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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With more than 1.7 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States and more than 100,000 deaths from the virus, physicians face unprecedented challenges in their efforts to keep Americans safe.
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When Leaders and Doctors Spread Misinformation<p>When people in charge of towns, cities, states, and countries spread misinformation, the potential for belief in misinformation to result in policies can have harmful effects.</p><p><a href="https://www.northwell.edu/find-care/find-a-doctor?q=Bruce+E.+Hirsch%2C+MD&insurance=&location=&query_type=provider&physician_partners=false&default_view=list&gender=&language=&sort=relevancy" target="_blank">Dr. Bruce E. Hirsch</a>, attending physician and assistant professor in the infectious disease division of Northwell Health in Manhasset, New York, says an example of this is when President Trump informed the public he was taking hydroxychloroquine as a preventive measure.</p><p>"To approach this enormous challenge, we need some intellectual honesty and clarity, and to disregard expertise and to make decisions and model decisions based on hunches is inviting us to handle challenges on the basis of rumor and uninformed opinion. The magnitude of that error is epic," Hirsch told Healthline.</p><p>Stukus agrees, noting that the harm of this proclamation is documented.</p><p>"Early on when the president touted the benefits of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin, people started to hoard this medicine, and state boards had to shut it down because they were getting so many prescriptions for this unproven therapy that it was not available for those who truly needed it, such as those who have lupus and autoimmune conditions," Stukus said.</p><p>He adds that calls to poison control centers increased after the president suggested using disinfectant to prevent contracting the new coronavirus.</p>
Listen to Science, Even When it Changes<p>When recommendations change or evidence flip-flops, skepticism may arise. However, Stukus says change is the beauty of science.</p><p>"That shows us that we can evolve, and if the evidence shows that our prior thoughts were incorrect, we need to be able to change our recommendations and advice based upon the best quality of evidence at the time," he said.</p><p>Pierre agrees.</p><p>"Science is an iterative process, whereby we arrive at facts and truth through repeated and controlled observations. That means that it's inherently self-correcting as we revise conclusions based on ongoing research. Scientific facts aren't immutable dogma chiseled on a tablet. They change based on the best available evidence we have at a given point in time," he said.</p><p>Because research of COVID-19 has only been underway for 6 months, information is evolving rapidly, and new information may contradict old.</p><p>"There's still much we don't know about exactly how [COVID-19] spreads, what effects it has on the body, or how to best treat it. That means that the best available evidence is preliminary, but that doesn't mean that we should ignore it or turn to other sources of information or opinion as if they're just as valid," Pierre said.</p><p>He explains that conspiracy theories based on mistrust lead to vulnerability to misinformation.</p><p>If people mistrust science because it sometimes "changes its mind," Pierre said, "that shouldn't be used to embrace other opinions based on no evidence at all, which are typically selected based on confirmation bias: what we want to believe rather than what the objective evidence supports."</p>
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