Loading... Please wait...

MSG Dangers and Deceptions

by Jack L. Samuels

Jack L. Samuels has worked in the health care field since 1957. In 1971, he was diagnosed as being MSG sensitive. Even though he has avoided all restaurant meals and foods labeled as containing MSG, he has lost consciousness about 25 times due to hidden MSG in food ingredients. He and his wife Adrienne founded the Truth in Labeling Campaign to encourage proper labeling of MSG in our foods.

March 30, 1998 was a sad day for consumers concerned with the safety of processed food.

On that date, Federal Magistrate Judge Thomas C. Mummert, Ill, ruled against the Truth in Labeling Campaign (ThC) and 30 other plaintiffs who sued the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in an effort to have all free glutamic acid (MSO) disclosed on the labels of all processed food.

On December 13, 1994, a legal document referred to as a Citizen Petition was filed with the FDA requesting that the FDA initiate a regulation that would cause all processed food to be measured post-production for free glutamic acid, the processed food component that consumers refer to as monosodium glutamate (MSG). The Citizen Petition further requested that if free glutamic acid was found to be present in a product, that its presence be stated on the label as "MSG," in grams, with the amount present carried out to the third decimal place. Further, it was requested that an appropriate warning regarding MSG be included on the labels of products in which it was found.

When the FDA failed to respond to the Citizen Petition within the 180 days required under law, ThC, a nonprofit corporation concerned with appropriate labeling of processed food, joined by the petitioners and several additional individuals, filed suit against the FDA on August29, 1995. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit included researchers, physicians, MSG-sensitive consumers and parents of MSG-sensitive children. Some of the physicians involved in the suit were MSG-sensitive, and most of the MSG-sensitive individuals involved had been diagnosed as MSG-sensitive by a physician.

It should be noted that all participants in the Citizen Petition readily agreed to be plaintiffs in the lawsuit except for one physician. That MSG-sensitive physician, age 47, died prior to the initiation of the lawsuit from the very condition that he attributed to his MSG sensitivity.

The behavior of the FDA during the course of the lawsuit, in the opinion of this writer, was not what one would expect from an agency concerned about food safety. The agency attempted several times to have the suit dismissed on a number of different bases; kept the court from seeing important documents that we had requested, on the grounds that a federal agency is protected from full disclosure under the Administrative Procedure Act; and presented the court with what can be best described as deceptive and misleading information.


MSG is a food additive that enhances flavors in food. It virtually has no flavor of its own, but neurologically causes people to experience a more intense flavor from the foods that they eat containing the substance. To millions of consumers, it means experiencing an adverse effect from the additive and possible adverse health effects in the future. To the food industry, it means increased profits, a simple way to balance taste in a product line and mask unwanted tastes, and to make otherwise unpalatable foods acceptable. In particular, MSG helps replace flavor lost by elimination of fat in many low-fat and no-fat foods.

The FDA requires that the ingredient "monosodium glutamate" be listed on the labels of foods in which it is used. Technically speaking, that ingredient is approximately 78% free glutamic acid, approximately 21% sodium, and up to 1% contaminants. However, free glutamic acid is also found, in varying amounts, in over 40 other labeled ingredients whose names give no clue to the fact that free glutamic acid is present as a component of the ingredients. (See Table 1) In some foods, glutamic acid is not specifically added, but is formed during processing. That is why the ThC lawsuit called for post-production testing and labeling of free glutamic acid.

The number of U.S. citizens affected by ingestion of MSG is in the tens of millions. This figure is based on epidemiologic studies completed in the 1970's that determined that at least 25% of the population reacted to MSG at the levels that were then found in processed food.1'2 (The amount of MSG currently found in processed food has increased dramatically over the years.) To counter these findings, the glutamate industry funded their own epidemiological study,3 a study since relied on by the FDA. In the industry-funded study, 43% of the respondents reported adverse reactions following a meal, reactions that we now associate with MSG sensitivity. However, the author of the study narrowly defined MSG sensitivity as three specific, mild and transitory conditions, all occurring: at one time, within a limited time following ingestion of MSG.

