MSG was discovered in 1908, isolated from seaweed in Japan. It was first derived from seaweed however it is currently produced by bacterial fermentation using starches or molasses as the carbon source and ammonium salt as the nitrogen source1. MSG is a food additive and flavour enhancer which is commonly added to canned products like soups and vegetables, flavoured potato chips and snacks, Chinese food, processed meats like hotdogs, salami and condiments like gravy mixes and bottled prepared sauces. MSG is known as a flavour enhancer and is said to have an umami type quality (also known as the 5th taste after sweet, salty, bitter and sour). It is marketed under trade names like Accent or Ajinomoto. It can also be found on supermarket shelves, labelled clearly as MSG.
Chemical composition of MSG:
Simply speaking MSG is the sodium salt of glutamic acid (glutamate), which is a naturally occurring non-essential amino acid. Sounds okay, right? Not quite. Monosodium glutamate is a product that contains glutamic acid that has been freed from protein by a manufacturing process or through fermentation. In addition to glutamic acid, monosodium glutamate contains sodium. If follows, therefore, that monosodium glutamate is not found in protein. Protein is made up of an array of amino acids. There is no sodium in protein2. When the processed and packaged goods industry that are clearly biased supporters of MSG talks about it purely based on its chemical composition, it doesn’t sound that bad. And, there is certainly naturally occurring glutamic acid in our bodies as well as the protein rich foods that we consume including eggs, sea vegetables, meat, mushrooms, etc. The major difference between naturally occurring glutamic acid (L-glutamic acid) and MSG is that L-glutamic acid is bound to protein. Chemically produced MSG, frees the glutamic acid from the protein using various processes (hydrolyzed, autolyzed, modified or fermented with strong chemicals, acids, bacteria or enzymes, which are often genetically modified) and refined to a white crystal power. Chemical MSG contains 12.2% sodium, 78% glutamate, and 9.6% water3.
Negative Health effects of MSG:
According to Health Canada and the FDA it is considered not to be a health hazard. In 1968, Dr Ho Man Kwok published an article in the highly respected New England Journal of Medicine which coined the phrase “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”. While the article wasn’t specifically about MSG, the scientific community began to suspect MSG was the culprit and launched several studies to investigate its health effects. Concurrently, consumers began to become wary of MSG and started to avoid it. Food manufacturing companies that were using it simply changed its name on the label to natural flavouring to avoid the negative publicity.
Today, we have over 40 terms that are synonymous with MSG. Today, both “Chinese restaurant syndrome” and its latest term “MSG symptom complex” have been acknowledged by both governmental bodies as reactions to MSG. Health Canada states that “some individuals may exhibit an allergic-type reaction or hypersensitivity…..about 20 minutes after consumption and disappearing about two hours later. Such reactions have generally been reported to be temporary and not associated with severe adverse health effects. People sensitive enough to be affected are advised to avoid the use of this substance.”4
Reactions to MSG can include but are not limited to:
Headache, flushing, sweating, facial pressure or tightness, numbness, tingling, burning in the face or other area, heart palpitation, chest pain, nausea5.
In addition to these acute reactions, there are other side effects of MSG. MSG is an excitotoxin, which means it over excites your cells to the point of damage or death, causing brain damage to varying degrees — and potentially even triggering or worsening learning disabilities, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease and more6
MSG is also an appetite stimulant and causes the pancreas to produce more insulin, which can lead to diabetes or harm existing diabetics who closely control their insulin. Glutamate in excess converts to GABA which may be addictive.
