Savory monosodium glutamate

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View from our back deck just after sunrise.

I haven’t been pounding away at the computer like normal because the kids and grandkids have been visiting. We all took the grandkids skiing for the first time, and I never thought it would be fun to stand around on the bunny slope while two little boys took their first floppy-legged runs on skis, but it was. After a few days, they both were doing pretty well, and having a big time doing their pencils (skis parallel) to go fast and their pizza pies (snow plows) to slow down, turn, and/or stop. Great fun! But, alas, over. The little ones and parents took off for Dallas leaving us with our great views, but bereft of babies and their constant childstorms of activity. It was the empty nest syndrome written large all over again.

To keep from feeling sorry for myself I began plowing through my stacks of unread newspapers. I came upon an opinion piece in last Sunday’s New York Times on, of all things, the virtues of monosodium glutamate (MSG).

In 1906 a Japanese scientist, Kikunae Ikeda, discovered monosodium glutamate when he was trying to isolate the specific molecule for the intense flavor of an Asian broth made of kombu seaweed.

In his laboratory, he isolated the natural glutamates in the seaweed, and to their marvelous taste he gave the name “umami,” derived from the Japanese word for “delicious.” His work led directly to the industrial manufacture in Japan and then worldwide of MSG.

Another way of saying ‘umami’ is savory. Years ago one of my heroes, John Yudkin, posited that along with the traditional four tastes everyone is aware of – salty, sweet, sour and bitter – there is one more: savory. I agree. There is a unique taste that can’t be made by any combination of salt, sour, sweet and bitter, a taste that we experience when we eat a delicious steak or a perfectly grilled stalk of asparagus or an aged piece of Parmigiano cheese. It turns out that the savory, or umami, receptors can be stimulated by pure monosodium glutamate.

This fact has not been lost on American food manufacturers who have, as they have with sugar and trans fat, put the pedal to the metal in adding monosodium glutamate to snack foods. They figure that if it’s a taste we all love and it can be provided by an inexpensive additive, why go to the bother to prepare fresh foods in such a way that the natural savory taste comes out thanks to cooking technique and selection of ingredients? It’s the American way, after all. If you want sweet, we’ll give you sugar. If you want even sweeter, we’ll give you high-fructose corn syrup. If you want salty, we’ll give you salt. And if you want savory, we’ll give you monosodium glutamate.

According to the Times article, monosodium glutamate is an essential seasoning along with salt, soy sauce, and vinegar for any Asian cook worth a flip. In Asia, that is. In the United States everyone is off of monosodium glutamate like a dirty shirt. Why? Because about 40 years ago the New England Journal of Medicine published published a letter from a physician who claimed that eating in a Chinese restaurant gave him palpitations and numbness. Since one of the big differences between Asian and American cooking at the time was the use of MSG in the former, the conclusion jumped to was that the MSG must have caused the symptoms. The title the editors gave to this letter: “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.” It’s been with us since.

Most researchers have concluded that a little MSG, just as with a little sugar, doesn’t pose any health risk. Some zealots believe that even a molecule of it is dangerous, but I believe they’re way off base. It’s the glutamate in MSG that stimulates the the savory receptors, but the glutamate has to be stabilized with a plain old salt and water, giving us monosodium glutamate, which is about a third sodium, the rest glutamate. When we consume MSG, it is the G, or glutamate, that we taste. MSG breaks down into salt and glutamate when we ingest it. We eat many, many other things that breakdown into much more free glutamate than would be found in a whole lot of MSG. What things? Well, meat, cheese, fish and all things savory. And such vegetables as asparagus and tomatoes. If that’s not enough, the body makes its own glutamate when needed. So why worry about the tiny bit from a pinch of MSG?

While around a third of Americans say they believe that MSG makes them ill, reputable medical studies have shown that only a tiny proportion of people truly react to it, and then only when it is administered in large oral doses on an empty stomach. All this was explained, and the restaurant syndrome fully debunked, in great detail by the food writer Jeffrey Steingarten in a 1999 essay for Vogue magazine titled “Why Doesn’t Everybody in China Have a Headache?”

Several years after Steingarten’s essay, Alex Renton wrote a piece for the Guardian that takes on those finding a sinister toxin residing in the simple MSG molecule. He makes the same case as Steingarten that if MSG truly causes a problem, we would have millions of Asians suffering with it, since it is a part of their daily diet. He writes of his own views on MSG and an experiment he performed on an unwitting friend:

It is now 37 years since Dr Ho Man Kwok named Chinese restaurant syndrome, and it’s plain that the case against MSG remains unproven. So either you conclude, as some will, that government, science and the mega-corporates of the food industry really are all in league with each other to poison us for profit. Or, like me, you make a different decision.

