MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is a common ingredient used in many packaged foods and food preparations in restaurants. MSG is used widely in restaurants because it is a flavor-boosting food additive. Over the years, though, MSG has garnered a bad reputation due to the adverse effects it has on your health and also because, in some people, MSG can actually cause allergy-like symptoms. While there is not much scientific evidence or clinical studies to prove that people can be allergic to MSG, there are many supporters of this theory. Read on to find out about what is MSG allergy and is an actual health condition.
Can You Be Allergic To MSG?
Many restaurants, especially those specializing in Asian cuisines, use monosodium glutamate (MSG) as a flavor enhancer. In recent years, monosodium glutamate has garnered a bit of a negative reputation because of the adverse effects it has on health and also because it causes certain allergy-like symptoms in some people.
Sweating chest pain, flushing, and a general feeling of weakness after having foods that contain monosodium glutamate are some of the potential symptoms that many people experience after having MSG, leading them to believe they are allergic to this ingredient. Some of the other symptoms also include facial pressure, drowsiness, headache, numbness, and tingling in the back, arms, and face.
However, while people tend to immediately assume that these symptoms indicate they are having an allergic reaction to MSG, the fact is that these symptoms are more due to a food sensitivity instead of a real allergy.(1)
This is because there is a significant difference between the body experiencing an allergic reaction and being sensitive to certain food items.(2) This difference is in the involvement of a protein known as immunoglobulin E (IgE), which is an antibody produced by the ‘allergy department’ of our immune system.(3)
When a person is actually allergic to things like pollen, dust, pets, or other allergens, then all these allergies are IgE-mediated. However, being sensitive to MSG and having a reaction as a result of this has no relation to IgE in the body, which is why a response to MSG is not considered to be a true allergy. Without the involvement of IgE in the body, a reaction cannot be defined as a true allergy.
People who are sensitive to MSG may experience the following symptoms:
- Mild chest pain
- Runny nose
- Numbness or burning sensation in and around the mouth
- Facial swelling or pressure
- Mood swings
- Stomach upset
Some of the more severe symptoms of MSG sensitivity may include:
If your doctor suspects that you are having a reaction to MSG, then they will ask you about what all you have eaten in the last two hours, especially if you have consumed any foods that may have contained MSG.
What Does Science Say?
In spite of many years of concerns about the intake of MSG and allergic reactions, most research has failed to establish a clear association between MSG and severe allergic reactions. Though people continue to report reactions after having foods that contain MSG, research has only recently scientifically proven the reason behind this reaction.
For example, a research study in 2016 found that regardless of what amount of MSG you have, it is going to be genotoxic. Genotoxic means that it causes damage to the genetic material and cells.(4) Consuming any amount of monosodium glutamate can also cause damage to our lymphocytes, which are a type of white blood cells responsible for fighting against diseases and germs.
The Mahidol University in Thailand published research in 2015, which showed that regular consumption of monosodium glutamate in animals leads to kidney damage.(5)
In 2014, another animal study found that intake of MSG can cause animals to behave in a depressive manner as MSG causes changes in serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter present in the brain that regulates mood and emotions in humans as well.(6)
Additionally, the Clinical Nutrition Research in 2014 presented an association between allergic reactions and MSG in a small group of people who experienced chronic hives.(7) The majority of these participants reported experiencing only mild to moderate symptoms, which include:
- A burning sensation in the chest
- Tingling skin
While in larger doses, MSG has been found to cause such symptoms, it is also highly unlikely that such huge portions would be found in any restaurant food. Keeping this in mind, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1995, clubbed MSG in the same category in which salt and pepper are put, that is ‘food additives that are generally recognized as safe.’(8)
While there are many studies that have found that consumption of MSG can be harmful in many ways, but it is quite clear that MSG consumption does not cause an allergic reaction.
How is MSG Reactions Treated?
Most sensitivity reactions to MSG are usually mild and go away on their own without needing any treatment. However, some of the more severe symptoms, such as anaphylaxis, require immediate medical treatment as you need to get a shot of epinephrine.
If you experience any of the following symptoms, then seek medical help at the earliest. Either call the doctor or go to your nearest emergency room.
- Chest pain
- Heart palpitations
- Swelling of the throat
- Swelling of the lips
- Shortness of breath
Of course, the best possible treatment for MSG sensitivity is to avoid eating foods that contain this additive. However, since MSG can be found in many foods today, it becomes difficult to tell which foods contain the ingredient and which ones are MSG-free.
If you are sensitive to MSG, then avoid buying packaged and processed foods, as these tend to commonly contain MSG. Opt for having raw foods like fruits, vegetables, and organic meats. Some of the other items that should be avoided include:
- Meat extracts
- Dried meats
- Poultry stocks
- Modified food starch
It was previously believed that some people have an allergic reaction to MSG. However, scientific evidence has today clarified that instead of an allergy, people are sensitive or intolerant to MSG. MSG sensitivity is actually widespread. You can avoid having a reaction to MSG by avoiding the foods that commonly contain the ingredient.
Try removing the known trigger foods from your diet and maintain a food diary in which you can list down your reaction to different foods. This helps you determine which foods or substances are causing you to react.
Following a preservative-free diet can also help you avoid having a reaction to monosodium glutamate.
- Oregonclinic.com. (2020). What’s the Difference Between a Food Allergy, Sensitivity, and Intolerance? | The Oregon Clinic. [online] Available at: https://www.oregonclinic.com/about-us/blog/what%E2%80%99s-difference-between-food-allergy-sensitivity-and-intolerance [Accessed 6 Feb. 2020].
- Garden of Life. (2020). The (Big) Difference Between Food Allergies vs. Sensitivities | Garden of Life. [online] Available at: https://www.gardenoflife.com/content/big-difference-food-allergies-vs-sensitivities/ [Accessed 6 Feb. 2020].
- Marone, G., Spadaro, G., Palumbo, C. and Condorelli, G., 1999. The anti-IgE/anti-FcepsilonRIalpha autoantibody network in allergic and autoimmune diseases. Clinical and experimental allergy: journal of the British Society for Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 29(1), pp.17-27.
- Ataseven, N., Yüzbaşıoğlu, D., Keskin, A.Ç. and Ünal, F., 2016. Genotoxicity of monosodium glutamate. Food and Chemical Toxicology, 91, pp.8-18.
- Sharma, A., 2015. Monosodium glutamate-induced oxidative kidney damage and possible mechanisms: a mini-review. Journal of biomedical science, 22(1), p.93.
- Quines, C.B., Rosa, S.G., Da Rocha, J.T., Gai, B.M., Bortolatto, C.F., Duarte, M.M.M. and Nogueira, C.W., 2014. Monosodium glutamate, a food additive, induces depressive-like and anxiogenic-like behaviors in young rats. Life sciences, 107(1-2), pp.27-31.
- Kang, M.G., Song, W.J., Park, H.K., Lim, K.H., Kim, S.J., Lee, S.Y., Kim, S.H., Cho, S.H., Min, K.U. and Chang, Y.S., 2014. Basophil activation test with food additives in chronic urticaria patients. Clinical nutrition research, 3(1), pp.9-16.
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2020). Questions and Answers on Monosodium glutamate (MSG). [online] Available at: http://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/FoodAdditivesIngredients/ucm328728.htm [Accessed 7 Feb. 2020].