Dangers of MSG, a Common Food Ingredient in “Indian Chinese” Dishes

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A major comfort food in India is the so-called “Chinese”. Be it from a trendy upscale Chinese restaurant or from a street side food peddler selling it for a few rupees, Chinese food in India has a special taste to it. But many people find it impossible to replicate such taste and deliciousness when they cook at their homes. The secret ingredient that gives this special taste is Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), also known as Ajinomoto. Well, this is really not a secret ingredient in Chinese food in India, but the dangers associated with MSG may be unknown to many people. Remember, MSG is not usually added to any Indian dishes but is generously used in the Indianized Chinese food. Indian food itself uses a wide variety of spices that naturally add flavor to them and have no use for a chemical taste enhancer. The irony of it all is that cooks in China rarely use MSG as an ingredient while cooking!

Monosodium Glutamate is a flavor enhancer invented by the Japanese scientist Professor Kidunae Ikeda and patented in the year 1909 by his company, Ajinomoto. It is a chemical substance with the molecular formula C5H9NO4. This chemical is stabilized with salt and water to manufacture the MSG available in markets today. It has the same chemical property as the glutamic acid naturally produced in the human stomach. It is also similar to the glutamate formed when protein containing glutamic acid is broken down by cooking, fermentation or ripening. But the similarities between the commercial chemical MSG and the naturally forming glutamic acid seem to end there.

Why is MSG added to Processed Food?

MSG is added to processed food chiefly because it is a flavor enhancer, an excitotoxin. It tricks the tongue and makes you feel that there is more protein in the food and make it taste better. Without MSG, there would not have been a market for many mass-produced food items today. Canning, freezing and pre-cooking almost always ended in loss of flavor. MSG goes into lot of processed and packed food items – from tinned food to ice cream and baby food to chewing gum. You can bet that is an ingredient in almost every Chinese dish cooked at restaurants in India. It is also a key ingredient in taste many flavor enhancing products and taste-makers.

Why is MSG dangerous to your health?

There are many potential dangers in consuming MSG.

  1. MSG is an excitotoxin that over-excites cells even to the point of damage or death. This may cause brain damage of varying degrees and may trigger or worsen learning disabilities, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease etc. Glutamate is a neurotransmitter that can overstimulate neurons. According to msgexposed.com, “MSG enters the brain past the blood-brain barrier, triggers neurons to open their calcium channel, the glutamate causes the cell to remain stuck in the open position then calcium floods into the cell in large amounts. This triggers the cell to react in emergency mode and starts it’s special pump that will start pumping out the excess calcium using up large amounts of energy (ATP), the cell swells up with excess calcium and eventually the cell is depleted of energy and dies within two hours. The pump couldn’t pump out the excess calcium fast enough. (It’s like trying to bail water out of a boat with a large hole in the bottom. You use up a ton of energy and eventually the boat is filled and sinks). The cell shrivels up and the body’s defense mechanism sweeps away the dead cell debris.”
  2. When excess of food-borne excitotoxins such as MSG are consumed, the glutamate receptors within the hearts electrical conduction system and the heart muscle itself are over-stimulated and may result in cardiac arrhythmias.
  3. Many common diseases such as eye damage, headache, fatigue and disorientation, numbness, burning sensation, tingling, facial pressure or tightness, chest pain or difficulty in breathing, headache, rapid heartbeat etc. have been linked to MSG. The immediate short-term reaction to MSG is often called Chinese restaurant syndrome (even though MSG is a Japanese invention). As much as 40 percent of the population may have some type of negative reaction to MSG consumption.
  4. MSG caused obesity when it was administered to mice. Studies in mice have also show that MSG causes brain damage. The increase in rate of obesity in the US may be linked to consumption of MSG. MSG may act as an anti-appetite suppressant that help the food industry in selling more because it may induce the consumer to over eat.
  5. The body changes excess glutamate to gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA) which may be addictive. This might explain our repeated craving for MSG-laced food. Many restaurants use this ingredient rather generously. If there is any ‘normal’ food that tastes too good and almost addictive in a restaurant, you could suspect the presence of a chemical excitotoxin.

The effect of MSG on human body is a highly contested topic. Natural food advocates recommend that we should not touch the substance even with a 6 feet pole but many chefs and the food industry downplays the effects (for obvious reasons). Considering that it is a chemical substance and to error on the side of caution, it would be prudent to avoid this chemical altogether.

What could you do?
  1. Read labels in food packaging. If it has MSG, do not buy. But remember, in India, labeling may not always disclose the complete information, so do not rely fully on the information provided by manufacturers. Be watchful of the processed food given to children.
  2. Consciously avoid MSG-laced food. Chinese food served in Indian restaurants almost always has this ingredient.
  3. Canned foods usually have MSG as an ingredient. Avoid them.
  4. Ground spices and taste enhancers may have MSG added to them. Grind your own spices from whole ingredients for cooking.

Practically speaking, the only sure way to avoid MSG is to cook at home from scratch. If you start with high quality whole ingredient, you do not need a chemical stimulant to enhance the taste.

Sources:

  1. Moskin, J. (March 5, 2008). Yes, MSG, the Secret Behind the Savor. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/05/dining/05glute.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
  2. Neely, E. (March 8, 2013). Battle started with Krafts Food over Mac and Cheese ingredients. Examiner. Retrieved from http://www.examiner.com/article/battle-started-with-krafts-food-over-mac-and-cheese-ingredients
  3. Renton, A. (July 9, 2005). If MSG is so bad for you, why doesn’t everyone in Asia have a headache? The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2005/jul/10/foodanddrink.features3
  4. Dr. Mercola. (April 21, 2009). MSG: Is This Silent Killer Lurking in Your Kitchen Cabinets. Mercola.com. Retrieved from http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2009/04/21/msg-is-this-silent-killer-lurking-in-your-kitchen-cabinets.aspx
  5. Mike. (March 3rd, 2009). MSG Causes Rapid Brain Cell Death. Msgexposed.com. Retrieved from http://www.msgexposed.com/msg-causes-rapid-brain-cell-death/
  6. What exactly is MSG?. Msgtruth.com. Retrieved from http://www.msgtruth.org/whatisit.htm