Now, I have little faith in the food industry and I’m as suspicious of food additives as the next person – I spend many hours fighting the grim battle to keep them from my children’s mouths. But until new evidence emerges I am going to give MSG a conditional discharge. But would I have it in the kitchen? Well, I did. I bought a little bag of Ajinomoto [MSG] from the corner shop on our Bangkok street and tried it, a gram (the tip of a teaspoon) at a time.

By itself it tasted of almost nothing. So I beat up and fried two eggs, and tried one with MSG, one without. The MSG one had more egg flavour, and didn’t need any salting. I tried the crystals on my son’s leftover pieces of chicken breast (definitely more chickeny). I tried it in a peanut butter sandwich (nothing). On Weetabix with milk (interesting, sort of malty) and on Weetabix with milk and sugar (thought I was going to be sick).

My friend Nic came round. He told me about a Japanese restaurant he’d been to that gave him headaches and a ‘weird tingling in the cheeks’ – until he told them to stop with the MSG. Then he was fine, he said. I nodded and I served him two tomato and chive salads; both were made using the very same ingredients but I told him one plate of tomatoes was ‘organic’, the other ‘factory-farmed’. The organic tomatoes were far better, we agreed. These, of course, were the tomatoes doused with mono sodium glutamate.

Then we ate mascarpone, parma ham and tomato pizza. Nic felt fine. So did I. I had ingested, I reckoned, a good six grams of MSG over the day, and probably the same again in free glutamate from the food – the equivalent of eating two 250g jars of Marmite [a dark substance sold in a jar, loaded with MSG, that the Brits use as a sandwich spread–I think it’s dreadful].

This reminds me of an accidental experiment that MD and I performed on a friend who was allegedly allergic to onions, garlic and tomatoes. She said she got headaches, flushing, palpitations, and a host of other symptoms if she had so much as a smidgen of any of these foods. She was a real pain to eat out with because she grilled the waiters on all the ingredients in whatever food she was thinking of getting, telling them that she was ‘deathly allergic.’ Whenever she ate at our house, MD would make our friend’s portion of whatever was cooking without onions, garlic or tomatoes. Once MD mistakenly gave her a dish (I don’t even remember what it was now) that contained finely minced onion. Our friend ate it before MD realized her error. Nothing happened. No headaches, no sweats, no palpitations, nothing. As time went on we would give her garlic and/or onions (it’s hard to hide tomato) without effect. She stayed with us often, so we knew that the effects didn’t show up the next day either. She wasn’t really allergic, she merely thought she was.

Food allergies are real and can even be fatal. But more often than not, I suspect they are like that of our friend. Some folks are convinced – for whatever reason – that they are allergic to certain foods. If they eat these foods, and they know it, they have problems. If they don’t know it, they do fine. I suspect this is the case with most MSG reactions.

But, although I have no fear of a little bit of MSG, I would prefer to have my savory come from the actual foods prepared properly. As the Guardian writer writes:

I’ve thrown the Ajinomoto out now. It works, but it was embarrassing – a bit like having a packet of Bisto in the cupboard. There is no need to have MSG in the kitchen. If I want extra glutamate in my food I’ll use parmesan, or tomato purée, or soy sauce. Or like Mrs Ikeda, boil up some kelp.

I won’t boil the kelp, but I will use the others. And I might occasionally use a pinch of MSG if I thought it would help. I guess Ac’cent (pure Msg sold in the US as a seasoning) isn’t as embarrassing as Ajinomoto.

I agree with the Times writer:

Bad Chinese chefs, of course, just use MSG as a substitute for good ingredients and properly made stocks, just as bad American food companies cook up snack foods made from fat and carbohydrates laced with salt and sugar. But top Chinese chefs also use it, to refine and elevate flavors. There may be no need to add MSG to a delicate soup made from chicken, ham and dried scallops. But in some culinary contexts, it works wonders: a little MSG mixed with salt and sesame oil can lift the flavor of a simple bamboo shoot salad, or add a dash of ecstasy to a stir-fry of pea shoots and garlic. If you didn’t know it was MSG, you would simply find it delicious.

In the end, though, the most persuasive data I know that MSG isn’t a health hazard is that Asians, who eat the stuff by the pound, are the most long lived people on earth.  Maybe, just maybe, it’s a life extender, not the poison that so many would have us believe it is.

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26 thoughts on “Savory monosodium glutamate

  1. Fascinating! I thought I’d disabused myself of all the traditional food myths, but this one I didn’t know about. I lived in Japan for 3 years and ate buckets of MSG (the Japanese think it’s good for you) and it never bothered me a bit. I figured I was lucky, but still worried about unspecified hidden health impacts of the stuff. No more! And I had no idea that glutamate occurred naturally… no wonder Asian soups taste better with a little chunk of dried kombu seaweed tossed in (you don’t notice any seaweedy flavor in the final dish, really!)