Vol 22, No 23 Health and Healing Wisdom

Even so, the researchers found 1.8% of the test population reacting to MSG. Since the time of that study, the FDA has claimed that approximately 2.0% of the population react to MSG with mild and transitory reactions.


The ingredient "monosodium glutamate" was invented in Japan in 1 908.~ The inventor, Kikunae Ikeda, identified the flavor enhancing substance of seaweed, recognizing that Asians had used seaweed for flavoring for thousands of years. Shortly thereafter, he and a partner formed Ajinomoto, currently a six billion dollar firm, that is the world's largest producer of MSG. Use of the product was minimal in our country until after World War II, when it was introduced to the United States food industry as a flavoring agent that our military discovered made Japanese army rations more palatable than our own. Many may remember when pure monosodium glutamate became available in our stores in a product called "Accent."

In 1968, a Chinese physician who immigrated to our country, Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok, wrote a letter to the editor of The New England Journal ofMedicine5 to ask for help in determining why he and friends suffered numbness, weakness, and palpitations when they dined in certain Chinese restaurants. He reported that the condition occurred 15 to 20 minutes following the meal and lasted about two hours. The letter was published under the heading "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome." Published responses that followed indicated that Dr. Kwok's problem was a reaction to monosodium glutamate and - as industry protested - the debate over the safety of MSG began.

About the same time, John W. Olney, M.D., a neuroscientist at Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri who recently had been appointed to the National Academy of Science, noted that mice being fed MSG for a study of retinal deterioration had become grotesquely obese.6 Believing that the obesity was related to the function of the hypothalamus in the brain, he sacrificed MSG-fed mice and found that MSG caused hypothalamus lesions and neurocndocrine disorders, and that the very young were at particular risk. Neuroscientists now generally agree that glutamic acid is neurotoxic, killing brain neurons by exciting them to death.

Dr. Olney's findings did raise concern, especially since he had pointed out that the very young were most susceptible to dam-age because the protective blood brain barrier remains under development in the young. Because of Dr. Olney's work, considerable pressure was put on the food industry to remove MSG from baby food. In an apparent effort to diffuse the pressure, they agreed. To this date, however, the FDA has taken no official action to disallow MSG in baby food.

Although baby food sold today appears to be MSG-free, there are junior food products with MSG, and, of course, infants eat table food, much of which contains MSG. Also, baby formula contains ingredients with MSG; formulas for allergic infants contain much larger amounts than regular formula.


In 1969, just as the dangers of MSG were being discovered, the glutamate industry formed a nonprofit organization, the International Glutamate Technical Committee (IGTC), and in 1977 formed a subsidiary, The Glutamate Association (TGA), to defend the safety of its product, the ingredient "monosodium glutamate."

To this day, IGTC serves as a research organization for the MSG industry, interacting with scientists and others, and providing research grants for studies on the subject of MSG. Until several years ago, TGA served as the MSG industry's connection to consumers, acting somewhat like a public relations firm. Today, the International Food Information Council (IFIC) most often acts for TGA, distributing questionable information on the subject of MSG to the media and clogging the Internet with similar misleading information. IFIC holds itself out as an independent organization concerned with food related health issues. In fact, IFIC is funded primarily, if not totally, by the food industry whose products it claims to be safe.7 Through a foundation, IFIC provides grants to agencies such as the American Dietetic Association and the American College of Family Practice Foundation.

If one were to review the literature to determine if controlled studies have ever been done on humans to prove or disprove that they are sensitive to MSG, one would find that, with p05sible rare exception, all such studies have been conducted under sponsorship of IGTC or one of their agents or supporters. One would also find that both test and placebo materials have typically been provided by IGTC. In one case, where the researcher used soup in the study, the researchers obtained the soup from Ajinomoto in Japan rather than rely on a source in this country.8 In these controlled studies, some subjects always react to MSG, but large numbers of subjects also react to a placebo. These studies conclude that since the subjects react to both MSG and placebos, it "proves" that it is not the MSG that people are reacting to. As faulty as this logic is, it is these studies that the FDA relies on in concluding that MSG is safe.


