Monosodium glutamate, commonly known as MSG, is one of the most controversial food additives approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
While it's "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS) to be used in the food supply by regulatory agencies, some research shows that it may negatively affect health, which is why many people choose to avoid it.
This article explains what MSG is, what foods it's typically added to, and what the research says about possible health implications.
What is MSG?
MSG is a popular flavor enhancer derived from L-glutamic acid, a naturally occurring amino acid that's necessary for the creation of proteins.
Today, it can be found in a number of processed products, from fast food to canned soups.
MSG boosts the flavor of foods by stimulating taste receptors and has been shown in research studies to increase the acceptance of particular flavors. Adding MSG to foods results in an umami taste, which is characterized as savory and meaty.
This popular additive has been deemed GRAS by the FDA, though some experts argue that it can have potentially dangerous side effects, particularly when consumed on a long-term basis.
The FDA mandates that MSG must be labeled by its usual name of monosodium glutamate when used as an ingredient in food. Foods that naturally contain MSG, such as tomato products, protein isolates, and cheeses, aren't required to list MSG as an ingredient.
Here are 8 foods that commonly contain MSG.
1. Fast Food
One of the best-known sources of MSG is fast food, particularly Chinese food.
In fact, Chinese restaurant syndrome is a condition characterized by symptoms including headache, hives, swelling of the throat, itching, and belly pain experienced by some people shortly after consuming MSG-laden Chinese food.
Although many Chinese restaurants have stopped using MSG as an ingredient, others continue to add it to a number of popular dishes, including fried rice.
MSG is also used by franchises like Kentucky Fried Chicken and Chick-fil-A to enhance the flavor of foods.
For example, Chick-fil-A's Chicken Sandwich and Kentucky Fried Chicken's Extra Crispy Chicken Breast are just some of the menu items that contain MSG.
2. Chips and Snack Foods
Many manufacturers use MSG to boost the savory flavor of chips.
Aside from being added to potato chips, corn chips, and snack mixes, MSG can be found in a number of other snack foods, so it's best to read the label if you want to avoid consuming this additive.
3. Seasoning Blends
Seasoning blends are used to give a salty, savory taste to dishes like stews, tacos, and stir-fries.
MSG is used in many seasoning blends to intensify taste and boost the umami flavor cheaply without adding extra salt.
In fact, MSG is used in the production of low sodium items to increase flavor without the addition of salt. MSG can be found in many low sodium flavoring products, including seasoning blends and bouillon cubes.
4. Frozen Meals
Although frozen meals can be a convenient and cheap way to put food on the table, they often contain a host of unhealthy and potentially problematic ingredients, including MSG.
Other frozen products that often contain MSG include frozen pizzas, mac and cheese, and frozen breakfast meals.
Canned soups and soup mixes often have MSG added to them to intensify the savory flavor that consumers crave.
Perhaps the most popular soup product that contains this controversial additive is Campbell's chicken noodle soup.
Many other soup products, including canned soups, dried soup mixes, and bouillon seasonings, can contain MSG, making it important to check individual product labels.
6. Processed Meats
Processed meats like hot dogs, lunch meats, beef jerky, sausages, smoked meats, pepperoni, and meat snack sticks can contain MSG.
Condiments like salad dressing, mayonnaise, ketchup, barbecue sauce, and soy sauce often contain added MSG.
In addition to MSG, many condiments are packed with unhealthy additives like added sugars, artificial colorings, and preservatives, so it's best to purchase products that are made with limited, whole food ingredients whenever possible.
If you're concerned about using MSG-containing condiments, consider making your own so that you have complete control over what you're consuming. For starters, you can try out these delicious and healthy salad dressing recipes.
8. Instant Noodle Products
A staple for college students around the world, instant noodles provide a quick, filling meal for those on a budget.
However, many manufacturers use MSG to boost the savory flavor of instant noodle products. Plus, instant noodles are typically made from unhealthy ingredients and are loaded with added salt, refined carbs, and preservatives that can harm your health.
Is MSG Harmful?
While research is far from conclusive, some studies have suggested that consuming MSG may lead to negative health outcomes.
For example, MSG consumption has been linked to obesity, liver damage, blood sugar fluctuations, elevated heart disease risk factors, behavioral problems, nerve damage, and increased inflammation in animal studies.
Some human research has demonstrated that consuming MSG may promote weight gain and increase hunger, food intake, and your risk of metabolic syndrome, a group of symptoms that raises your risk of chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes.