    Beth

    Hi Beth–

    I’m glad I could ease your mind.  With the Japanese being the world leaders in longevity, it’s kind of hard to believe that the MSG is doing them a lot of harm.

    Cheers–

    MRE 

  2. Mike, have you read Excitotoxins: The Taste that Kills by Russell Blaylock?

    His credentials seem solid and he believes MSG is neurotoxic, as it crosses the blood-brain barrier and “over excites” neurons. I’d be interested if it does (or obviously hasn’t) changed your thoughts on this subject.

    Hi John–

    Yes, I’ve read Excitotoxins.  And I found Dr. Blaylock’s arguments convincing until I dug a little deeper.  It turns out that glutamate does indeed ‘excite’ neurons, and does so by allowing calcium to enter the cells.  This excitation of the neuron is offset by the ‘calming’ influence of GABA, which acts in opposition to glutamate.  The GABA-glutamate axis in the brain is much like the insulin-glucagon axis in the metabolic system.  One needs both to function properly.

    Since the tiny bit of MSG used to season foods breaks down into glutamate and sodium – both normal constituents of the human body, and, in the case of glutamate, actually made by the human body – it’s difficult for me to image how a little bit of glutamate added to the body’s large circulating stores could substantially influence the neurons.  If taken in large amounts, perhaps, but a pinch, occasionally, I don’t think will hurt.  And maybe if a person is deficient in magnesium there could be a problem.  Magnesium is Nature’s calcium channel blocker, so inadequate magnesium might not offset the influx of calcium driven by glutamate.  This is just a hunch, but, because – according to the latest survey I read – about 75 percent of Americans don’t even get the already-too-low RDI of magnesium, maybe it’s the widespread magnesium deficiency that allows whatever negative effects experienced by some people when consuming a lot of MSG to happen.  I don’t have magnesium consumption figures at hand for the Japanese, but given what they eat, I would assume they get a lot more magnesium in the standard Japanese diet compared to what we do in the standard American diet.

    The strongest argument for the harmlessness of MSG is the fact that it’s used in such large quantities in Asia by enormous numbers of Asians without any apparent epidemic of negative effects.  The Japanese, for example, use MSG (and believe it’s healthful) in large quantities and outlive everyone else on earth despite the fact that most of them smoke.  And they’re blowing the tops out of all the admission processes in American colleges, leaving US students in the dirt, so it can’t be affecting their cognitive abilities.  If MSG were truly harmful, I would suspect the Japanese would suffer its ill effects.  But, again, perhaps the greater intake of magnesium by the Japanese is protective.   Which may be why they live longer, after all.

    Cheers–

    MRE 

  3. Hi,

    interesting, your article came out just when I need it 🙂 I am searching for info about MSG and hydrolyzed protein (my small son is getting 100% hydrolyzed whey hypoalergenic baby formula because of health problems). Most traditional nutrition friendly web sites don’t consider it healthy (especially Weston A Price foundation). But scientific evidence is sparse, I didn’t found any study that would really prove it good nor bad (only some that concluded it ‘may be harmful’ or ‘more study on subject is needed’). Your article contains no references to studies, I wonder if you came around any of them during your journal reading in past?

    Best regards,

    Martin

    Hi Martin–

    I got most of my information from my partner, who is, like Dr. Blaylock, a neurosurgeon, but who has spent the last 10 years buried in the nutritional medical literature.  I let him find all the papers and summarize the situation for me.  Given how smart he is (top of his class in Dartmouth and first in his class in medical school), and given how much time he’s spent in looking at all this, I tend to trust his judgment.

    Cheers–

    MRE 

  4. I am confused… or maybe I just haven’t had enough caffeine yet.

    In PPLP, you and MDE mentioned MSG during your discussion of aspartame. You said that MSG and aspartame were brain excitotoxins, and then you recommended against using aspartame. Later on in the book, I believe you recommended avoiding processed meat products that contain MSG. I’ve been trying really hard to avoid the stuff ever since.

    Does this mean that aspartame has also been rehabilitated in your eyes? Maybe I can quit feeling guilty about all those years of diet sodas.

    Donna

    Hi Donna–

    Once ingested MSG breaks down into glutamate and sodium, which are both substances found normally in the body in large amounts. The added amounts of these molecules from a little bit of MSG are, in my opinion now, inconsequential. Aspartame, on the other hand, metabolizes to methanol and formaldehyde, both of which are toxic and neither of which are normally found in human tissue. So, although I have changed my views on MSG, I still don’t consume aspartame. (Click here for an earlier post in which I lay out my feelings about aspartame.)

