I always assumed monosodium glutamate was like a snowstorm in Los Angeles: easy to avoid. I simply needed to sidestep Chinese restaurants and eyeball product labels for those conspicuous three letters: MSG.
At the same time I asked myself, why even go to the trouble? What’s the harm in ingesting this salty filler? If it were a culinary “evil doer” surely Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would pierce it with its mighty sword or at least put it in the stockades for all see and taunt. Since the FDA had no ban and no serious disclosure requirement, I figured all was fine in kitchenville, grocerville and restaurantville. I was wrong.
I suffered from migraines before I was old enough to say the word, “eye ache,” my childhood name for the excruciating pain that pulverized one side of my face eight days out of every month. While my school friends enjoyed recess between classes, I’d lie in my usual spot: on the cot in the nurse’s office.
While my classmates whizzed through standardized tests, I held a cold pack to my forehead and struggled to discern the fuzzy print. While my buddies hoofed it up at the prom, I lay in a hatchback of pain in the parking lot in my date’s Saab. This was my life until 2003 when things took a turn for the worse.
I started getting migraines every day, and the one prescription medicine that had decreased the pain on occasion, no longer worked. I pushed through weeks, months and years, experimenting with allopathic medicines as well as alternative remedies, such as acupuncture, homeopathy, massage and hypnosis. Nothing helped.
On a Thursday in December 2008, I got closer to relief when my husband said, “Maybe your migraines will go away if you stop eating monosodium glutamate.”
“What are you talking about? I hardly ever eat anything with MSG.”
Turns out I was wrong. This substance, which was discovered in 1908 by Tokyo University professor Kikunae Ikeda, is now as ubiquitous as blue jeans.
After more than 40 years of misery, I have learned the truth about MSG. I have learned it is 15 times more prevalent in food than it was in 1969 and that some people, like myself, are super sensitive to it, despite the fact that the FDA says it is safe at normal levels for most people. I have discovered it is a secret saboteur of health; the food industry tricks consumers into buying products with free glutamic acid (or MSG) by listing it under any one of 43 innocent-sounding names, such as natural flavoring, seasonings, yeast extract, spices, pectin or citric acid. A pesticide company called Emerald BioAgriculture uses an MSG type of “growth enhancer” which they have been spraying onto selected vegetables and nuts since 1999; the company is currently looking to get government permission to use the substance on organic produce.
Meats, seafood and poultry can be rinsed or injected with MSG before reaching your plate, and restaurant salad bars can get an MSG spritz, giving lettuce that perky look. This toxic additive can be found in vitamins, soaps, cosmetics, chewing gum and intravenous hospital fluids. It can be found in children’s medications, and it might lurk inside your migraine prescription.
In short, MSG acts as cheap filler, a flavor enhancer and a cosmetic surgeon, fooling unsuspecting consumers into thinking aged, withered foods are fresh. It can hide unpleasant tastes. It has an addictive component much like nicotine, and recent studies in Spain have conclusively linked it with obesity. MSG means profits for the food industry and its powerful Washington lobbyists; and it is no surprise that proper labeling legislation remains elusive.
If any additive substance containing the essential active ingredient of MSG, glutamic acid or free glutamate, is an amount that is less than 78%, the government does not require it to be labeled MSG. This is deceptive because MSG itself contains over 78% free glutamates. Some products will even say “No MSG” when they have glutamic acid in another form.
There are epidemiological studies, such as those brought to light by Dr. Adrienne Samuels, suggesting that up to 40% of the U.S. population suffer from adverse reactions to MSG with drowsiness, numbness, chest pains, nausea, facial pressure, difficulty in breathing or headaches. The FDA claims only 2% of the population experience a bad reaction, but even if this is right, it amounts to whopping 6 million Americans, more than the 3 million who are allergic to peanuts.
It has been six months since I decided to eat, drink, and be MSG free. I consume carefully scrutinized items from a health food store because Dr. Russell Blaylock–author of a book about the toxicity of MSG called Excitotoxins: the Taste that Kills–claims 75% – 90% of the foods sold at traditional grocers are laced with the unhealthy additive. I try to avoid restaurants and “brown bag it” to dinner parties. Miraculously the daily migraines have disappeared.
I have had seven consumption mishaps. Three resulted in four-day migraines which appeared exactly 18 hours after I ate the questionable foods. Only three migraines in six months or 12 days of sickness is better than Christmas when you are accustomed to a life as an invalid.
If migraines are your curse, limit yourself to healthy food. Eat only organic fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains. Read every package. Ask every question. Petition every politician for better labeling laws.
President Obama has described current procedures for regulating food safety as a “hazard to human health” and plans to overhaul the system for the first time in more than 70 years. Yet, the toxicity of monosodium glutamate is not on his radar. Tell him it should be.
Tell him MSG is not risk-free.
Published in the Los Angeles Daily News on July 5, 2009 and in Counterpunch on June 26, 2009 and in City Watch on August 5, 2009.