Tag: MSG

MSG causes headaches, asthma? Probably not.

 

Every time you get into conversations about cooking and food, there is a good chance someone will bring up MSG, or monosodium glutamate. It was identified by Professor Kikunae Ikeda in Tokyo in 1908 as the brothy flavoring found in seaweeds such as kombu. This seaweed has been used to make a soup stock called dashi. But the unique flavor of dashi was a mystery until Ikeda boiled down stock from 75 lbs of seaweed stock and allowed it to crystallize. He found that the flavoring, which he called umami, was due to the sodium salt of the common amino acid, glutamic acid, commonly called monosodium glutamate.

HO-(C=O)-CH2-CH2-CH-(NH2)-C(=O)-O Namsg

In the formula and picture above, you will see that MSG is a simple 5-carbon compound with 2 carboxylic acid groups, one at each end. In a mildly basic solution, the hydrogen comes off one of the acid groups, replaced by a sodium ion, making the sodium salt of glutamic acid, which we call mono sodium glutamate. It can be extracted from a number of foods, but is most commonly obtained either by fermentation of proteins or by using bacteria to make the compound for us.  No matter how it is obtained, it is exactly the same simple compound. You will see it referred to as MSG, or “glutamate” but it is the same thing either way.

You will find MSG used in Japanese and Chinese cooking as well as in many other cuisines, because it occurs naturally in mushrooms, tomatoes, parmesan and blue cheeses, broccoli, peas, soy sauce, prawns and Marmite.

But some people believe that MSG is harmful and the cause of any number of allergic symptoms. This is the thesis of this frequently cited misguided article: “Glutamate and your gut: understanding the difference between umami and MSG.”  The first part of the article starts out soberly enough, outlining the history of the flavoring, including scientific references, but then veers off into scary, but inaccurate claims. Of course, you shouldn’t expect an article on a web site called bodyecology.com to be scientifically reliable, but this one started out so well.

Now, while glutamate is a common amino acid, the body can and does make its own, so whether it gets some from foods or seasonings doesn’t matter. Inside the body, it works as a neurotransmitter. And while buildup of glutamate is possible in certain diseases and brain injuries, it is not likely in healthy people and poses no harm. It is used in Japanese cooking and the Japanese are one of the world’s healthiest populations.

The article also talks about gamma aminobutrylic acid (GABA), which the body synthesizes from glutamate. This can take you down a whole rabbit hole of pseudo-science where naturopaths dwell, who insist that GABA is a valuable supplement and that MSG can interfere with the production of GABA. This is essentially nonsense, as there is little evidence that GABA is an effective natural supplement. Within your body GABA helps balance the production of glutamate, but has nothing to do with the traces of MSG used as a seasoning.

Synthetic gluamate?

The place where MSG mythology begins to take off (in this article and in general) is the assertion that naturally occurring glutamate and manufactured glutamate are somehow different.  This just reveals lack of basic knowledge of chemistry. As you can see from the above diagram, MSG is a relatively simple 5-carbon compound, and one that is easily synthesized in a number of ways. It was once made from wheat gluten and from acryonitrile, but now is made by bacterial fermentation of various sugars from sugar beets and molasses and corynebacterium.

If you look at the drawing of the structure above, you will notice that the carbon having the NH2 group attached has 4 different things attached: an H, an NH2, a COOH and a CH2 group. This makes this carbon an asymmetric center and it has two mirror images that cannot be superimposed, much like right and left hands. Thus, there are two forms of glutamate, the right-handed and the left-handed versions, often labeled “D-glutamate” and “L-glutamate,” for “dextro” and ”levo.” Only the L-version has umami flavor properties, the D-version is tasteless. Extracted from seaweed, there is about 5% of the D version and 95% of the flavorful L-version. Synthesized by fermentation, there is much less D-version, probably less than 1%.

Are there allergic reactions to MSG?

