The Great Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) Debate—And Your Weight
First of all, monosodium glutamate has nothing to do with gluten, despite the superficial similarity in their names. However, like gluten, monosodium glutamate is an ingredient that's caused widespread panic in the health community, despite the inconclusive evidence as to whether or not it can actually cause much harm.
Monosodium glutamate (or MSG) is primarily derived from the amino acid glutamate. Glutamate can be isolated by fermenting certain starches, and is also naturally present in many foods, giving them a unique savory or "unami" taste. Examples include tomatoes, walnuts, pecans, Parmesan cheese, peas, mushrooms, and soy sauce.
Glutamate is even present in human breast milk. Interestingly enough, there is nine times more glutamate in our milk than in cow's milk; so we have all quite literally been programmed to crave glutamate since our births.
Monosodium glutamate is formed when this glutamate is combined with sodium, the main component of salt, turning it into a convenient salt-like white powder. It was first created by Japanese scientist Kidunae Ikeda in the early 20th century and quickly became popular in Asia, then spread to America after soldiers stationed abroad discovered it during World War II.
MSG is pretty flavorless on its own, but when it is added to other foods, it amplifies their savory elements, thus making that food a lot tastier. So, enterprising American food manufacturers quickly took to adding it to their products to make up for flavors lost in processing.
Some popular examples of MSG containing junk food include Doritos, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Pringles, but it can also be found in food as seemingly wholesome as Campbell's chicken soup!
Monosodium glutamate first became controversial when a scientist wrote a journal article about experiencing mysterious symptoms including a "headache" and a "feeling of being flushed" after consuming a high-MSG meal at a Chinese restaurant. Other "sufferers" of this newly named "Chinese restaurant syndrome" started reporting similar symptoms, and soon enough, MSG was public enemy number one.
Confusion was amplified by the fact that glutamate also functions as an excitatory neurotransmitter and chemical messenger throughout the body, so some scientistists speculated that an excess of glutamate could throw off our natural balance and over-excite our systems, potentially leading to brain damage and cardiac arrhythmias.Fuel was added to the MSG fire by a study in the late 1960s that associated MSG with brain lesions, obesity, and other disturbances in newborn mice. However, some experts have pointed out that the MSG used in this study was injected rather than consumed orally, and another rat study has indicated that glutamate that is orally consumed is only able to cross the blood-brain barrier in very small amounts.As far as human studies, one study found that a megadose of glutamate led to acute high blood pressure and an increase in reported headaches. Another found that, given a sample of people with self-reported MSG sensitivity, about 12 percent more of them reported symptoms after being given MSG than after being given a placebo.Another study found that MSG consumption induced an asthma attack in 40 percent of its asthmatic participants, though, per usual, other studies failed to find the same effects. MSG defenders, however, are quick to point out how high the dosage used in these studies was relative to anything we would typically consume, and that some of these results lacked repeatability.
Some blame this discrepancy on tampering by the food industry to preserve MSG's reputation, while others believe that the bias against MSG has held out because our xenophobia has predisposed us to demonize an Asian and "exotic" ingredient.
Others suggest that those suffering from "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome" could instead have an allergy to the unusual spices used in Chinese food or be experiencing a reverse placebo or "nocebo" effect. When it comes to MSG, it just seems like nobody can agree.Though the FDA still recognizes monosodium glutamate as "generally safe," there do exist anecdotal reports of people who experienced reduced symptoms of serious physical and mental illnesses after removing monosodium glutamate from their diet.
Furthermore, monosodium glutamate's relatively high sodium content does mean it definitively could exacerbate symptoms of high blood pressure and related ailments, despite the fact that MSG actually contains less sodium than table salt.So, does any of this matter when it comes to our weight? The evidence is also mixed as to whether or not MSG can increase our appetite. One explanation for this is that MSG's umami flavor is what increases our satiety when we consume it, rather than anything inherent to the ingredient. In that case, we could reap the same benefits from a more wholesome glutamate-containing high-protein food.However, both rats and humans who ate more MSG have been found to be more likely to be overweight and to experience more symptoms of metabolic syndrome. The most logical explanation for this link may be that monosodium glutamate can contribute to overeating the same way that sugar and salt do: by making food unnaturally delicious.
This overeating then creates a metabolic cascade that gradually overrides our natural hunger and fullness signals and ultimately results in obesity. It's also worth noting the fact that MSG is an ingredient in many processed foods which would be unhealthy and fattening whether MSG were present in them or not.
So, now that you know all the complicated facts, if you still think reducing the amount of MSG in your diet will help you lose weight or improve your well-being, go ahead and go for it. However, the most effective weight-loss strategy of all might be to focus on eliminating processed food as a whole in favor of clean, healthy food rather than demonizing its individual components.