How natural is that flavour? The dangers of MSG

posted in: Food, Health, Magazine Articles
Organic NZ Magazine: Sept/Oct 2012
Section: Health and food
Author: Kyra Xavia

As consumer awareness grows about excitotoxins, the food industry is making it harder for consumers to avoid them. Kyra Xavia investigates.

An excitotoxin is a substance that excites nerve cells until they die. One of the most commonly used but best-hidden excitotoxins is processed free glutamic acid (MSG). Contrary to what the food industry says, MSG is shorthand for ALL processed free glutamic acid, including monosodium glutamate (which is processed free glutamic acid combined with sodium).1,2,3,4

Glutamic acid: processed and natural
Glutamic acid is present in unadulterated/unprocessed food, where it’s usually found bound to protein. When released from protein by processing, it becomes processed free glutamic acid (MSG), and food manufacturers use it to give their products a savoury, moreish, irresistible quality.
The food industry uses autolysis, hydrolysis, or fermentation to produce free glutamic acid. Manufacturers then use the processed product, which now contains MSG, although technically MSG is not ‘added’ to the product, so it’s not required to be labelled as such.
This concerns all consumers because processed glutamic acid (MSG) causes health problems and adverse reactions. In contrast, glutamic acid in natural unprocessed food does not cause health problems or adverse reactions.1,2,3,4
MSG produced for the food industry always contains contaminants.1,2,3 When made using acid hydrolysis or the Maillard reaction (nonenzymatic browning), MSG contains carcinogens. When produced through bacterial fermentation, the bacteria involved may be genetically engineered.2,3
Health effects
The most well known symptoms associated with MSG are thirst, headaches, a stiff neck, sweating, and gastric distress. But there are many more reactions that go unrecognised as being triggered by MSG. With MSG hidden in so many everyday products, symptoms may be incorrectly blamed on something else and/or misdiagnosed. For some individuals, an adverse reaction will occur from ingesting tiny amounts.1,2,3
MSG has had a bad reputation for decades and for good reason. Processed free glutamic acid destroys brain cells. This can cause retinal degeneration, behavioural problems, endocrine and neurodegenerative disorders.1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9 In fact, MSG’s excitotoxicity proved so effective, scientists used it to selectively kill brain cells and stimulate diabetes and obesity in rodents.2,3,4 Some researchers are now linking the obesity epidemic to endocrine damage caused by MSG consumption.1,2,3,10
Babies and children are most at risk
People vary greatly in their tolerance of MSG, but no one escapes its damaging effects, and babies and young children are most at risk.1,2,3,4  Due to research findings in the 1970s that proved MSG caused irreversible brain damage in infants, baby food manufacturers removed monosodium glutamate from their products, only to replace it with autolysed yeast and hydrolysed vegetable protein (both of which contain MSG).1,2,3,4 Unfortunately the processing of milk and soy for infant formula and the ultrapasteurisation of milk forms MSG, which remains in the final product.2,3


How real is packaged ‘flavour’?
Once upon a time, flavour indicated healthy, ripe, nutrient-dense food. But today, if food comes in a packet, tin or sachet, flavour seldom means ripeness or nutrition. The advent of artificial additives and flavour enhancers allows manufacturers to cut corners (and increase profit) by replacing quality ingredients with those that are cheap and inferior. Freshness is no longer an issue, nor is consistency or taste.
Unlike the flavours of unprocessed food, excitotoxins overexcite the tastebuds (nerve cells), which can trigger overeating.
Tricks of the trade
As consumers wise up to the risks, the food industry has responded with deceptive tactics, with some health food and organic manufacturers among the worst culprits.
Fewer labels these days have numbered additives (as they sound artificial). Instead, more benign and healthy sounding names are used, many of which contain hidden MSG. Sometimes the raw material (before processing) is also listed in brackets, implying naturalness. There are too many of these ingredients to list here, but you can find them
Some labels also claim ‘no added MSG’ or ‘no MSG’ even though the product contains processed free glutamic acid in other ingredients. These ‘clean’ labels make it near impossible for consumers to avoid MSG – and the deception doesn’t end there.1,2,3,4
If a company does admit to having products that contain processed free glutamic acid, it may attempt to convince consumers that theirs is naturally occurring and therefore safe, and/or is present in insignificant amounts.2,3 (See letter to the editor, page XX.)

