What is MSG - Ask a Nutritionist

September 7, 2023

We've all heard of MSG. It's a common ingredient and food additive used to boost flavor. But what actually is it? Tune into this week's episode of Ask a Nutritionist to learn all about what MSG is.

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Welcome to the “Ask a Nutritionist” podcast, brought to you by Nutritional Weight and Wellness. We are thrilled to have you join us today as we discuss the connection between what you eat and how you feel, and share practical real life solutions for healthier living through balanced nutrition. Now let's get started.

BRITNI: Hello and welcome to Dishing Up Nutrition's midweek segment called “Ask a Nutritionist”. I am Britni Vincent, a Registered and Licensed Dietitian. And on today's show brought to you by Nutritional and Weight and Wellness, I will be answering a nutrition question we've received from one of our Dishing up Nutrition listeners. The question today is, “Can you talk about MSG, what are the effects of MSG and is it inflammatory to the body?”

What is MSG?

So first of all, I just want to start to explain what is MSG? You know, I think everybody's heard of it, but maybe you don't know exactly what it is. So MSG is also known as monosodium glutamate. It's a common ingredient and food additive, and it's used to boost flavor. It provides us that umami flavor that you may have heard of. It's found in many different processed foods, you know, canned frozen foods, some restaurant foods.

And MSG is derived from glutamic acid, which is a type of protein that is abundant in many different types of foods, including fruits and vegetables. However, due to how MSG is manufactured generally, it's also accompanied by other contaminants or undesirable byproducts. And MSG is quite controversial. You know, you may have heard some people say, oh, it's totally fine to have MSG and other people say, no, you really want to avoid it as best that you can.

Free vs. bound glutamate

And the reason why it's so controversial is it it contains a highly concentrated form of free glutamate, and it's processed very differently in the body than naturally occurring glutamate, and it can increase the level of glutamate in your blood very quickly. So I want to talk more about the distinction between free and bound glutamate. All the potential health concerns that you hear of in regards to MSG, it's really about the form of free glutamate.

And bound glutamate refers to glutamate in a whole unmodified protein source. Therefore, it's usually digested, absorbed slowly. There's plant and animal derived food sources like bone broth, meats, mushrooms, eggs, ripe tomatoes, broccoli, peas and some soy products. And excess glutamate found in these food sources can just be excreted through waste to prevent toxicity.

Free glutamate by contrast, which would be MSG, is free glutamate. It's no longer bound to other amino acids, therefore, it can be absorbed much more rapidly, causing spikes in the concentration of glutamate in the blood. So that's the distinction. So today we're really talking about MSG or free glutamate. The glutamate that's found in naturally occurring food sources is not a concern at all. So, diving more into MSG, the truth in labeling campaign has extensively studied the role of MSG and found that some people are clearly sensitive and, you know, they're not the only ones that have done research and found that people are sensitive.

MSG is inflammatory

And even clinically, I have had many, many clients over the years that absolutely know they negatively react to MSG. Even if you don't think you have a reaction, I do think that this is something that everybody should avoid. You know, the, the listener asks the question, is it inflammatory? You know, I do think it's inflammatory and I I also believe that more people negatively react to it than they realize because it is found in so many different foods that people just aren't aware of, and they might not realize that MSG is the reason maybe they're feeling poorly.

Possible reactions to MSG

So I want to talk more about possible reactions that you can have to MSG: muscle tightness, numbness, tingling, weakness, flushing, headaches, and migraines: this is a really big one, and this is one that I have heard from many clients over the years. So if you are somebody that has headaches or migraines, I'd really recommend that you make sure you're not getting any MSG in your foods. MSG might contribute to weight gain. Many studies have linked MSG to an increase in appetite and, and then also weight gain.

MSG has been linked to an increase in asthma symptoms. There's also a link to metabolic syndrome. One study out of Thailand showed a direct association between the consumption of MSG and a higher risk of metabolic syndrome among 349 adults. There's also some research that suggests children with autism spectrum disorder and ADHD may be more sensitive to the effects of, of glutamate.

Whether or not you think MSG is harmful, the reality is it's found in processed foods and at Nutritional Weight and Wellness, you know, if you have listened to our podcast before, you know that we're all about real food and we recommend avoiding or limiting that processed food as as much as you can. So if you're doing that naturally, you're, you're avoiding the MSG.

What foods can have MSG?

But I do want to list out the foods that, that you can find MSG in: potato chips, fast food, seasoning, including condiments. You know, a lot of seasoning packets are going to have MSG, convenience meals, salty snacks, instant noodles, some sports drinks, processed meats, canned soups: that's a really big one. Broth or or bouillon, salad dressing, crackers. And then restaurant food.

What names can mean MSG?

So before you purchase something at the grocery store, I'd encourage you to turn the back over, read the ingredient list, make sure you're avoiding monosodium glutamate. I'm also going to give you some other ingredients that contain free glutamate. Wheat gluten can, maltodextrin, modified food starch, yeast extract, hydrolyzed proteins, textured proteins, meat flavorings, autolyzed yeast, bouillon. You also see listed in many food products flavors or flavoring. That is kind of a key word that they don't have to tell us what exactly it is. And those could be free forms of, of glutamate.

I hope that I provided you some more detailed information about MSG. Again, I do think it's something that everybody should avoid. And if you're avoiding processed foods, then you are already avoiding MSG. I would not worry about naturally occurring bound glutamate, which is, is found in those foods that I listed earlier, like mushrooms, tomatoes, some meats, eggs, things like that. We do not need to worry about that. It's the food additive MSG that that we are concerned about. And I do think that many of you, if you start to pay more attention to the foods that have MSG and how you react, you might recognize that you too are sensitive to it.

Thank you so much for listening to Dishing Up Nutrition’s “Ask a Nutritionist”. If you have a nutrition question you would like us to answer, we invite you to join our Dishing Up Nutrition Facebook community by searching Dishing Up Nutrition on Facebook.

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