Many other adverse effects have also been linked to regular consumption of MSG, including:
- Eye damage
- Fatigue and disorientation
What’s even more astounding is that MSG can fall under different naming conventions such as:
- Soy Protein / Soy Protein Isolate / Concentrate
- Yeast Extract
- Texturized Protein
- Autolyzed Yeast
- Yeast nutrient
- Whey Protein / Concentrate / Isolate
- Any hydrolyzed protein
- Glutamate / Glutamic Acid / Natrium Glutamate
- Calcium Caseinate
- Monopotassium / Monoammonium / Magnesium Glutamate
Artificial Food Colour (Yellow #5) – aka Tartrazine
Tartrazine is an azo-dye used to give food its artificial yellow colour. An azo-dye is a chemical compound where two hydrocarbon groups are joined by two nitrogen atoms. It is made from a byproduct of the Petroleum Industry, and is considered to be one of the most widely used artificial foods, drugs and cosmetic dyes. Like MSG it is a completely unnecessary additive purely there for aesthetics, to entice consumers by its vibrant yellow hue. It’s also added to synthetic blue dye to make vibrant shades of green. It’s a cheap and stable alternative to using real vegetable dyes or beta-carotene, which is why it is so widely used. It can be absorbed through the skin in addition to being absorbed through ingestion. According to Dr. Vojdani, in the past 50 years the use of synthetic dye in foods has increased by 500%, simultaneously so have the incidence of ADD/ADHD and behavioural problems including aggression, impulsivity and low frustration tolerance in children. Dr Vojdani also believes that it leads to a cascade of immunological problems including intestinal permeability and could lead to cross-reactivities, autoimmunities, and even neurobehavioral disorders7.
It has been banned in Norway and Austria while other European countries have issued warnings about their effects. In 2009 the British Government requested that food manufacturers remove artificial food dyes in their products. Yet, in Canada and the US it’s widely used. In Canada, manufacturers do not have to specifically state what types of colour they have added to food. It is okay for the ingredient label to use the generic term “colour”. However, because of possible allergies or intolerance, U.S manufacturers are required to declare the use of tartrazine (The FDA makes drug manufacturers put a precaution statement on the labeling.) Because Canadians share so many products with the United States, we do see tartrazine on many of our food labels8.
Tartrazine is a nitrous derivative and is known to cause allergic reactions such as asthma and urticaria, as well as having been the focus of studies on mutagenesis and carcinogenesis due to its transformation into aromatic amine sulfanilic acid after being metabolized by the gastrointestinal microflora9. A study published in the Brazilian Journal of Biology concluded that there was a significant increase in the number of lymphocytes and eosinophils of the gastric antrum mucosa of rats fed tartrazine and that although there was no carcinogenic changes found in those rats, it’s still a potential food carcinogen10.
Tartrazine can be found in jams, chips, candies (M&M’s), cosmetics, vitamin supplements, prescription and OTC medications, dry cereal, sport drinks, powdered cheese sauce, carbonated beverages (Mountain Dew).
Chemical composition of Tartrazine:
Other names for Tartrazine include: FD&C yellow 5, Yellow #5, E102 or C.I. 19140
Negative Health effects of Tartrazine:
Tartrazine has been shown to cause many side effects from anxiety, migraines, asthma attacks, blurred vision, eczema, other skin rashes, thyroid cancer, Eosinophilia (increase in specific forms of white blood cells), clinical depression, ADHD or hyperactivity, hives, permanent DNA damage, heart palpitations, rhinitis, sleep disturbances/insomnia, general all-over weakness, hot flushes and OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder)11. Of the above noted side effects, hyperactivity in children and allergic reactions tend to have the most supportive research.
Hyperactivity in Children: Artificial food colors (AFCs) have not been established as the main cause of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but accumulated evidence suggests that a subgroup shows significant symptom improvement when consuming an AFC-free diet (added food colour) and reacts with ADHD-type symptoms on challenge with AFCs. Of children with suspected sensitivities, 65% to 89% reacted when challenged with at least 100 mg of AFC12.
In addition, when combined with the preservative sodium benzoate, certain food colourings including tartrazine, may promote hyperactivity in children. There is widespread consensus that eating a diet free from additives and preservatives is beneficial to everyone, but especially to children afflicted by hyperactivity and ADD/ADHD as they tend to experience multiple chemical and food sensitivities.
Allergic Reactions: A Spanish study concluded that asthmatics sensitive to aspirin also have been shown to have an increased sensitivity to tartrazine13. Reactions include hives, swelling and asthma attacks. In another study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, from 4% to 14% of individuals with asthma or allergies or both and from 7% to 20% of persons who are sensitive to acetylsalicylic acid may react to this dye14. As such, it was recommended that tartrazine in drugs include a warning label.
