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Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a controversial food additive that's used to enhance the flavor of dishes, especially in Asian cuisine.
In addition, many people have reported adverse effects from consuming MSG, with headaches or migraine attacks being among the most common.
This article explores the relationship between MSG and headaches.
What is MSG?
MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is a common food additive.
It's popular in Asian cuisine and present in various processed foods, such as soups, chips, snack foods, seasoning blends, frozen meals, and instant noodles.
MSG is derived from the naturally occurring amino acid glutamic acid, or glutamate. Glutamate plays a role in various functions in the body, such as relaying signals from your brain to your body.
As an additive, MSG is a white crystalline powder that looks similar to table salt or sugar. Adding it to foods enhances their umami taste, which is best described as savory and meaty.
The FDA has deemed MSG as GRAS, which stands for "generally recognized as safe." However, some experts question its health effects, especially when consumed regularly over the long term.
Products that contain MSG must include it on their ingredients labels by its full name — monosodium glutamate. However, foods that naturally contain MSG, such as tomatoes, cheeses, and protein isolates, do not need to list MSG (1).
MSG, short for monosodium glutamate, is a food additive that enhances the savory umami taste of foods.
Does MSG Cause Headaches?
Over the years, MSG has been subjected to a lot of controversy.
Most of the fear around MSG consumption can be traced back to a mouse study from 1969, which found that very high doses of MSG caused neurological damage and impaired both growth and development in newborn mice.
Given that MSG contains glutamic acid, an umami compound that also functions as a neurotransmitter — a chemical messenger that stimulates nerve cells — some people believe that it may have harmful effects on the brain.
However, research has shown that consuming MSG is unlikely to have any effect on brain health, as it's unable to cross the blood-brain barrier.
Although the FDA has classified MSG as safe for consumption, some people have reported sensitivities to it. The most frequently reported side effects include headaches, muscle tightness, tingling, numbness, weakness, and flushing.
While headaches and migraine attacks are among the most commonly reported side effects of consuming MSG, current research has not confirmed a connection between the two.
A detailed review of human studies from 2016 examined research on the relationship between MSG intake and headaches.
Six of the studies looked at MSG consumption from food on headaches and found no significant evidence that consuming MSG was associated with this effect.
However, in the seven studies in which high doses of MSG were dissolved into a liquid as opposed to being ingested with food, the authors found that people who consumed the MSG beverage reported headaches more frequently than those who consumed a placebo.
That said, the authors believe that these studies were not properly blinded, as it's easy to distinguish the taste of MSG. This means it's highly likely the participants knew that they received MSG, which could have skewed the results.
In addition, the International Headache Society (IHS) removed MSG from its list of causal factors for headaches after additional research found no significant connection between the two.
In short, there isn't significant evidence linking MSG intake to headaches.
Based on the current research, there is insufficient evidence to link MSG consumption to headaches. However, more research is needed.
Is MSG harmful?
The FDA has classified MSG as safe for consumption.
However, some human studies have linked its intake to adverse effects, such as weight gain, hunger, and metabolic syndrome, a group of symptoms that may raise your risk of chronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
On the other hand, a large review of 40 studies found that most studies that have linked MSG to adverse health outcomes were poorly designed, and that there isn't enough research on MSG sensitivity. This suggests more studies are needed.
Nonetheless, most research has shown that consuming high doses of MSG of 3 grams or more may have adverse effects, such as high blood pressure and headaches.
However, it's unlikely that most people would consume above this amount through normal portion sizes, considering the average consumption of MSG in the United States is 0.55 grams per day.
Although there's limited research on MSG sensitivity, there are some reports of people experiencing adverse side effects after consuming MSG, such as fatigue, hives, swelling of the throat, muscle tightness, tingling, numbness, weakness, and flushing.
If you believe you are sensitive to MSG, it's best to avoid this food additive.
In the United States, foods that contain MSG are required to list so on the label.
Common foods that contain MSG include fast food (especially Chinese food), soups, frozen meals, processed meat, instant noodles, chips and other snack foods, and condiments.
Moreover, foods that commonly contain MSG are typically not good for your health, so reducing their intake can be beneficial, even if you aren't sensitive to MSG.
MSG appears to be safe for consumption, but some people may be sensitive to its effects. However, more research is needed in this area.
The Bottom Line
MSG is a popular food additive that enhances the umami flavor of foods.
Based on the current research, there's not enough evidence to suggest that MSG consumption is associated with headaches or migraine attacks. Still, more research is needed in this area.
MSG does not appear to be harmful. If you believe you're sensitive to its effects, it's best to avoid it, especially considering that foods that contain MSG are typically not good for your health.
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