For years, I could not figure out why large numbers of subjects in MSG industry-sponsored studies were reacting to placebos which, by definition, should be made up of inert, nonreactive material. Finally, in 1993, we found the answer. The placebos contained aspartame! The proof was contained in a letter signed by the chairman of the IGTC.9 It was found in a file of the FDA. The use of aspartame dated back to 1978, three years before aspartame was approved by the FDA for human consumption.

Aspartame is far from inert and non-reactive. It contains approximately 40% aspartic acid, 50% phenylalanine, and 10% of a methyl ester. Neuroscientists have determined from studies on experimental animals that both aspartic acid and glutamic acid~load on the same receptors in the brain, cause identical brain lesions and neuroendocrine disorders and have an additive affect. Indeed, MSG-sensitive people suffer similar adverse reactions from aspartame, providing that they ingest amounts that exceed their tolerance levels, and vice versa. At this writing, the EDA has on file approximately 7,000 unsolicited reports of adverse reactions to aspartame.

The proof of the inappropriate placebos was turned over to the FDA. After several years of prodding, the FDA turned for vindication to a special Expert Panel of the Federation of American Society for Experimental Biology (FASEB) then studied the safety of MSG in food for the FDA. Many months later, FASEB, in a wishy-washy response, indicated that aspartame should no longer be used as test material in studies on MSG sensitivity.10

Yes, IGTC did respond to the advice given by FASEB. They changed the placebo materials that were to be used in studies that were under development. The first study using new placebo material has now been published. The new placebo material does not contain aspartame, but contains sucrose1 ~, a substance that will affect the findings of any study on MSG intolerance. If sucrose is used in placebos, it will also be used in test material where it will - surprisingly - diminish the effect of MSG.'2 IGTC knows this well because they funded research that said so. The FDA also knows that sucrose and other carbohydrates diminish the effect of MSG.


In a July, 1995 FDA-funded report by FASEB entitled "The Safety of MSG in Food," FASEB was to have reviewed all of the published studies and reports relating to MSG. Their eight member Expert Panel, at least four of whom had conflicts of interest, did not do so. Instead, they elected to prepare a 20 page Executive Summary for broad distribution that consisted of answers to 18 specific questions posed by the FDA. These questions created the impression that MSG causes only mild and transitory problems.

The FDA did not ask about, and FASEB did not even address, the fact that MSG causes migraine headaches, the leading reaction to MSG, and a reaction that is now well recognized by headache clinics throughout the country. Also not properly addressed in the July, 1995 FASEB report are a number of studies that have found that when MSG is administered to pregnant rats or mice, or to very young rats or mice, the offspring or young rodents all suffer from very specific and very definite learning disabilities.13 The report also fails to mention that many studies point to grotesque obesity in animals that were administered MSG when young,14 and that MSG has been implicated in neurodegenerative diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease),15-17 certain psychiatric condifions,18 and heart irregularities such as tachycardia.19 (See Table 2 for a list of adverse conditions reported by MSG-sensitive individuals).


In defense of their position that MSG is harmiess, the MSG industry, food processors, and the FDA point to the fact that glutamic acid, bound with other amino acids as a component of protein, does not cause reactions in humans; and they go on to ask how that could be since the glutamic acid freed from protein during digestion is identical to the glutamic acid freed from protein through a manufacturing process, and used as a flavor enhancer. In fact, they contend that some unadulterated foods, such as tomatoes picked from the vine, so to speak, or mushrooms contain free glutamic acid, and would cause adverse reactions if an individual were truly sensitive to MSG.

We had the free glutamic acid in tomatoes measured. The amount was minute - 11 pounds of tomatoes produced only one gram of free glutamic acid. Yet, we know that some individuals can react to minute amounts of "manufactured" free glutamic acid, but will not react to unadulterated foods such as tomatoes or mushrooms. We found out something else. There is a difference between ingesting foods in which glutamic acid is bound or ingesting the minute amounts of glutamic acid in unprocessed food and the free glutamic acid that occurs in food as a consequence of a manufacturing process.

