MSG: The harm and its other names

Accent2 seasoningby Catherine Haug, January 25, 2013, updated Dec 9, 2013

You are probably familiar with Ac’cent, a seasoning that contains MSG (image, right, from What’s Cooking America). It brings out the flavors in food, and brings a meat-like flavor to vegetarian dishes. But for many people, it causes headaches and other symptoms that have been dubbed ‘Chinese restaurant syndrome,’ after eating Chinese food and certain processed foods.

I recently discovered the deeper harm of MSG: food sensitivities to foods like whey or rice protein powder, nutritional yeast. These symptoms were similar to what is described for celiac disease, and I’ve had to give up these foods because the sensitivities could not be cleared.

But, you ask, I use protein powders; why doesn’t it say MSG on the label? The answer lies in biochemistry. Proteins are made up of chains of amino acids, including glutamic acid. The processing of foods like whey, rice, egg and soy to make the protein powder, breaks down the proteins into peptides, amino acids, and protein ‘isolates.’ This process releases glutamate, the salt of glutamic acid, in the form of MSG. Because it is not ‘added’ to the product, it does not need to be listed on the ingredients label.

When it is added to foods, the companies have learned to give it other names so it is not recognizable as MSG. Read on for more on the harm of MSG, and the alternate names by which MSG is disguised in processed foods.

The Harm of MSG

What is MSG?

The full name is monosodium glutamate, which is a salt of glutamic acid, an amino acid present in many common protein foods. For this reason, it was initially assumed to be harmless and potentially helpful. MSG is found naturally in seaweed and certain mushrooms.

The Chinese restaurant syndrome

When certain symptoms began to appear shortly after exposure to MSG in Chinese food; people began to take notice. For example:

light-headedness, headache, jitters or a sense of speediness, hyperactivity, itching, and redness on the skin.

Later, more serious symptoms were noticed:

hives, nausea, vomiting, migraine headaches, asthma, heart irregularities, depression and even seizures and other nerve disorders (1), and obesity (2).

How can this be?

The mechanism of harm

When created naturally in the body from the amino acid, glutamate is an essential neurotransmitter. That is, it plays a significant role in the transmission of nerve impulses as needed by the body in small amounts. But when delivered to the body  directly as processed glutamate (as opposed to proteins containing glutamic acid), it is a form that is not natural to the body. When consumed as an additive in foods, the relatively large dose causes havoc in the nervous system; in this aspect, MSG is termed an ‘excitotoxin,’ and it can destroy nerve cells, nervous tissue, and wreak havoc throughout the body (3). But that’s not all.

As the body tries to deal with the toxic overload of glutamate, the liver and gall bladder functions are compromised. This can lead to vomiting, diarrhea, gall bladder attacks, and intestinal pain.

Certain organs of the body including the pancreas, rely on glutamate made in the body to initiate certain functions. There are glutamate receptors found in many places in the body, including the heart’s electrical conduction system. (3)

Some of MSG’s effects occur almost immediately after exposure (such as the ‘Chinese restaurant syndrome’ described above). Other effects are cumulative and not detected until well after individual exposure. For example, damage to the retina in the eye (3).

How to spot MSG in foods

Because of the controversy about MSG, processed food manufacturers have come up with ways to disguise it on their labels. For a more complete list, see Truth in Labeling Campaign: Hidden Sources of MSG. (NOTE: you can print it out as a pdf by clicking the link on that page). But rather than look at labels for the presence of MSG, I advise avoiding all processed foods; certainly avoid all foods that require an ingredient label, as that is a sure sign the ‘food’ isn’t really food at all.

Because MSG is made from glutamic acid, a common amino acid in many proteins, most sources of MSG in food comes from hydrolyzed protein (to hydrolyze means to break up into individual components), such as whey protein, rice protein, soy protein, and so on. But it can also be made synthetically from sugar and other sources.

  • Soy sauce
  • Yeast extract
  • Yeast food, yeast nutrient
  • Autolyzed yeast
  • Gelatin
  • Soy protein, soy protein concentrate, soy protein isolate
  • Whey protein, whey protein concentrate, whey protein isolate
  • Calcium caseinate,  Sodium caseinate

The following ingredients often contain or produce MSG:  (4)

  • Carrageenan
  • Commercial bouillon, broth, stock (homemade bone broth/stock is an exception)
  • Hydrolyzed vegetable protein
  • Maltodextrin
  • Natural or artificial flavors
  • Citric acid, citrate
  • anything ‘ultra-pasteurized’
  • Pectin (but not apples and other whole fruits that naturally contain pectin)
  • Enzymes

Suspected items containing/producing MSG:  (4)

  • Corn syrup, corn starch
  • Modified food starch
  • Lipolyzed butter fat
  • Dextrose
  • Rice syrup, brown rice syrup
  • Milk powder
  • Reduced fat milk (skim, 1%, 2%)
  • Enriched or vitamin enriched

It is also worth noting that many supplements contain MSG or related ingredients.

NOTE: “Glutamic acid found in unadulterated protein [such as dried or sprouted beans, meat, eggs, and raw dairy]  does not cause adverse reactions. To cause adverse reactions, the glutamic acid must have been processed/manufactured or come from protein that has been fermented [or hydrolyzed].” (4)

Other sources of MSG include:

  • low fat and no fat milk contain ‘milk solids’ which contain glutamate
  • low/no-fat milk products such as cheese, yogurt, ice cream, etc.
  • certain soaps, shampoos and detergents

Aspartic acid & Aspartame

Aspartic acid is another natural amino acid from protein, that is available in salt form, commonly known as aspartame (NutraSweet or AminoSweet). And like MSG, it has been implicated in nerve-system disorders, and may cause MSG-like reactions in sensitive people. Look for it on food labels, but also it is present in some medications, especially children’s medications that don’t have labels. Ask your pharmacist for product inserts, or for separate lists of ‘other’ and ‘inert’ ingredients.

Chicken pox vaccine may contains MSG and/or hydrolyzed gelatin (a source of MSG). This source can cause endocrine disturbances such as obesity and reproductive disorders later in life.


  1. What is MSG?
  2. The Dangers of MSG
  3. Mercola: MSG: The Silent Killer Lurking in your Kitchen Cabinets
  4. Truth in Labeling Campaign: Hidden Sources of MSG


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