In the 1990s mono sodium glutamate (MSG) was phased out of Chinese restaurants due to “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”. Some individuals eating at Chinese restaurants would experience various symptoms, including burning, numbness, racing heart, chest pain, headaches and insomnia. However slowly over time it has crept back into our foods. It is difficult to put a figure on how many individuals may react to MSG. Some studies estimate up to 36% of the population is sensitive to MSG. Food Standards Australia, states that it is safe and it is not banned for use in Australia.
Why is MSG in foods?
MSG is a flavour enhancer producing rich flavour when added to savoury foods. When glutamate touches the taste buds on our tongue, it gives food a savory taste. Mixed with a meal, glutamate enhances the total perception of flavour. Asthe flavour is stronger, people tend to show a preference to these foods, in essence being “addictive”.
Glutamates do occur naturally in almost all foods, including meat, fish, vegetables and mushrooms. Strong flavoured cheeses, such as Parmesan, also contain high levels of free glutamate. However with added MSG you are getting much higher levels of glutamate than you would if you were to eat natural foods. These higher levels may be too much for some people especially children to handle.
Since MSG has had such a bad reputation, these days glutamate flavour enhancers (621-625) can come in many different forms that can be broken down to release glutamates. These look like anonymous ingredients on product labels. Food companies are using misleading labelling, declaring products have “No added MSG” despite using ingredients that are ultimately chemically indistinguishable from the flavour enhancer. Manufacturers are using ingredients like hydrolysed vegetable protein, yeast extract, vegetable protein extract or hydrolysed vegetable protein. In factthere are 129 ingredients that individuals who are sensitive to glutamates should avoid.
With so many snack foods being aimed at children, parents do need to be aware that children can react to these glutamates with irritability, restlessness and sleep issues. Parents who have children on modified diets, like gluten free also need to be aware that gluten free products may contain significant flavour enhancers to improve the taste of these products.
For more information on MSG flavour enhancers and glutamates see:
MSG, MSG boosters, flavour enhancers and natural glutamates
For a review of MSG on Australian supermarket shelves see:
Avoiding MSG? Try memorising the 129 terms food companies prefer to use