MSG Is It A Safer Choice Than Salt?

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MSG is a safer choice than salt!

Back in 1968, a letter to the editor by Dr. Kwok discussed a strange syndrome of numbness around the head, shoulder and arms as well as palpitations and weakness that occurred whenever he ate at a Chinese restaurant. He mentioned that it might be due to the high MSG content of the food [Kwok R N N Engl J Med 1968;278:796]. Other anecdotal reports soon followed with claims of a burning or tingling often associated with this syndrome. The symptoms, while disturbing, were always short-lived, rarely lasting more than 2-3 hours. A 1995 FASEB report of independent scientists found MSG safe. They noted that a small percentage of people (perhaps .02%) react when large amounts (>3 grams) are consumed at one time on an empty stomach particularly in a liquid such as a broth. They also suggested that a small percentage of severe asthmatics might also suffer bronchospasm when exposed to large amounts of MSG although this requires more research as some suspect this could be due to the co-ingestion of sulfites.

Despite the relative safety of MSG used in moderation there have been a growing number of anecdotal reports blaming MSG for causing or aggravating a wide variety of medical conditions such as HTN, Alzheimers disease, migraines and other headaches, neurological problems, asthma, anaphylactic shock, psychiatric disorders, etc. Despite these anecdotal reports, double-blind testing of individuals who claim to react to MSG in a variety of ways has failed to confirm MSG as the provocative agent [Kenney RA Fd Chem Toxic 1986;24:351-4]. This should not be surprising because glutamic acid is a nonessential amino acid. It is not essential because the human body makes all it needs but it is an essential component of all proteins synthesized by the human body. This does not preclude the possibility that large amounts could have some adverse reaction in some people.

Many Chinese restaurants and some other restaurants now put signs in their windows proclaiming, "No MSG." This is unfortunate because when chefs don't use MSG they often compensate by adding more salt or soy sauce. However, unlike salt, MSG has little or no effect on blood pressure [Boegehold et al Hypertension 1991;(Suppl 1):158-61]. Another potential danger of publicizing all sorts of questionable claims of adverse reactions to MSG is that some people who are experiencing symptoms of a heart attack or stroke may dismiss their symptoms as a temporary reaction to MSG and delay proper medical treatment. In both cases, the likely result of the on going food terrorist campaign against MSG is more death and disability from cardiovascular disease.

By Dr. James J. Kenney, PhD, RD, FACN.

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