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MSG (monosodium glutamate), aspartame: Tasty but still bad for health

Tasty but still bad for health

by Richard Seah
SEVERAL newspaper reports have suggested that MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is safe or even good for health. The latest came from a lecturer in Natural Sciences and Science Education at the National Institute of Education (NIE) in a recent newspaper article titled Tasty facts about MSG.

I feel this warrants closer attention. Have we been blaming MSG unfairly for numbness of the face, neck and shoulders, dizziness, rapid heart beats and other symptoms of "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome"?

The article fails to discuss this at length but merely states: "Scientific evidence has shown no association of MSG with the concerns of hair loss, headache and allergic reactions."

It dwelled on the fact that MSG contains less sodium than salt. But, people who are concerned about MSG are seldom worried about its sodium content.

Their main worry is that MSG could have harmful side effects. Hence, I wonder about the veracity of the statement. There are books and websites that cite over 200 scientific references linking MSG to a long list of health problems, including asthma, migraine, attention deficit disorder, epileptic seizures, and neurological disorders such as Alzheimer's disease. The books include In Bad Taste: The MSG Symptom Complex by Dr George Schwartz, toxicologist; Excitotoxins: The Taste that Kills by Dr Russell Blaylock, neurosurgeon; and Battling the MSG Myth by Debby Anglesey. Websites include,, and

Those who read the books and websites above will discover that scientific research on MSG can be divided into industry-sponsored projects, which mostly show that MSG is safe; and independent research, which mostly show that MSG is toxic.

It is also worth noting that many industry-sponsored studies have been criticised for being flawed.

Many studies, rather than taking random samples of the population, excluded people known to be sensitive to MSG. Such studies merely proved that people who are not sensitive to MSG are not sensitive to MSG.

Many researchers also used aspartame, an artificial sweetener, as a placebo. This is inappropriate as MSG and aspartame are similar. Both are considered excitotoxins, substances known to excite (sometimes to the point of killing) brain cells.

In many cases, subjects were asked within two hours of taking MSG whether they felt any effects, even though it is known that such effects may take up to 72 hours to show up.

The list of criticisms is long.

The NIE lecturer further tried to equate MSG with natural glutamates, which are beneficial to health. She said there is "no difference between naturally-occurring free glutamate in food and the manufactured type found in MSG".

This is not a fact. It is merely a belief, albeit a widely-held one, similar to the belief that vitamin C made in a factory is the same as vitamin C found in vegetables and fruits.

But the facts are these:

• MSG contains a form of glutamate, d-glutamic acid, which is never found in nature.

• Free glutamates, which make up 99 per cent of MSG, can enter the blood stream eight to 10 times faster than bound or natural glutamates found in food.

• Many people, myself included, experience discomfort when they eat food with MSG, but not when they eat food that is rich in natural glutamates such as soy sauce, ripe tomatoes and mushrooms.

When facts contradict beliefs, we should re-examine our beliefs rather than assert our beliefs to dismiss the facts.

Meanwhile, those who wish to enhance the flavour of their food safely may want to consider doing it the natural way. Before the Japanese developed MSG, they used kombu seaweed. Kombu or kelp is sold at natural food stores, supermarkets under the Japanese/Korean food section, Chinese dried food stores and medicinal halls, as well as in the form of supplements such as kombu balls and kelp tablets.