broad or proportionally substantive level. My parents can eat meals prepared with vetsin with apparent immunity. I have watched them do so for years. I however am not so lucky. I am a member of one of those minority groups who through genetics do have this sensitivity. This is something that the FDA has acknowledged, the Journal of the American Medical Association has acknowledged and the US National Library of Medicine. So why a prominent food blogger such as Michael Ruhlman would be so dismissive and irresponsible is beyond me. Clearly some just like to hear (or see) themselves talk!

Further Reading:

MSG Free – Avoiding the hidden sources (
The politics of MSG toxicity and the potentially life-threatening repercussions

What Makes Me MSG Sensitive?
A very interesting look at genetic (and other) factors that can increase one’s sensitivity to MSG. In my case it was interesting to learn that having Asperger’s Syndrome (High Functioning Autism) may be what has made me vulnerable! Alcohol consumption also appears to intensify the reactions in those with MSG sensitivity. There are some restaurants that I have learnt (through trial and error) to only order juice at 🙂

Hidden Names of MSG
This list is so long I’m not even going to try to memorize it all. Instead I’ll make note of which places and recipes may set me off. And then either note the establishment, or if I made it myself, the ingredient list on any prepackaged products