    But, before I got scared off of aspartame I consumed a whole lot of diet drinks, all sweetened with aspartame. I never had a problem, so I guess I’m built to withstand the ravages of methanol and formaldehyde.

    Cheers–

    MRE

  5. Dr. Eades, are you familiar with the work of Russell Blaylock. Since I read his “Excitotoxins” I couldn´t bring myself to enter i Chinese restaurant again.

    Hi Bo–

    Yes, I have read the book.  See my reply to the same comment by John for the full explanation.

    Cheers–

    MRE 

  6. I’ve never had issues with MSG either and had no idea it occurred naturally. Thanks for this info! I, like many others, bought into the “MSG is evil” hype. One thing I found distasteful about descriptions of “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” was this “THEY put it into the food to get us addicted” paranoia.

    Having said that, I wish it would be clearer on food labeling. People who want to avoid it (for whatever reason) should at least know which foods contain it, rather than having it hidden in “natural flavoring”.

    Thanks again – and gorgeous view!
    Kate at The Steaks Are High

    Hi Kate–

    Apparently one of the good things to come out of the MSG scare was that it kicked off the now-common practice of reading food labels. Once people got worried about MSG, they started studying labels to see if products they were using contained it. Fortunately, that practice has carried over, so that now almost everyone checks labels.

    Cheers–

    MRE

  7. Long before the MSG report hit the newspapers, I noticed that my jaw got slightly numb after I ate at a Chinese restaurant. I thought maybe it was because I loved the food so I ate a lot and did a lot of chewing.

    Hence when the thing about MSG side effects was publicized in all the newspapers, it made sense to me. And when everyone was avoiding MSG like the plague, even the Chinese restaurants, I no longer got that reaction.

    I think there’s more to it than a mental state, as I wasn’t aware of the problem when I was having the numbness. And I think it’s dangerous to attribute various health conditions to psychological causes. Sometimes that is, in fact, the cause. But sometimes it’s not. Sometimes, a person has a real medical condition and keeps getting told she or he is having hysterical reactions or something, which adds mental distress to the physical distress and causes real harm.

    My reaction is not severe enough that I’d avoid MSG totally, however. You can make a delicious “chicken soup” with no meat in the broth if you use MSG.

    Hi Gretchen–

    I don’t mean to imply that no one has food allergies and/or sensitivities–I know many do.  But, I suspect that many who think they do, don’t.

    And, as the Times article pointed out, many bad chefs at Chinese restaurants – especially back when they could get away with it – made up for sorry ingredients by tossing in tons of MSG.  I’m not so sure that these large amounts didn’t cause reactions in a fair number of people.  I don’t think MSG should be used in lieu of good cooking, but a little here and there – as you point out about the “chicken soup” – can make a big taste difference.

    Cheers–

    MRE 

  8. I was shocked to read this from you of all people.

    About 5 or six years ago I read your book and followed the Purist diet. I had chronic fatigue that I was trying to deal with. Because of similarities to what my mother went through I suspected autoimmune problems. That is what got my attention in your book. I didn’t realy solve the fatigue, but much to my surprise my arthritis went away on the diet.

    I suggested that my husband try eliminating grains, dairy and beans for his arthritis, and sure enough, it worked for him too.

    When I tell people about this I can almost see them thinking this is all in my head (in spite of the part about my husband). They simply cannot believe that foods that they and everyone around them eat all the time could cause an illness…and one that everyone knows is a natural part of aging! And of course they do not want to even consider giving up any foods. So the simple explanation is that it is all in my head and then they can dismiss it.(I have to point out that I always tell them that I don’t think that this would work for everyone. That arthritis probably has numerous causes,that it may be the grain, or the dairy or the beans for us it turned out to be the wheat) But it is so simple and cheap, why not try it. But somehow they alway think I am saying these foods are the only cause of arthritis. Curious. They didn’t even really listen)

    I am sure you have seen untold hundreds of people respond the same way to your ideas of diet. They dismiss it because it doesn’t fit with the prevailing paradigm and what they want to believe.And they probably think you are whacko!

    And now you are doing the same thing about MSG and food intolerances. Some (not all!) people do react and quite seriously.Their symptoms are just as varied as the ones that disappear on your diet…probably more so. These are not allergies but chemical intolerances. They are dose related and probably depend on numerous other factors as well such as what else was in the meal that inhibited the particular chemical, cumulative amounts, exercise, stress, etc These are more complex and difficult to pin down than allergies.

    And thanks to people with attitudes like yours it will take eons for the medical community to take this seriously and really study it. Meantime people will continue to suffer not only from their illness but from being regarded so disparagingly by others.

    If you will look more deeply you will find that all the MSG studies were backed by…the industry!

