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MSG-free: Avoiding the hidden sources

July 23, 1999
Web posted at: 11:27 AM EDT (1527 GMT)

In this story:

What is MSG toxicity syndrome?

Symptoms that MSG can bring on

What the future may hold for the players in the MSG debate


(WebMD) -- Sufferers of monosodium glutamate (MSG) toxicity syndromes have long been dismissed by the makers of glutamate and food additives and by the FDA, whose labeling standards for foods containing the controversial flavor enhancer are fairly lax. For many of these MSG sufferers, the experience of coping with the ambiguities of food labeling leaves them feeling like Han Solo navigating his way through an asteroid field. Not only is it confusing -- it can be very dangerous.

What is MSG toxicity syndrome?

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) toxicity syndrome occurs in response to free-glutamic acid, which is a breakdown product of protein after it has been processed by a food manufacturer. While all protein has glutamic acid bound in it, it is only the glutamic acid that has been freed from the protein before it is consumed that causes the reactions. Growing numbers of patients and physicians and some scientists are convinced that the ingestion of this processed free-glutamic acid can cause adverse reactions in one or more organs of the body. In 1969, H. H. Schaumburg, an MSG researcher who helped educate the public and the medical industry about the dangers of MSG, concluded that up to 30 percent of the population had sensitivity reactions from the MSG in an ordinary diet.

Symptoms that MSG can bring on

Reported MSG reactions, which can occur as a result of consuming even small amounts (much less than the 1/2 gram the FDA considers to be low), include migraines; hives; mouth eruptions; numbness; tingling; swelling of mucous membranes in the oral, gastrointestinal or reproductive tract; asthma; runny nose; insomnia; seizures; mood swings; panic attacks; diarrhea; and cardiac irregularities.

Sufferers of MSG's effects are not experiencing an "allergy." Instead, they are experiencing the results of direct nerve stimulation and possible nerve damage, although the latter has not been verified in humans. Emergency room physician George R. Schwartz, author of "In Bad Taste: The MSG Symptom Complex," says MSG is a "neurotoxin," a substance that actually induces nerve changes and possible nerve damage.

Despite the fact that MSG causes known toxic reactions, and despite the fact that some labeling does exist, MSG-sensitive individuals are still at risk for becoming severely ill from food they buy at the store or order off a menu.

1. Most processed foods contain MSG. Kathleen Schwartz, president of NoMSG, a New Mexico-based nonprofit group, explains that MSG is deceptively represented as a "natural" additive on many containers and in some natural-food departments as well. "Anything that tastes good ... all of the fast foods, flavored chips, most of the condiments, most salad dressings, most processed lunch meats, most sausages, soups off the grocery shelf," she says, are likely to contain MSG.

2. Seasonings and basic food staples contain MSG. Adrienne Samuels, Ph.D., co-director and founder of the Truth in Labeling Campaign (TLC), a nonprofit organization whose mission is to promote "full and clear labeling" of all food, says that the unwary consumer is quite vulnerable to the unintended ingestion of MSG. In doing research for a TLC report, Samuels found that the glutamate and food-additive industry is adept at disguising the presence of MSG in foods. "Bouillon, stock, broth, malt flavoring, barley malt, seasonings, carrageenan, soy sauce, soy protein, whey protein and anything enzyme-modified," she writes, "always contain MSG."

3. MSG by any other name is just the same. Samuels notes that the FDA has demonstrated a curious relaxation of its usual standards for product labeling. "With some exceptions," she writes, "the FDA requires that ingredients -- MSG-containing ingredients included -- must be called by their common or usual names." The FDA uses the term "monosodium glutamate" for ingredients that are a 99 percent pure combination of glutamic acid and sodium. However, most of the MSG-containing foods that cause MSG syndrome are not 99 percent pure and are allowed to be labeled obscurely: "monopotassium glutamate," "autolyzed yeast," "hydrolyzed soy protein" and "sodium caseinate" are examples of ingredients that always contain MSG.

4. The FDA won't tighten its standards. In 1994 TLC attempted through a petition to pressure the FDA "to require that processed free-glutamic acid be clearly labeled when used in food." That petition -- and a subsequent lawsuit -- were not successful. The court ruled that the FDA, being a food-industry expert, did not have to disclose the basis of its conclusion that current labeling standards adequately protected the public.

What the future may hold for the players in the MSG debate

MSG proponents are currently facing a new battle -- one with potentially far-reaching legal repercussions. In a recent, well-publicized legal case, a California man, Mr. Livingston, initially lost a suit that was recently reversed on appeal and set for retrial. Livingston's complaint is against a restaurant that had served him a vegetable soup that had been made with a beef base containing MSG. After consuming it, he suffered an asthma attack and cardiac arrest. "The restaurant had a 'duty to warn' this man of the dangers of the MSG content of the food," says attorney Howard Goldstein, who represented Livingston and who likens the case to the current tobacco industry lawsuits.

Goldstein says he is more aware of the dangers of MSG as a result of his involvement with this case. A member of his own family suffered from MSG sensitivity. "At a time when we were eating a lot of foods containing MSG," he says, "during the meal she would start having vision changes, cramping and asthma. At least once or twice a year for a dozen or so years we would be making emergency room visits, usually on the Friday or Saturday night after eating out, to get to respiratory therapy." Goldstein says that after getting involved in the Livingston case and learning to eliminate MSG from the family diet, the trips to the emergency room have not occurred for five years.

But until relief arrives, consumers must navigate on their own.

Copyright 1999 by WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.

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