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The 'Evils' of MSG: Is ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’ Real?

We’ve all heard it before—and maybe have experienced it too: “I can’t handle MSG—I get the worst headaches!” Or “I feel so sick after Chinese food…it’s all that MSG.”

msgWhat is MSG?

First, what is MSG, or monosodium glutamate? MSG is the sodium salt of glutamic acid, a non-essential amino acid (which means that it is naturally-occuring in our bodies). It is commonly used as a ‘flavour enhancer’ for savoury foods, such as soups and meat dishes. Many people avoid MSG’s out of the belief that it causes various undesirable side effects, such as headaches, chest pain, flushing, numbness around the mouth, shortness of breath, etc.

I have personally avoided American-Chinese food for a long time—with a few notable exceptions. Although I take great pride in my ‘iron gut’, the term that I use to describe my well-functioning and efficient digestive system, Westernized Chinese food does not make me feel great, as is the case with many people (I also find its goopiness to be very off-putting; someone please explain to me why it’s so goopy). And up until very, very recently (ie two days ago), I put my physical discomfort with Chinese food at least partly down to the presence of MSG, or monosodium glutamate. I had assumed that MSG was some kind of messed-up laboratory experiment, designed by the fast food industry to enslave our taste buds and render us helpless to resist such obesity-inducing, artery-clogging foods as kung pao chicken and sweet-and-sour pork.

But, after a cursory Google search, I realized that MSG may have much less to do with post-Chinese food discomfort than I had originally assumed.

MSG is Naturally-Occurring in Some Foods

I discovered that MSG is naturally-occurring in some of what we consider to be the healthiest of foods; tomatoes, seaweed, mushrooms, lentils, meat, and other foods with a savoury, umami flavour, like cheese, all contain MSG. Even your hydrolyzed whey and soy protein supplements likely contains MSG (although it’s often listed as ‘natural flavours’). And today, the food industry produces MSG by a process of fermentation, much as in the way of vinegar and yogurt.

The term ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’ (now interchangeable with ‘MSG syndrome’) was first used by Robert Ho Man Kwok in 1968 to describe some unpleasant symptoms that he experienced after an American-Chinese meal. This association continues to pervade our food culture: we see every day food establishments boasting in their windows of their ‘MSG free food’, or ‘no added MSG’.

Our concern over MSG, however, is likely unfounded, as study after study have basically proven that MSG intolerance is very, very rare and, in general, unsupported by science.

‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’?

So, why can so many of us attest to ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’? While it is possible that you are of the very small population afflicted with an intolerance to synthetic MSG’s, there exists a number of alternative reasons to explain your symptoms.

  1. You have a glutamate sensitivity. Many people believe that MSG’s are the sole source of glutamates, and thus the only thing to be avoided, but that’s just not so! Do you get a headache from parmesan or other aged cheeses (which contain some of the highest naturally-occurring glutamate levels)? Does your mouth burn when you eat broccoli or mushrooms? One study found virtually no difference in the chemical makeup–or in our physiological response to—naturally-occurring glutamates and synthesized glutamates such as MSG’s.

Also, according to the FDA, the average American consumes daily about 13 grams of glutamate from protein in food, and only about 0.55 grams of added glutamate (such as MSG’S).

It’s also important to note that there is no legislation in Canada requiring the nutritional labelling of food that contains naturally-occurring MSG—so, do your research if you suspect that you have a glutamate intolerance!

  1. Your food isn’t very fresh. MSG can be used to enhance, or disguise, the flavours of food that is of a lesser quality or questionable freshness. So, while you might think you are experiencing an adverse reaction to MSG, your nausea might be due to the fact that your chicken breast has been sitting on a counter for two days.
  2. You’ve eaten too much. Some experts argue that MSG is an ‘excitatory’ neurotransmitter (ie it makes food delicious), so it’s possible that you have eaten beyond your body’s requirements for satiation. That being said, other research has shown that MSG’s actual increase our experience of satiety, keeping us feeling fuller for longer.

These days, skepticism as to the safety and quality of our food is at an all-time high; as in the case of MSG, oftentimes our fears surrounding food are founded on nothing more than myths or irresponsible assumptions. So, how do we separate fact from fiction when it comes to nutrition? Here at Infofit, however, we are dedicated to delivering the latest, most thoroughly-researched, and most honest information when it comes to our food and fitness. You can trust us to do our research, so that you don’t have to. Check out our variety of course and seminar offerings and take your health to the next level.

Wishing you all the best on your journey to optimum health!

Written by Theresa Faulder, Master’s in English, Certified Personal Trainer, and Infofit fitness blog writer

Works Cited

Canada, H. (2008, June 27). Monosodium glutamate (MSG) – Questions and Answers. Retrieved March 29, 2018, from

Geha, R. S., Beiser, A., Ren, C., Patterson, R., Greenberger, P. A., Grammer, L. C., . . . Saxon, A. (2000). Review of Alleged Reaction to Monosodium Glutamate and Outcome of a Multicenter Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Study. The Journal of Nutrition, 130(4). doi:10.1093/jn/130.4.1058s

Masic, U., & Yeomans, M. R. (2014). Umami flavor enhances appetite but also increases satiety. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 100(2), 532-538. doi:10.3945/ajcn.113.080929

“Questions and Answers on Monosodium glutamate (MSG)”. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. November 19, 2012. Retrieved February 4, 2014.

Obayashi, Y; Nagamura, Y (17 May 2016). “Does monosodium glutamate really cause headache? : a systematic review of human studies”. The Journal of Headache and Pain. 17: 54. doi:10.1186/s10194-016-0639-4. PMC 4870486. PMID 27189588.

Walker, R., & Lupien, J. R. (2000). The Safety Evaluation of Monosodium Glutamate. The Journal of Nutrition, 130(4). doi:10.1093/jn/130.4.1049s

Wei, Will (16 June 2014). The Truth Behind Notorious Flavor Enhancer MSG. Business Insider (Podcast). Retrieved 13 November 2017

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