    There are people in Australia working with food intolerances at The Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. Unfortunately there is not much money behind studies of this nature. You well understand why.

    I hope you will look into this further. I think you will change your tune. We could use you.

    Oh, and by the way, the whole fatigue thing seems to be related to free glutatmates, amines and salicylates in FOOD. Normal everyday food that doesn’t bother my husband or most of the other people I know.

    Elliebelllie

    Hi Elliebellie–

    If the “whole fatigue thing” is related to free glutamates found in normal everyday food, then I doubt that the tiny bit found in a pinch of MSG is going to add much to the burden.

    And I didn’t say that no one ever has a problem with MSG, I merely stated that most people – including the multitudes populating the Asian continent – don’t appear to have a problem.

    I recognize that many people have food allergies and chemical sensitivities, and I didn’t intend to deny this fact or disparage those who are so afflicted.  But, I do think that many people aren’t nearly as allergic nor as sensitive as they believe they are.

    Best–

    MRE 

  9. Interesting. While I’ve never been particularly worried about MSG (I used to put Accent on our steaks), I DO often have a reaction after eating at chinese restaurants (not a headache, more a feeling of pressure, like my head is being squeezed). I always assumed it was because they were using a larger than usual amount of the stuff.

    Psychosomatic do you think? Or could it be due to some other ingredient yet to be considered?

    Hi Miriam–

    It could well be the MSG if the restaurants used a lot of it.  Or it could be psychosomatic.  Or it could be another ingredient.  Who knows? 

    Do a blinded test.  Take two cups of broth and have someone season one with half MSG and half salt, the other with pure salt.  Drink one and see what happens.  If you have a reaction and it was the one with the MSG, then maybe yo are sensitive to it.  If you don’t react to either – or if you react to the salt alone, then I would say it is psychosomatic.

    Keep me posted.

    Cheers–

    MRE 

  10. Not to hijack the blog entry – but WHERE is your back deck – that is SOOOO beautiful! Looks like Tahoe to me but then…. ??? 😉

    Hi Char–

    Sorry, I thought I identified where we were.  You’re right.  It’s off our back deck overlooking Lake Tahoe.

    Cheers–

    MRE 

  11. “The NMDA receptor is also paired with an ion channel, but this channel admits calcium ions into the post-synaptic cell. When this cell is at resting potential, the calcium channel is blocked by magnesium ions (Mg2+), so that even if glutamate binds to the receptor, calcium cannot enter the neuron.”

    In nutrition, it’s said MSG syndrome is a B6 def. Since we know B6 and magnesium work together, it makes sense. Maybe MSG is just unmasking a mag/B6 def. In that case, we should feel lucky. Better a headache than a heart attack.

    Michael, a liitle detective work here…you’ve mentioned you being part ownwer in a nutrition company and just mentioned your partner, the neurosurgeon, “who has spent the last 10 years buried in the nutritional medical literature”…sooo…I, and I’m sure everyone else, would love to hear about it. The products you now endorse I believe are the very best. I love the vitamin E (A.C. Grace) and liked the fact you mentioned Thorne multis in the book.

    Hi Robert–

    Nice quote about the calcium channel-blocking effect of magnesium; it pretty much sums it up.

    I don’t want this blog to appear that I’m flogging my own nutritional supplements, so I purposely haven’t discussed the supplements we make.  The ones we do have on the website are manufactured by others and are the very ones we take ourselves.  I probably will recommend a specific vitamin D (that we will have on our website) when I post on vitamin D, but I’m not worried about it because no one ever got rich selling vitamin D.  It’s dirt cheap.

    Cheers–

    MRE 

  12. I love tahoe! mind leaving me the keys to your place when your’re not around?? I’ll stock the bar for you, I promise!

    Hi mrfreddy–

    Sure.  The keys are under the magic rock.  Make yourself at home.

    Cheers–

    MRE 

  13. What is the water temp of the lake now? Maybe you should jump in! Just kidding, of course, but it reminded me of your fascinating essay/blog about “heat shock proteins”.

    Anyway, I have an empty container of Lawry’s Seasoned Salt that is many years old. I save it because I am always trying to duplicate the original flavor. Of course, the original version had MSG and did wonders for the sad, lean pork that is the norm these days. The newer version has none, and it is an inferior product.
    I couldn’t agree more about the savory, “umami” quality of well prepared food. For a long time, I thought it was the “Karma” of the event rather than the food itself. In other words: great food, prepared with love, for the people you love, and eaten together (“commensality”, or “eating together” in anthropological terms)- should always be good.
    But there is more to it than that. All the love in the world can’t fix food that isn’t up to par, and good food is truly great only when the best is prepared with impeccable technique.
    Thanks for the insight! Explains a lot. 🙂

    Hi Karen–

    No amount of heat shock protein could lure me into the lake right now.