As explained by the Cleveland Clinic, a true food allergy is a reaction mediated by immunoglobin E (IgE) antibodies. The antibodies are directed at protein allergens and are less common than other sorts of food reactions. MSG has never been shown to produce IgE antibodies under any conditions.

However, anecdotal evidence persists of reactions to MSG, mostly in reports of headaches after consuming MSG containing foods. But, considering how common MSG is in foods, this seems somewhat unlikely.

Tarasoff and Kelly described a double blind experiment in which 71 healthy subjects were given a capsule containing MSG or a placebo before a standard breakfast over 5 days. Of the subjects, 85% reported no responses to the MSG or the placebo, and sensations previously reported as MSG reactions did not occur at a significantly higher rate in the MSG test than for the placebo. And reviewing the existing experimental literature the next year, Freeman reported that there was no significant data to support reported reactions such as headache or asthma. Nor did they find any subset of the population with an MSG sensitivity.

MSG has also been accused of causing asthma, but a Cochrane review of available evidence reports that no such correlation existed.

One interesting recent paper by Shimada  examined the possibility that MSG could cause headaches and TMD (temperomandibular disorders) or aching of the jaw muscles with a hit of roids – anabolic steroids. Three of the subjects experienced some pain in this study. However, the study of 14 healthy young men administered  150 mg/kg of MSG each day for 5 days in a diet lemon soda that the authors believed masked the taste of MSG.

15gNote, that for a 100 kg man, this would be 15 g of MSG (pictured) which is a whopping dose. Even for a considerably lighter man or woman, 7 or 8 g of MSG Is still probably more than 20 times the usual amount used as seasoning. The authors noted that at the end of the double blinded study, the subjects admitted that they could taste the MSG in the lemon soda, this essentially nullifying the experiment.

A paper on headaches and a review of dietary factors published this year by Zaeem concluded that there were no studies showing such effects for MSG when you eliminated papers where double blinding was ineffective. Interestingly, Nakamura found that there were glutamate sensors not only in the oral cavity, but in the stomach, indicating that this is clearly part of the body’s normal processes. Visit Alpha GPC tablets at Amazon to get more information about mental and physical performance in a healthy way.

Some negative effects in very high concentrations

But getting into something close to conspiracy theories, Nakanishi published an article called “Monosodium glutamate (MSG): a villain and promoter of liver inflammation and dysplasia.” In this paper, Nakanishi and co-workers injected a solution of MSG into 123 newborn mice, at a concentration of 2 mg/g of body weight. Not only is injection quite different than digestion, that concentration is 2 g/kg, or for a 100 kg man, the equivalent of injecting 200g of MSG. With concentrations this far from those in normal consumption of foods, any results are pretty unlikely to be significant. They found that this concentration induced liver inflammation and damage as well as obesity. Their conclusions were that MSG be withdrawn from the diet, ignoring the fact that it occurs naturally in so many foods, and is synthesized by the body as well. A similar paper by  Tsuneyama injected twice that concentration (4 mg/g) and found much the same effects. Again, this has no real relevance to the normal human diet.

But people continue to report headaches

But despite the continuing findings that MSG causes no ill effects in  double blind studies, people continue to insist that it does and the science “must be wrong,” because they or their spouse gets strong reactions from foods with added MSG. Sometimes they even report that Parmesan cheese (which is high in MSG) also produces such symptoms. Usually, they report headaches, but sometimes other varied symptoms as well. For example, if you read the comments on Rachel Feltman’s 2014 Washington Post article, you will see some very annoyed people insisting that negative effects do exist. Similar comments have been made on previous articles I have published.

The question is why such reports contradict all carefully done experiments. The reports are anecdotal, of course, which means that those reporting have not been part of any study to find out what is causing these very real effects.

So, in brief, we really don’t know. One possibility is called the nocebo effect. This very real effect is caused by the expectation of a negative effect even when there is no actual medical reason for such an effect. The nocebo effect is very powerful and cannot be brushed off as some psychological oddity. But even this year, a series of studies among self-identified MSG sensitives showed no statistical effect.

