Out of sheer necessity, I am becoming an expert label reader. Nutritional information is easy. I mastered that decades ago. Now I am tackling the ingredient lists. The effort it takes to read through a paragraph of multi-syllabic jargon in tiny type is unbelievable, exhausting even.
Why do I do it? At the age of 30 I managed to acquire a host of food allergies, sensitivities, and intolerances. These cause anything from migraines to a runny nose to gas to… I will leave it at that. Obvious things to avoid are the ones I am allergic to or that wreak havoc on my digestive system – wheat, barley, sesame, coconut, etc.
Recently, I have decided to eliminate as many additives as possible – this includes anything unnatural, most dyes, flavor enhancers, salt, nitrites. The list goes on. Why do this? I am sick and tired of feeling sick and tired. I am sick and tired of taking pills all day – 14 prescriptions and a handful of vitamins and supplements. This is no way to live.
The FDA might require certain things be labeled, but who decides on the teeny tiny type?!
I think changing my diet will help me feel better. Why? While many people do fine eating whatever they want in moderation, or even in excess, some do not. Evidence suggests that some people are very sensitive to the sorts of ingredients I mentioned above. Plus, I know folks that have stopped eating them and feel happier and healthier. If there is a chance it is going to make me feel better, then why not try it?
I decided to start with MSG and Red 40 simply because I am most familiar with those two. I was shocked by what I learned about each of the. MSG was the first to make my head spin.
If you live in the United States and have ordered Chinese takeout, you have undoubtedly seen “No MSG” written on the menu. Why?
As far as I can tell, it is due to at least one famous account of “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” where a person fell ill after eating Chinese food cooked with MSG. This led to the general public belief that MSG is bad, especially in Chinese food. I am sure Chinese restaurant owners did not want to take a risk of getting anyone sick, or losing any business, so they stopped using MSG and advertised the change.
Chinese Restaurants aren’t the only ones bragging about ‘No MSG”
After I started reading labels more carefully, I noticed MSG popping up in ingredients lists more than I expected. Why is this stuff that is so supposedly bad for you in so many other foods?
I guarantee there are those of you out there dosing yourselves with MSG on a regular basis without even knowing it. I know I was. It is in my favorite chips (that I no longer eat) and a host of yummy salty snacks and packaged prepared foods.
Either MSG is not bad for you, or a certain manufacturer of yummy tortilla chips and other well known companies are trying to poison us! So, which is it?
Is MSG safe, or are we being poisoned?
From what my preliminary research tells me (gotta love Google), it is a little of both.
Monosodium glutamate, MSG, is a flavor enhancer.
In plain terms, it makes food taste better. If you want to know how, you can read up on it here. Makes sense why snack food companies would want to use it. They want you to love the taste of their food so much that you keep eating it, and eating it, and buying more of it. They want to do this as cheaply and easily as possible. Enter the MSG.
The American Food and Drug Administration does not consider MSG to be unsafe, or at least not harmful enough to be banned. I do not blame them.
Monosodium glutamate , or similar substances, have been used for over 100 years. MSG is used in many foods on supermarket shelves in America and consumed by millions of people every day. There are no studies to show that MSG directly causes any diseases. As far as I have found, there are no studies that show it causes illness in healthy adults (I will be researching this further).
Even if there is no concrete evidence that MSG is harmful to the general public, it does not mean it is 100% safe for everyone. There is evidence that some people are particularly sensitive to MSG and these people can suffer ill effects. MSG is one of those “eat at your own risk” foods. You will be just fine, unless you are one of the people it makes sick. If you are one of those people, you should avoid it. I am sure this is the reason the FDA requires it to be listed on ingredient labels. Good for the FDA.
Personally, I appreciate being alerted that there is something in my food that might be making me sick, even mildly. And even if the FDA says it is fine to eat MSG, I think I will do my best to avoid it.
I have never met someone that can definitely say MSG makes them sick, but I believe they are out there. I do know plenty of people that have felt better after they stopped eating junk food. Junk food (packaged snacks, boxed and prepared foods) seem to be the ones that most often contain MSG. These foods also contain plenty of other unhealthy things (fat, salt, artificial color and flavor). Makes sense that you would feel better eating none or less of them. I think most people would agree on this. additionally, some people with ADHD, migraines, and similar conditions have decreased symptoms after eliminating foods with additives. I do know of actual cases of this.
Can you spot the MSG?
Now that I am giving up junk food and prepared foods does this mean I am free of MSG?
Close but not quite.
I found MSG hiding in a few places I did not expect:
Salad dressings (not a big surprise) and seasoning mixes (huge surprise). I foolishly thought that maybe the better brands, the kinds that encourage you to feed them to families and children, would be wholesome and devoid of MSG. Not so. That kid with the rosy chubby cheeks is slurping up a bowl of chicken noodle MSG.
Foods that do not contain MSG can still be sources of glutamic acid, the part of MSG that acts as a flavor enhancer. These include ingredients such as hydrolyzed vegetable protein. I see that one a lot. I never knew it was a flavor enhancer. That makes these foods troublesome for some people as well. So much so that the FDA does not allow “No MSG” or “No Added MSG” on food labels if the food contains ingredients that are sources of free glutamate (glutamic acid). Great. A new list of words to memorize!
The only way to be 100% sure to avoid MSG and other sources of glutamic acid is to restrict your diet to fresh foods, whole foods, organic foods. A great idea in theory. Anyone that knows me knows that is just not gonna happen for me now. Maybe some day. For now I will have the occasional jarred sauce or frozen dinner. But you can belive I am going to read that label before I put it in my cart.
What do you think?
Is MSG safe? How much MSG have you been eating? Are you surprised? Will you consider cutting back on MSG in your diet? Your child’s?