    Many doctors who are misguided about the dangers of salt often recommend adding a little  bit of MSG to salt because doing so allows the amount of salt to be reduced considerably without cutting the salt flavor.

    Like you, I am a fan of foods prepared correctly to get the umami taste, but sometimes you just need a little help.

    Cheers–

    MRE 

  14. Your argument that MSG can’t be harmful because Asians have eaten it for generations with no problems is analogous to saying that lactose can’t be harmful because Swedish adults have been drinking milk for generations with no problems.

    Could it be possible that Asians have developed a mechanism for detoxifying MSG just as many Westerner adults continue to produce lactase?

    I’m not arguing that MSG is a horrible poison but just trying to bring balance to the analysis.

    Hi Gretchen–

    You wrote:

    Your argument that MSG can’t be harmful because Asians have eaten it for generations with no problems is analogous to saying that lactose can’t be harmful because Swedish adults have been drinking milk for generations with no problems.

    No, it’s not analogous.  Lactose is a disaccharide (a sugar formed from two other sugar molecules – glucose and galactose) requiring a specific enzyme – lactase – to cleave the bond hooking the two sugars together.  Since sugars are absorbed only in the monosaccharide state, i.e. as single sugars, a lack of the lactase enzyme means that the disaccharide can’t be broken down, leaving it to travel through the GI tract causing all the problems associated with a lactase deficiency.  Most Swedish adults have plenty of lactase, so they don’t have problems with milk.

    MSG doesn’t require an enzyme to be metabolized.  MSG is the sodium salt of glutamic acid, so it is ionically bonded. Upon ingestion the free glutamate is released.  It is metabolized like table salt, not like lactase.  So, it’s not ‘detoxified.’

    Cheers–

    MRE 

  15. This post is one of the reasons I like reading your blog! You challenge the “groupthink”, you challenge yourself, and you challenge us. We all need shaking up once in a while, and some of us land back in the same place, while others land in a new place. I think it is good to re-examine issues again and again. New insights can sometimes be quite valuable; then again, sometimes a challenge just confirms a position. But I think it is a sign of good character to admit that one can change a position due to new information. Wish more folks had the courage to do that, but I guess they are afraid of being perceived as wafflers or flip-floppers.

    I’ve been on the fence about MSG (or hydrolyzed anything) for a while now, preferring to avoid it when I can (cooking at home) and not worrying about it when I’m away from home. That said, I still always have a jar of organic chicken and beef Better than Bouillon in the fridge if my weekly batch of chicken broth needs some oomph, especially the broth from the second simmering of the bones.

    Regarding the claims of allergies, I’m sure some are truly allergic or intolerant, some think they are, and some might just use it as a way to avoid foods they don’t like. I’m guilty of the third reason. I used to “claim allergy” many times with mushrooms, which I really detested when I was younger, even picking out the minuscule bits from the cream of mushroom soup in Mom’s Tuna Noodle Casserole, (now I find them just tolerable and only pick out really big ones). It sometimes wasn’t enough to say I didn’t like mushrooms and preferred not to have any, because some joker always insisted that “everyone” loves mushrooms and would push them on me. The allergy claim usually got him/her off my back so I could eat in peace. Lame, I know, but heh, I was young.

    Of course, allergies are generally quite real, but there can be a strong psycho-somatic component, too. I can’t count how many people I have had in my home for meetings or whatever, who were perfectly fine for quite a while. Fine that is, until the cat awoke from his nap and came downstairs and walked into the room, making his presence known. I’d hear, “I didn’t know you had a cat.” Some folks would be fine as long as the cat stayed out of contact (although we know how cats love to jump into allergic laps!). But some guests will quickly become red, eyes tear up, nose stuffs up, even hives appear sometimes. Some folks accept an anti-histamine and stick it out and others need to leave immediately. This is in contrast to a few who would ask if we had a cat within a short time of entering the house, because symptoms started quite quickly with no sign of the cat. All real allergies, I’m sure, but of varying degree, perhaps, but in some cases probably made much worse by the mere perception of the allergen.

    Hi Anna–

    Unfortunately, I’m one of those people who walks into a house, starts rubbing eyes, then sneezes, and asks: “Do you have a cat?”  If I know I’m going to a place where there are cats, I get myself doped up first and can do okay as long as the exposure isn’t too long.