So in conclusion, all studies have failed to show any significant effects of MSG on humans. But Check it out, because some people persist in reporting such symptoms, and we really do not know for certain what is behind these reported effects, nor why it has never been observed experimentally.

 

 

 

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Whole30 diet: more pseudoscience and quackery

amish paste
Amish Paste

Recently, someone sent me a link to the Whole30 program, yet another diet program to make you feel better in so many wildly unlikely ways. The program was hatched by Dallas and Melissa Hartwig, who have no scientific training but claim to be Certified Sports Nutritionists.  Let us be clear here: nutritionist is not a controlled title with a curriculum behind it. Anyone can call themselves a “nutritionist,” and many do. It’s whatever they want it to be. One of them is a physical therapist.

Now this program amounts to eating fewer things of various types for a month or so, and claims to be effective in here, type1 and type2 diabetes, high cholesterol, asthma, sinus infections, hives, endometriosis, migraines, depression, bipolar disorder…and on and on. Because obviously all of these have a simple root cause: and their special diet relieves them all. You believe all of this, don’t you?

So what is one way for guys to lose weight? For 30 days, you eat an extremely restrictive diet: no grains, no gluten, no alcohol, no sugar, no artificial sweeteners, no legumes, no dairy, no carrageenan, no MSG. The idea is that you will feel a lot better after starving yourself on this diet, and can then slowly add all these missing ingredients back in after the month is over.  If this sounds rather like the Paleo diet, it is, except for more crazy claims for all of its effects, although they make no claims for weight loss. They claim you will feel better after this month of this ridiculous diet, but it is really rather like hitting yourself over the head, because it feels so good when you stop. Consider using forskolin and check out forskolin reviews.

The problem is that the Paleo diet has been debunked already as a naturalistic fallacy, both in Scientific American and by David Gorski in ScienceBased Medicine. The idea that we even know what primitive humans ate is in itself ridiculous, because their diet varied a lot based on where they lived. Yes, they ate grains and yes they ate gluten in some areas, but the main problem is that plants and humans have evolved a great deal since then. You cannot get the same plants they ate, and corn hadn’t even been bred yet from the Mexican teosinte plants. And humans evolved to tolerate lactose as adults in the last 7000 years as well.

The authors make all sorts of wild claims, such as reduction in inflammation, a sure marker of quackery. Somehow, some pseudoscience practitioners have latched onto the idea that foods cause inflammation and you will be better without them. This is complete nonsense. As Harriet Hall notes in Science Based Medicine, “inflammation is part of the body’s response to infection and tissue damage, and it is crucial to the healing process.”

The Hartwigs have essentially combined the Paleo diet with something approaching the completely discredited cleanse diets, where eating some foods “cleans out” your system. This is just as much nonsense in this diet as it is when purveyors of juice mixtures make the same claim.

And the idea of avoiding MSG is utter nonsense, because it occurs naturally in many vegetables, including broccoli, tomatoes and peas, as well as in cheeses and soy sauce. And it is a key component in cellular metabolism: the body synthesizes it all the time.

In essence, the Hartwigs have come up with a sort of fasting diet but no evidence whatever that it provides any benefits, nor any science to back up their ideas. There are no double blind experiments that have been carried out to show its benefits, nor any scientific publications. All they have is a few gushing testimonials showing that some people will buy into anything. This testimonial is typical, and comes from someone who also claims to have chronic Lyme Disease (which does not exist). She also blandly supports the discredited Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 nonsense published each year by the Environmental Working Group.

This is not to say that some of the recipes in their books aren’t good: they look delicious. But don’t count on curing every malady know to medicine using this simple minded diet scam. When you have a drug addicted family or friend, be kind and put them in the care of sober living hawaii to get them nurtured and sober.