For example, a study in 349 adults found that those who consumed the most MSG were much more likely to have metabolic syndrome than those who consumed the least, and that every 1 gram increase of MSG per day significantly increased the chances of being overweight.
There's also some evidence that MSG increases hunger and may lead you to eat more at meals. However, current research suggests a more complex relationship between MSG and appetite, with some studies finding that MSG may even decrease intake at meals.
Although research is mixed on how MSG may affect overall health, it's clear that consuming high doses of 3 grams or higher of MSG per day is likely to lead to adverse side effects, including headache and increased blood pressure.
For reference, it's estimated that the average consumption of MSG in the United States and the United Kingdom is around 0.55 grams per day, while intake of MSG in Asian countries is around 1.2–1.7 grams per day.
Although it's possible, consuming 3 grams of MSG or more per day is unlikely when eating normal portion sizes.
However, certain individuals who have a sensitivity to MSG may experience side effects like hives, swelling of the throat, headache, and fatigue after consuming smaller amounts, depending on individual tolerance.
Still, a review of 40 studies found that, overall, studies that have linked MSG with adverse health effects are of poor quality and have methodological flaws, and that strong clinical evidence of MSG hypersensitivity is lacking, highlighting a need for future research.
While evidence of MSG sensitivity is lacking, many people report that consuming this additive leads to adverse side effects.
If you think you may have a sensitivity to MSG, it's best to avoid the products listed on this page and always check labels for added MSG.
Furthermore, even though the safety of MSG is debated, it's clear that foods that commonly contain MSG, like chips, frozen meals, fast food, instant noodles, and processed meats, aren't good for overall health.
Therefore, cutting out MSG-laden products will likely benefit you in the long run — even if you aren't sensitive to MSG.
Some studies have associated MSG with negative health outcomes, including obesity and metabolic syndrome. However, more research is needed to substantiate these findings.
The Bottom Line
MSG is a controversial food additive that's found in a wide variety of products. It's commonly added to chips, frozen dinners, fast food, instant noodles, and many other processed foods to enhance flavor.
Although some studies have linked MSG consumption with negative health outcomes, more research is needed to fully understand the potential effects that consuming MSG may have on both short- and long-term health.
If you feel that you're sensitive to MSG, it's best to avoid products that contain it. Be sure to always read food labels to ensure your items are free of MSG.
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By Bob Jacobs
Hanako, a female Asian elephant, lived in a tiny concrete enclosure at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo for more than 60 years, often in chains, with no stimulation. In the wild, elephants live in herds, with close family ties. Hanako was solitary for the last decade of her life.
Hanako, an Asian elephant kept at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo; and Kiska, an orca that lives at Marineland Canada. One image depicts Kiska's damaged teeth. Elephants in Japan (left image), Ontario Captive Animal Watch (right image), CC BY-ND
Affecting Health and Altering Behavior<p>It is easy to observe the overall health and psychological consequences of life in captivity for these animals. Many captive elephants suffer from arthritis, obesity or skin problems. Both <a href="https://doi.org/10.11609/JoTT.o2620.1826-36" target="_blank">elephants</a> and orcas often have severe dental problems. Captive orcas are plagued by <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank">pneumonia, kidney disease, gastrointestinal illnesses and infections</a>.</p><p>Many animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.09.010" target="_blank">try to cope</a> with captivity by adopting abnormal behaviors. Some develop "<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stereotypies</a>," which are repetitive, purposeless habits such as constantly bobbing their heads, swaying incessantly or chewing on the bars of their cages. Others, especially big cats, pace their enclosures. Elephants rub or break their tusks.</p>
Changing Brain Structure<p>Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished, stressful captive environment <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">physically damages the brain</a>. These changes have been documented in many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.903270108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">species</a>, including rodents, rabbits, cats and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">humans</a>.</p><p>Although researchers have directly studied some animal brains, most of what we know comes from observing animal behavior, analyzing stress hormone levels in the blood and applying knowledge gained from a half-century of neuroscience research. Laboratory research also suggests that mammals in a zoo or aquarium have compromised brain function.</p>
This illustration shows differences in the brain's cerebral cortex in animals held in impoverished (captive) and enriched (natural) environments. Impoverishment results in thinning of the cortex, a decreased blood supply, less support for neurons and decreased connectivity among neurons. Arnold B. Scheibel, CC BY-ND<p>Subsisting in confined, barren quarters that lack intellectual stimulation or appropriate social contact seems to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1590/S0001-37652001000200006" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">thin the cerebral cortex</a> – the part of the brain involved in voluntary movement and higher cognitive function, including memory, planning and decision-making.</p><p>There are other consequences. Capillaries shrink, depriving the brain of the oxygen-rich blood it needs to survive. Neurons become smaller, and their dendrites – the branches that form connections with other neurons – become less complex, impairing communication within the brain. As a result, the cortical neurons in captive animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.901230110" target="_blank">process information less efficiently</a> than those living in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.420020208" target="_blank">enriched, more natural environments</a>.</p>