Additives produced using nanotechnology
Senomyx, a flavour company, employs nanotechnology to produce unique chemical compounds that have no flavour of their own but block or stimulate taste receptors in the mouth, some of which act on monosodium glutamate receptors. Senomyx states their additives are safe because very small amounts are used (less than one part per million), which enabled the company to avoid lengthy FDA approval process. According to a New York Times article, ‘Their flavour compounds were given GRAS status (generally regarded as safe) by the Flavour and Extract Manufacturers Association in less than 18 months, including three months of safety testing on rats.’ Companies that use these artificial additives can state ‘no MSG’ and consumers won’t know they’ve been added to their food.2,3,11
Organic food
Although monosodium glutamate is not permitted in organic products, ‘organic’ does not mean MSG-free. There are approved ingredients that contain MSG, including among others, yeast extract and ‘natural’ flavourings, which have just as much processed free glutamic acid as their non-organic counterparts. The National Organic Program in the US allows a purely chemical product (made by Senomyx) that mimics the taste of MSG to be used in products labelled organic. 2,3
Product testing
The Truth in Labelling Campaign gives this advice: if you are dissatisfied with a company’s response as to whether or not a product contains processed free glutamic acid, ask if they have had, or would have, their product(s) tested for free amino acids, and request a copy of the results. An amino acid assay will reveal how much free glutamic acid (MSG) there is. 2,3
Considering how effectively MSG is hidden, your safest option is to avoid ALL processed food.

Kyra Xavia is a freelance writer, photographer and qualified nutritionist, naturopath, herbalist, homeopath and aromatherapist.

  1. David Tin Win, ‘MSG: Flavor enhancer or deadly killer?’ AU Journal of Technology, 12(1), July 2008
  3. Email communication from MSG investigator Adrienne Samuels, PhD,
  4. Blaylock, RL, Excitotoxins: The Taste that Kills, Health Press, 1996
  5. Olney, JW, ‘Glutamate: a neurotoxic transmitter’, J Child Neurol, 1989, 4
  6. Olney, JW ‘Toxic effects of glutamate and related amino acids on the developing central nervous system’, In: Nyhan WL ed. Heritable Disorders of Amino Acid Metabolism, New York, Wiley, 1974
  7. Lipton, SA, Rosenberg, PA, ‘Excitatory amino acids as a final common pathway for neurologic disorders’, N Engl J Med. 330, 1994
  8. National Institutes of Health, The glutamate cascade: Common pathways of central nervous system disease states, Bethesda, Maryland, May 3–5, 1998
  9. Blaylock, RL ‘Neurodegeneration and aging of the central nervous system: Prevention and treatment by phytochemicals and metabolic nutrients’, Integrative Med 1998, 1
  10. He, K et al., ‘Consumption of monosodium glutamate in relation to incidence of overweight in Chinese adults: China Health and Nutrition Survey (CHNS)’, Am J Clin Nutr. June 2011; 93 (6)
  11. Melanie Warner, ‘Food companies test flavorings that can mimic sugar, salt or MSG’, New York Times, 6 April, 2005

What can you do?

  • Eat fresh, natural, seasonal, locally produced organic food.
  • Read labels VERY carefully.
  • Avoid ingredients that contain hidden MSG.
  • Avoid processed foods, especially products with ‘natural’ flavours and ingredients that have the words ‘autolysed’ and ‘hydrolysed’ in front of them.
  • All antioxidants protect against glutamate toxicity. Include brightly coloured fruit, vegetables, spices and super foods in your diet.


Further information


  • M Adams, The Truth About MSG and Excitotoxins, 2010
  • R Blaylock, Excitotoxins: The Taste that Kills, 1996
  • J & M Erb, The Slow Poisoning of America, 2003
  • G Schwartz, In Bad Taste: The MSG Syndrome, 1999