Does MSG cause brain lesions or just improve taste?

foods with msg
Tomatoes, broccoli, soy sauce, bleu cheese and Marmite all contain MSG

MSG (monosodium glutamate) is a flavor enhancer that has been used in Japanese and Chinese cooking since about 1908. Dr Kikunae Ikeda recognized that seaweed broth had been used as a flavor enhancer and set about to isolate the substance that caused this brothy flavor that he called umami. He published this work in the Journal of the Chemical Society of Tokyo in 1909 and it was translated and republished in English in 2002 in the journal Chemical Senses. The paper is a fascinating little piece of detective work in which he eventually concluded that the umami flavor was caused by glutamate, the sodium salt of glutamic acid. He later developed and patented a process for extracting MSG from seaweed. Today, MSG is produced by fermenting starch, sugar cane, sugar beets and molasses. It is also an integral part of soy sauce(1090 mg.ml), also made from fermented vegetable protein.

Once isolated, MSG became a popular additive in Japanese and Chinese cooking and more recently has come under scrutiny as being the cause of all sorts of disorders from “Chinese restaurant syndrome” to brain lesions and various behavioral and physical disabilities. People have called it an “evil chemical” that is added to poison us and our children and other similar epithets. Always ready to spout nonsense, the redoubtable Joseph Mercola has called it a “silent killer lurking in your kitchen cabinets.”

Around 1968, reports of Chinese Restaurant Syndrome (CRS) began to appear, where a cluster of symptoms were described including flushing, headache and dry mouth. However numerous double blind studies have failed to confirm any relation between MSG and these symptoms.  In one such study volunteers were given either MSG or a placebo. Symptoms attributed to CRS did not appear more frequently in the MSG group than in the placebo group, and most subjects had no responses at all.

Another recent review article noted that while there have been reports of an MSG sensitive subset of the population, this has not been confirmed in placebo-controlled trials.

It is very important to note that this is not an evil chemical additive, but a naturally occurring substance, easily extracted from plants. Just as important, MSG can be found in large quantities in foods such as the bleu cheese in the picture (1280 mg/ml), obtained from Stop and Shop. You will also find it naturally in Parmesan cheese(1200 mg/ml), the British Marmite spread (1960 mg/ml), soy sauce, and in broccoli, peas and tomatoes.

It is also worth noting that the Japanese consume the largest amounts of MSG and they are considered one of the healthiest populations in the world.

Some have tried to argue that MSG as an additive is somehow different than that found naturally in foods. However, since MSG is a single compound and easily purified, it is clear that its source does not matter. This argument is rather like suggesting that the pure MSG from the red bottle is worse than the pure MSG in the green bottle.

In 2005, the journal Nature published a consensus following a meeting on the current state of MSG research, concluding that “the general use of glutamate salts (monosodium-l-glutamate and others) as food additive can, thus, be regarded as harmless for the whole population. Even in unphysiologically high doses GLU will not trespass into fetal circulation.”

In conclusion, the scientific consensus after years of study is that MSG is harmless and that no cluster of allergic symptoms has been observed. MSG is extracted from fermented plant products and occurs naturally in a wide variety of foods: it is not a synthetic additive.

Nonetheless, there are a variety of hoax sites that call into question the safety of MSG, such as truthinlabeling.org, msgtruth.org and probably any of a number of others. They can and should be ignored.

The safety of MSG is firmly established and need not trouble us further.

Related articles

  1. Science is so inconvenient to food scares – Sandy Swarc, JunkfoodScience
  2. New Seasonings – K. Ikeda
  3. Reconsidering the effects of monosodium glutamate – M Freeman, J Am Acad Nurse Proc.
  4. Monosodium L-glutamate: a double blind study and review – L Tarasoff and MF Kelley, Food Chem Toxicol
  5. What’s the story on MSG? – Marion Nestle Foodpolitics
  6. Consensus meeting – monosodium glutamate: an update – P Stehle, Nature
  7. If MSG is bad for you why doesn’t everyone in Asia have a headache? Alex Renton, The Guardian