An actual cortical neuron in a wild African elephant living in its natural habitat compared with a hypothesized cortical neuron from a captive elephant. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Brain health is also affected by living in small quarters that <a href="https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040" target="_blank">don't allow for needed exercise</a>. Physical activity increases the flow of blood to the brain, which requires large amounts of oxygen. Exercise increases the production of new connections and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw2622" target="_blank">enhances cognitive abilities</a>.</p><p>In their native habits these animals must move to survive, covering great distances to forage or find a mate. Elephants typically travel anywhere from <a href="https://www.elephantsforafrica.org/elephant-facts/#:%7E:text=How%20far%20do%20elephants%20walk,km%20on%20a%20daily%20basis." target="_blank">15 to 120 miles per day</a>. In a zoo, they average <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150331" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">three miles daily</a>, often walking back and forth in small enclosures. One free orca studied in Canada swam <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-010-0958-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">up to 156 miles a day</a>; meanwhile, an average orca tank is about 10,000 times smaller than its <a href="https://www.cascadiaresearch.org/projects/killer-whales/using-dtags-study-acoustics-and-behavior-southern" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">natural home range</a>.</p>
Disrupting Brain Chemistry and Killing Cells<p>Living in enclosures that restrict or prevent normal behavior creates chronic frustration and boredom. In the wild, an animal's stress-response system helps it escape from danger. But captivity traps animals with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1215502109" target="_blank">almost no control</a> over their environment.</p><p>These situations foster <a href="https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000033" target="_blank">learned helplessness</a>, negatively impacting the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6391686" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hippocampus</a>, which handles memory functions, and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.02.024" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amygdala</a>, which processes emotions. Prolonged stress <a href="https://doi.org/10.3109/10253899609001092" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevates stress hormones</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.10-09-02897.1990" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">damages or even kills neurons</a> in both brain regions. It also disrupts the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.03.021" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">delicate balance of serotonin</a>, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, among other functions.</p><p>In humans, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">deprivation</a> can trigger <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">psychiatric issues</a>, including depression, anxiety, <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mood disorders</a> or <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858409333072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">post-traumatic stress disorder</a>. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-010-0288-3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephants</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050139" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">orcas</a> and other animals with large brains are likely to react in similar ways to life in a severely stressful environment.</p>
Damaged Wiring<p>Captivity can damage the brain's complex circuitry, including the basal ganglia. This group of neurons communicates with the cerebral cortex along two networks: a direct pathway that enhances movement and behavior, and an indirect pathway that inhibits them.</p><p>The repetitive, <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2014.05.057" target="_blank">stereotypic behaviors</a> that many animals adopt in captivity are caused by an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.02.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">serotonin</a>. This impairs the indirect pathway's ability to modulate movement, a condition documented in species from chickens, cows, sheep and horses to primates and big cats.</p>
The cerebral cortex, hippocampus and amygdala are physically altered by captivity, along with brain circuitry that involves the basal ganglia. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Evolution has constructed animal brains to be exquisitely responsive to their environment. Those reactions can affect neural function by <a href="https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/311787/behave-by-robert-m-sapolsky/" target="_blank">turning different genes on or off</a>. Living in inappropriate or abusive circumstance alters biochemical processes: It disrupts the synthesis of proteins that build connections between brain cells and the neurotransmitters that facilitate communication among them.</p><p>There is strong evidence that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0577-11.2011" target="_blank">enrichment</a>, social contact and appropriate space in more natural habitats are <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1090.2003.tb02071.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">necessary</a> for long-lived animals with large brains such as <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152490" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elephants</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/13880292.2017.1309858" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cetaceans</a>. Better conditions <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5543669/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce disturbing sterotypical behaviors</a>, improve connections in the brain, and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/cdd.2009.193" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">trigger neurochemical changes</a> that enhance learning and memory.</p>