    There is an enormous psychosomatic component to allergies, however.  If I did go into a house with a cat and didn’t have a reaction, then was told there was a cat there, I’m sure I would start with all the symptoms.  There are a couple of famous studies that I’ve read about (I haven’t read the actual studies) in which people with bad hay fever are shown pictures of ragweed.  Upon viewing the pictures many of these folks develop running noses, itching eyes, and sneezing.  So there is – like the initial phase of insulin release that occurs upon smelling food – an advanced response just from thinking about an allergen.  I suspect a lot of the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome responses fall into this category.

    Best–

    MRE 

  16. I’ve long been a fan of asian cuisine (Vietnamese, various regions of Chinese, and especially Japanese!). I’ve tried to reduce when I eat them to ‘special occasions,’ for several reasons, though: MSG, Soy, and Rice.

    Your article clears up many of my concerns with MSG, and I’ve also done a little digging and found that, aside from fermented soy products, asian cuisine doesn’t really use copious ammounts of soy (Nothing like what many “soy is the perfect food” advocates would have you believe).

    That leaves rice, which is still, I believe, a HUGE staple of the Asian diet. Is there good news on that front for fans of low-carb diets AND Asian foods?

    Hi Bob–

    Alas, rice is a high-carb grain anyway you cut it.  I can’t think of a way that much rice could be part of a low-carb diet.  When I was a kid we never, ever ate Asian food, but we did eat rice as a hot cereal.  It was cooked until puffy, then we would dish it up into our breakfast cereal bowls, put a pat of butter and some sugar on it, add a little milk, and eat it like it was cream of wheat.  Just writing these words makes me want to go face down in a bowl of it. 

    Cheers–

    MRE 

  17. Is it possible to make a comment without having it posted? I think the following is not of great interest, and I noticed that you were moderating the comments.

    Perhaps I wasn’t clear about “detoxifying” MSG. One could envision different mechanisms that didn’t involve MSG itself, but the receptors for glutamate.

    When you drink a lot of coffee, your cells upregulate the adenosine receptors that the caffeine binds to. Chronic MSG ingestion could also affect the glutamate receptors in some way.

    Hi gretchen–

    Yes it’s possible to comment without having it posted.  Just write Don’t post this, and I won’t.

    I see what you mean about the upregulation of receptors, but I doubt know if MSG would do that with glutamate receptors because heavy users of MSG end up getting a couple of grams per day, which pales in comparison to the 50 grams the body makes combined with all the glutamate from other sources.

    Best–

    MRE 

  18. This whole discussion has been very interesting. Especially your reply to John. I do wish you could have incorporated some of these ideas into your original post and even your thinking about your friend so that the take away idea was not that MSG or other food reactions were all in people’s head, but that there may be something else going on and one possibility is magnesium deficiency. Kinder and more constructive.

    Anyway it sent me back to your book, the magnesium chapter in particular. I am thinking now that it very well might be a good idea to check my intracelluar magnesium, especially since I am very concerned about loss of brain cells from glutamate reactions, and I seem to be following in a family pattern that culminated in. early dementia Is there now a way to do this directly through a lab? Could you please tell me how best to proceed?

    Thanks

    Hi elliebelly–

    I didn’t intend the take-home message to be that people who have food allergies or sensitivities are crazy; the end of the article in the Guardian told about the author’s experiment on his ‘allergic’ friend and it reminded me of our inadvertent experiment on our own friend, which I simply related.  I didn’t mean to imply that the same would hold true for everyone who has food allergies.  But I do think a lot of them are psychosomatic.

    You’re physician can order an intracellular magnesium test for you.  Don’t do a serum test for magnesium as they are worthless.  The intracellular tests are done with cells obtained from scraping the floor of your mouth.  These cells are then sent to the lab to be analyzed for magnesium content.  It’s an expensive test costing about $200 (or at least it cost about that much the last time we did one a few years back.) Here is the website for the lab we used.  Maybe they can help you locate a physician in your area to order the test.  Many physicians don’t know it exists.

    Best–

    MRE 

  19. Dr E, I am so glad to hear your report on rice as a breakfast cereal. Must be a southern thing, cause no one I talk to has ever heard of such a thing. All those simple, bland carbs gilded with butter must have hit my small child’s body like greased lightn’n but it was tasty indeed.

    Marilyn

    Hi Marilyn–

    I think it is a Southern thing.  And it is way too tasty, I fear.

    Cheers–

    MRE 

  20. Dr. Mike:

    First…My husband spent some time in toxicology before venturing into the field of Neuroscience and tells me that he remembers that the root cause of “Chinese restaurant Syndrome” was determined to result from release of histamine as food products break down. Since they cook with a lot of fish oil or actual fish, both of these products release a good deal of histamine if they sit for any amount of time. Since histamine is the basis for any allergic reaction, it makes sense that it would cause the symptoms described.

    Second…a great source of natural glutamate=one of my favorites. mushrooms! They are loaded with potassium glutamate, which is why they enhance the flavors of dishes so effectively.