The glutamic acid in non-manufactured proteins contains only L-glutamic acid. Only L-glutamic acid is produced in higher organisms.20 However, when glutamic acid is freed from protein through a manufacturing process, invariably D-glutamic acid, its "mirror image" (stereoisomer) is also produced, along with a chemical called pyroglutamic acid.21 If an acid is used to free the glutamic acid from protein - a common method used in our country, but forbidden in some European countries. - mono and dichloro propanols22 are also produced; and, based on a report of the FDA, if a process is used to make what the flavoring industry refers to as reaction or processed flavors from certain proteins, heterocyclic amines are produced. Mono and dichloro propanols and heterocyclic amines are known to be carcinogenic.


We know that MSG-sensitivity is a sensitivity to a toxic su~ stance rather than an allergy. MSG sensitivity is not IgE mediated; there are no antibodies developed in the body. Therefore, traditional allergy tests do not detect MSG-sensitivity and it does not appear possible to desensitize an MSG-sensitive individual to the substance.

We know that tolerance levels for MSG can vary from milligrams on up, and that it is easily possible to ingest as much as six grams of MSG in a meal today. Alcohol, stress and other factors can enhance MSG sensitivity. Some people experience their only reactions in Chinese restaurants because Chinese restaurants tend to use higher amounts of MSG than are found in most other restaurants; but the MSG problem is not restricted to dining in Chinese restaurants. MSG is now found in virtually all processed foods.

We know that MSG reactions occur in individuals at varying times after ingestion, from immediately following ingestion up to 48 hours following ingestion. The reaction time following ingestion of MSG is almost always the same each time for an individual. Once this reaction time is determined, an individual can always look back after a reaction and identify the food that has caused the problem.

To test for MSG-sensitivity, go on a 2-3 week diet on which you limit your food intake to fresh cooked fruits and vegetables and fresh, unadulterated fish, meat, and poultry. During the diet use no sauces, flavoring food solely with fresh herbs. Eat nothing processed out of a box, bottle, bag, jar, or can. Eliminate bread, dairy products, "basted" turkeys, or items from the deli counter. Eliminate all aspartame and any product that contains the words "hydrolyzed" or "amino acids," including shamP005 and supplements. If you feel better after the diet, then begin to add back foods to determine the items that may be causing you problems. Listen to your body. It is a marvelous laboratory.


We know that scientists are increasingly concerned about glutamic acid, although most research is on the glutamic acid in the body (endogenous glutamic acid) rather than the MSG that we ingest (exogenous glutamic acid). Pharmaceutical companies are spending millions of dollars on drugs to control the effect of endogenous glutamic acid on certain disease and injury processes. On May 3-5, the National Institute of Health sponsored a seminar entitled "The Glutamate Cascade: Common Pathways of Central Nervous System Disease States."

In his testimony before FASEB on April 7, 1993, neuroscientist Richard C. Henneberry, Ph.D. summed up his presentation by saying: "I consider it ironic that the pharmaceutical industry is investing vast resources in the development of glutamate receptor blockers to protect CNS neurons against glutamate neurotoxicity in common neurological disorders, while at the same time the food industry, with the blessing of the FDA, continues to add great quantities of glutamate to the food supply."

Although MSG-sensitive individuals must stay away from MSG, I feel that MSG is not good for anyone. A growing number of neuroscientists believe that MSG may be a "slow neurotoxin," resulting in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's later in life.

There is no question in my mind that one day MSG will be properly disclosed on the labels of processed food, and that its use in processed food will be dramatically reduced. I assure you that I will continue to work individually and through ThC to see that all MSG in all processed food is disclosed. You may remain current with the MSG issue by visiting the ThC Web site on the Internet at: help in the MSG labeling campaign would be appreciated.