There is a lot of evidence to suggest that both MSG and tartrazine (yellow #5) are problematic prevalent chemical additives that the food and drug industry widely uses. Both have been implicated as contributors in various allergic conditions. Tartrazine seems to contribute to hyperactivity and behavioural issues in children. The good news is that with a little knowledge (knowledge is power), both of these chemical additives can and should be avoided. It is absolutely within our ability to buy and consume food and products that are free of artificial colours, dyes, preservatives, additives and chemicals like these.
Positive Recommendations to avoid MSG and Tartrazine
How to Avoid MSG and artificial food colours (like Tartrazine) entirely:
- Read food labels and know other terms for MSG
- Avoid buying and consuming processed food which contains artificial food colour, Preservatives and MSG
- Avoid buying imported products as labels may not have been translated correctly
- Don’t eat fast food
- Eat whole foods like fruits, vegetables, grains and organic humanely raised meats
- Buy local and Organic when possible
- Shop the perimeter of the grocery store and avoid the isles of processed, unhealthy packaged foods, particularly:
- cured and packaged or canned meat
- boxed cookies and kids cereals
- bottled sauce condiments and salad dressings
- dry soup and seasoning mixes
- frozen dinners
- bouillons and broths (cubes, cans or tetras)
- Use natural flavour enhancers like herbs and spices
- Parsley, cilantro, basil, oregano are readily available year round
- Dried herbs are also a great alternative and store well
- Annatto and Turmeric are safe yellow food alternatives. In fact, turmeric has widespread health benefits so it is highly recommended
- Discover new recipes from different countries that readily use a lot of new and exotic spices that will open up your palate to new tastes
- Speak up! Tell your friends and family about the negative health effects of chemical food additives
- Get involved in a community CSA
- Buy at local farmers markets
- Keep current on the latest developments in food science
- Don’t be afraid to ask your server in a restaurant for a list of ingredients. Know the other “pseudonyms” for MSG and Tartrazine. Don’t be fooled.
- Pay attention to what your children are being fed in school
- Tour a local sustainable farm and see how real food is produced
- Learn to do your own food preserving and canning of seasonal fruits and vegetables
- Write to your MP/MPP and tell them that we should have honest food labeling, for everyone’s sake
- We as consumers are the biggest influencers on the food industry with our buying power ($) – stop buying products with chemical additives. Cumulatively, we can send a clear message that it’s not okay.
- Botes, S., Natural News. http://www.naturalnews.com/032169_tartrazine_food_colors.html April 25, 2011.
- Dr Mercola website. http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2009/04/21/msg-is-this-silent-killer-lurking-in-your-kitchen-cabinets.aspx. April 21, 2009.
- Eden Foods website. http://www.edenfoods.com/articles/view.php?articles_id=207
- Elephant Journal website. http://www.elephantjournal.com/2013/04/sneaky-names-for-msg-check-your-labels/. 2013.
- Encyclopedia Britannica, “Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)/chemical compound/” http://www.britannica.com/topic/monosodium-glutamate )
- Grzelewska-Rzymowska I, Szmidt M, Kowalski ML, Roźniecki J. Sensitivity and tolerance to tartrazine in aspirin-sensitive asthmatics. Allergol Immunopathol (Madr). 1986 Jan-Feb;14
- Health Canada website. http://Www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/securit/addit/msg_qa-qr-eng.php
- MacCara, ME., Tartrazine: a potentially hazardous dye in Canadian drugs. CMAJ April 15, 1982
- Mayo Clinic website. Zeratsky, Katherine, R.D., L.D. “What is MSG? Is it bad for you?” Http://www.mayclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/expert-answers/Monosodiumglutamate/faq-20058196. March 13, 2015.
- MSG Truth Website. http://www.msgtruth.org/whatisit.htm April 2, 2016
- Moutino IL, Bertges LC., Assis RV., Prolonged use of the food dye tartrazine (FD&C yellow no 5) and its effects on the gastric mucosa of Wistar rats. BRAZ J BIO 2007 Feb. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17505761.
- Stevens LJ1, Kuczek T, Burgess JR, Hurt E, Arnold LE. Dietary sensitivities and ADHD symptoms: thirty-five years of research. Clin Pediatr (Phila). 2011 April.
- Truth in labeling website. http://www.truthinlabeling.org/
- Vojdani A., Vojdani C., Immune reactivity to food coloring. Altern Ther Health Med. http://foodconstrued.com/2012/09/tartrazine/ 2015.