    Hi Anne–

    The symptoms certainly sound like a histamine response.  If so, it would have nothing to do with MSG.  I’ve never heard or read that fish and fish products release histamine if they sit around for a while.  I would love to see the citation on that if your husband has it.

    You’re right about the mushrooms–they’re loaded with glutamate.  And they do indeed enhance the flavor of almost anything–for me, at least.

    Cheers–

    MRE 

  21. After reading the post, and seeing 17 comments had been posted, I thought you would have something like 10 posts in the following format:

    Well, I went to a Chinese restaurant once and got very sick. It required hospitalization. In fact, I dropped dead right there, and my ghost is posting to correct your fallacies. How dare you suggest I am faking my response to this deadly toxin. And how dare you advocate the use of this poisonous neurotoxin. Etc, etc.

    Thanks for posting something relevant to our health, based on some sharp common sense, observation and all the other old school doctor skills. And for posting something about letting a “forbidden” “bad” food/additive back in.

    I’m just about out of my generic rub (made at home… portions to whim of salt, pepper, cumin, chile, garlic, oregano, mustard, and paprika). I think I will go half the salt and add some Ac’cent to the next batch, just to see.

    PS- I haven’t had any problems with aspartame yet either. Maybe we can all accept a little formaldehyde?

    PPS- I read that mixing alcohol with diet sodas will make you pop a higher blood alcohol reading than the same volume of alcohol without the pop. Thoughts?

    Hi Max–

    I’ve never heard that about mixing alcohol with diet sodas.  Off the top of my head I don’t see why it would matter.

    Cheers–

    MRE 

  22. I have seen Blaylock speak, but haven’t gotten around to reading his book. Excitation is not the only way glutamate harms brain cells. An overdose of glutamate depletes glutathione by inhibiting the enzyme that forms it (ironic, since it is a constituent of glutathione itself)and causes free radical-mediated cell death.

    There is a recent study showing that vitamin K at physiological concentrations is able to counteract glutamate-induced free radical-mediated cell death in oligodendrocytes.

    I think Gretchen’s speculation is quite sensible. Glutamate is, in fact enzymatically “detoxified” by combining it with ammonia to form glutamine — something that also detoxifies ammonia. Plasma levels are generally only sensitive to high doses of glutamate, and brain levels are generally unresponsive to plasma levels because of the blood brain barrier. The sensitivity of brain cells depends on regulation of the glutamate/glutamine cycle, regulation of excitation and inhibition with other neurotransmitters, regulation of intercellular levels of glutamate, the concentration of l-cysteine, and so on. There are a wide range of enzymes involved in all of these processes from beginning to end that could have various polymorphisms in different populations.

    I don’t find your assumption that there are not people, even many people, with glutamate sensitivities in Asia in any case. In America you need merely talk to a few average people to find people with varying sensitivities to aspartame and many case reports of serious consequences of aspartame but it is generally considered healthy and short of phenylketonuria sensitivities are basically swept under the rug.

    I agree, however, that MSG is very probably not inherently bad.

    Hi Chris–

    Sorry it’s taken me so long to get this posted, but your comment was one that got hung up with all the spam.  Probably because you put a URL in it; the spam filter appears to key on that.

    I agree about the problems with aspartame and about the MSG not being inherently bad, but I still think that were there a real problem with MSG it would have emerged in Asian societies that use tons of it.

    I liked your site.  Good work!

    Cheers–

    MRE 

  23. Hmm…. I would venture to say that aspartame probably has more long-term effects than short-term.

    If you want a really good experiment, try mixing some Mento’s with your diet sodas.

    I’ve seen the Mento/diet soda experiment.  It can he found on YouTube.  Very impressive.

    Cheers– 

  24. Dr. Mike:

    Here are a couple of refs he had sitting around, but we have nothing expressly linking the syndrome with histamine reaction (that might have been a connect-the-dots moment).

    Food Chem Toxicol 1989 May 27(5):283-7 Links histamine in Oriental Foods with possible histamine reactions.

    Intern Med 2001 Aug 40(8):833-5
    Describes cases of scombroid poisoning with symptoms similar to Chinese Restaurant Sickness.

    Hi Anne–

    Thanks very much.  I’ll pull these down post haste.

    I appreciate your effort.

    Best–

    MRE 

  25. I don’t want this blog to appear that I’m flogging my own nutritional supplements, so I purposely haven’t discussed the supplements we make.

    I have noticed that! It is one of the reasons I love your blog all the more. It is 100% Mike Eades with no hidden agenda. I do enjoy your blog. I enjoy the comments and your replies to them as well.

    Patty

    Hi Patty–

    Thanks for the kind words.

    Best–

    MRE