Note: Further information about the dangers of MSG is contained in Excitotoxins: The Taste that Kills by Russell BlaylocA; MD, available from PPNF


1. Reif-lehr&, L. A questionnaire study of the prevalence of Chlnese restaurant syndrome. Fed Pmc,36:1617-1623, 1977

2. Kenney, R. A. and Iidball, C. S. Human susceptibility to oral mon sodium L-glutamate. Am J ClinNut,; 25:140-146, 1972.

3. Kerr, G. R., Wu-I£e, M., El-Lozy, M., McGandy, R., and St&e, E J. Objectivity of food-symptomatology surveys. JAm Diet Assoc, 71: 263-268, 1977.

4. Schwartz, G. R. In Bad Thste: The MSG Syndmme, Santa Fe, NM, Health Press, 1988.

5. Kwok, R. H. M. The Chinese restaurant syndrome. letter to theeditor. NEnglJMed, 278: 796, 1968.

6. Olney, J. W. Brain lesions, obesity, and other distuibances in mice treated with monosodium glutamate. Science, 164: 719-721, 1969.

7. Encyclopedia ofAssociation, Detroit, MI, GaleResearch, 144,1998.

8. Goldschmiedt, M., Redfem, J. S., and Feldman, M. Food coloring and monosodium glutamate: effects on the cephalic phase of gastric acid secretion and gastrin release in humans. AMJClin Nutr, 51: 794-797, 1990.

9. Ebert, A. 0. Letter to Sue Ann Anderson, R.D., Ph.D., Senior Staff Scientist, Ufe Sciences Research Office, Fed. of American Societies for Experimental Biology, March 22, 1991. FDA Docket No. 9QN-0379 (Item CR2).

10. Analysis of Adverse Reactions to Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), Life Sciences Research Office, Fed. of Am. Soc. for Experimental Biology. Prepared for Ctr for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, FDA. 105, July, 1995.

11. Yang, WH. The monosodium glutamate syndrome complex: Assessment in a doubl-blind placebo-controlled, randomized study, JAIlergy Clin Immunol, 757-762, June 1997.

12. Stegink, L. D., Filer, L. J.,Jr., Baker, 0. L., and Bell, E. F. Effect of sucrose ingestion on plasma glutamate concentrations in humans ad-ministered monosodium L-glutamate.AMJClin Nut,; 43:51 515, 1986

13. Frieder, B. and Grimm, VE. Prenatal monosodium glutamate (MSG) treatment given through the mother's diet causes behavioral deficits in rat offspring. Intern JNeurosci, 23:117-126, 1984.

14. Nikohletseas, M.M. Obesity in exercising, hypophagic rats treated with monosodium glutamate. Physiol Behay, 19: 767-773, 1977.

15. Zorumski, C. E Environmental excitotoxins and neurodegenerative disorders. Biol Psychiatry, 27: 90A, 1990

16. Bai, G and Lipton, S. A. Aberrant RNA splicing in sporadic amy~ trophic lateral sclerosis. Neuron, 20: 363-366, 1998

17. Lin, C. G., Bristol, L. A., Jin, L., Hoberg, M.D., Crawford, T., Clawson, L., and Rothstein, J. D. Aberrant RNA processing in a neurodegenerative disease the cause for absent EAAT2, a glutamate in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Neuron, 20: 58902,1998

18. Olney, J.W. Excitotoxic amino acids and neuropsychiatric disorders. AnmLRev Pharmacol Toxicol, 30: 47-71, 1990.

19. Gann, D. Ventricular tachycardia in a patient with the "Chinese restaurant syndrome." Southern Medical J, 70: 879-880, 1977.

20. Beatrice Trum Hunter. The Great Nutrition Robbery New Yotk, NY:Charles Scribner's Sons, 1978, page 35.

21. KimberL. Rundlett and Daniel W. Armstrong. Evaluation offreeDglutamate in processed foods. Chiralii 1994;6:277-282.

22. Pommer, K. (Novo Nordisk Bioch Inc) Franklinton, NC, Cereal Foods World.

23. Broadwell, R.D., and Sofroniew, M.V Serum proteins bypass the blood-brain fluid barriers for extracellular entry to the central nervous system. Exp Neurol, 120: 245-263, 1993.