MSG orMonosodium glutamateis an innocuous sounding chemical name. Yet, this artificially created compound has not only revolutionized the fast food industry, it has posed hitherto unknown health risks.

What exactly is it?

Glutamic acid belongs to a group of compounds calledglutamates that are the source of the rather elusive fifth basic taste--umami. Umami is basically what meat tastes like, and it is this flavour that MSG enhances or adds while enhancing the other flavours in a food item.

Derived from the non-essential amino acidglutamic acid, MSG is used to enhance taste and flavour in most Asian restaurants, in fast food joints, in all kinds of packaged and processed foods, and some natural foods such as mushrooms, processed soy products, aged Parmesan, etc.

This is why the addition of MSG to food makes it taste richer, fuller, and more satisfying.

MSG was first manufactured in Japan after the natural flavour-enhancing property of seaweed was discovered. While glutamates occur naturally, MSG is an artificial food additive. Manufactured and sold under various brand names like Accent and Ajinomoto, MSG is sold in pure powdered crystalline form for easy addition to food.

Used liberally in all kinds of Asian cuisine (like stir-fries), some kinds of Caribbean and Latin American dishes (ones that involve spice rubs), and in virtually all processed foods like canned soup, processed meat, instant noodles, salad dressing, sauces, potato chips, and cookies, it is just about impossible to escape.

What’s wrong with it?

MSG has long been under suspicion for causing various symptoms like palpitations, flushing, headaches, nausea, dizziness, rashes, insomnia, lethargy, etc.

While the FDA in the United States marks MSG as GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe), various studies have linked MSG to mild to severe symptoms. While these symptoms are rarely life-threatening and also do not usually require medical assistance, they may aggravate further into more serious disorders. Asthma patients and pregnant women are particularly at risk from MSG consumption side effects.

So how do you avoid consuming MSG? This is a problem in today’s world where we rely so much on processed, packaged foods, and on eating out.

The first obvious step is to read the ingredients label carefully and look for MSG and its many related compounds such as Glutamic Acid, Hydrolized Protein, Autolyzed Yeast, gelatin, Monopotassium glutamate, Sodium caseinate, etc. This may prove to be difficult since Glutamic Acid occurs in many naturally found substances. Moreover, most restaurants use it liberally in the food. While you may request MSG-free foods, there is no way to tell if your food is genuinely MSG-free or not.

The only way to completely avoid MSG is to avoid the avenues through which you may accidentally consume it. That means avoiding, or at least minimizing packaged foods, processed foods, and eating out-- particularly Chinese food, and focusing on locally produced fresh, whole foods that you cook in your own kitchen. This may initially seem difficult to do, but your body will thank you for it later.

Read more about healthy chinese meals

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