M.S.G. Can Be a Headache

M.S.G. Can Be a Headache

by: Kristin Evenrud, Grocery Manager

Are you one of the many people who have eaten at a Chinese Buffet and gotten a terrible headache an hour or so later?  Thinking it may just be stress, you probably pop a couple ibuprofen and lay down.  But, have you ever considered that headache’s cause could be the food you just ate?  Let me introduce you to MSG symptom complex.

Many people, including me, are sensitive to food enhanced with Monosodium Glutamate, commonly referred to as M.S.G.  It is a flavor enhancer and can commonly be found added to canned vegetables and soups, processed meats, and snack chips.  In synthetically manufactured MSG, glutamic acids are broken down, or made “free” by a variety of factory processes that involve chemicals, bacteria or enzymes.  Once free it is refined until finally reaching a white crystal consistency that resembles the appearance of sugar.  It is odorless and has no distinct flavor in and of itself, though some describe it as having a salty/sweet taste.

M.S.G. is recognized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a GRAS (generally recognized as safe) food ingredient.  However, the use of this chemical is heavily disputed by the public and some in the scientific community.  According to information on the mayoclinic.com website, researchers have found “no definitive evidence of a link between M.S.G. and these symptoms.”  Commonly known as MSG Symptom Complex, these may include headache, flushing, sweating and pressure or tightness in the face.  Also listed are reactions of numbness, tingling and burning in the face, neck and other areas, rapid fluttering heartbeats, chest pain, nausea and weakness.

A book by Dr. Russell L. Blaylock M.D. was published in 1996 titled Excitotoxins: The Taste that Kills.  M.S.G. falls into the category of excitotoxins, as does aspartame (AminoSweet).  Though this book is nearly 15 years old, I find it interesting that he cites a 1968 study that was conducted by Dr. John W. Olney that indicates “widespread destruction of neurons in the hypothalamus.”  His book goes on to acknowledge that Dr. Olney (and others) testified before Congress concerning the possible dangers of M.S.G.  The subsequent voluntary removal of M.S.G. from baby food in 1969 is credited to these testimonies.

Reading on in the book you will find that Glutamate is an amino acid that naturally occurs in the human body and is a neurotransmitter in the brain.  However, the amounts are naturally controlled by the body and dramatically smaller.  The body creates only as much glutamate as it needs.  This makes me wonder if, aside from the possible consequences of destruction of brain cells due to overdose, my migraines are due to a surge of glutamate in my body.

I have suffered from M.S.G. sensitivities for the last 13 years and know firsthand how debilitating it can be.  My reaction starts with a cap that spreads over the top of my head (it actually feels like someone pulling a stocking cap of prickliness onto my scalp).  Then a pinpoint headache will start that is very localized and feels like a hot, sharp piece of metal is lodged into the right side of my brain.  I have also noticed that my speech slurs ever so slightly and my mind grows foggy.  If it was a small amount in a diluted form, the reaction, for me, tends to last about an hour.  If it was a hefty dose, it might result in a migraine that lasts for days.

If it was as simple as looking for the big three – M.S.G., aspartame, L-cystiene – the task of shopping for foods that don’t contain these synthetic glutamates would be pretty manageable.  Unfortunately, due to its ability to enhance the taste of foods, it has become a ubiquitous ingredient known by many different names.  Yeast extract, autolyzed yeast extract, glutamic acid, glutamate, anything that is “hydrolyzed”,  and sodium caseinate are only a few.

If you haven’t had any adverse reactions, you might be wondering how this affects you.  Well, according to some research, even though you are not having any immediate reactions, you may still be doing harm to your body that will show up later in life.  Manufacturers are getting increasingly creative about sneaking excitotoxins onto our grocery shelves.  We have a commitment to our customers here at the Oneota Community Co-op to try to keep M.S.G. out of the products we carry and off of our shelves.  We have a lot of products that are “clean.”   However, it is increasingly difficult to find clean processed products to substitute for the popular items we may be carrying that contain the occasional glutamate.

This is where you, the consumer, come into play.  Giving us your feedback with your food dollars and what products you are buying, you can affect what products we carry.  Furthermore, though we may have certain resources for obtaining this type of information, we can always use an extra set of hands and eyes.  We encourage you to ask questions, make suggestions, and pass on any food information to us that you think may be pertinent.  We can all make a difference.

Here is a partial list of manufacturers that try to keep excitotoxins out of their products:

Organic Sunshine Burgers • Applegate Meats • Snopac • San-J • Erewhon • Larabar • Green Mountain Gringo • Food Should Taste Good • Terra Farm • Nature’s Path • Barbara’s (select items) • Annie’s Naturals • Field Day • Probar • Ancient Harvest • Muir Glen • Drew’s • Enjoy Life • Simply Organic (Most) • Bob’s Redmill • Namaste • Pamela’s (some) • Jennie’s • Pacific (some) • Eden Organic • Earth’s Best • Sprout • Walnut Acres • Vilux • Mrs’ Clarks • Natural Value • Bionature • Monastero di Montebello • Vitaspelt • Westbrae • Crofter’s • Beeler’s

Single source and unprocessed products like virgin cuts of beef, pork, chicken, turkey, and seafood (all-meat products at the OCC do not have injected flavor salines), as well as honey, molasses, fruit and veggies, nuts, beans and grains.


The book, Battling the MSG Myth, will simplify your life by giving in- depth facts about these hidden substances and the common foods in which they are found. Find tips on label reading, shopping, and cooking. Enjoy good eating by learning how to avoid all the common foods and supplements that contain MSG, aspartame, L-cysteine, and sulfites. Learn how to substitute healthy alternative products that can be found in most supermarkets.
Places where MSG is often hidden

– Low fat and no fat milk products often contain milk solids that contain MSG and/or contain carrageenan, guar gum, and/or locust bean gum. Low fat and no fat versions of ice cream and cheese may not be as obvious as yogurt, milk, cream, cream cheese, cottage cheese, etc., but they are not exceptions.

– Protein powders and protein drinks contain glutamic acid, which, invariably, will be processed free glutamic acid (MSG). Individual amino acids are not always listed on labels of protein powders and drinks.

– At present, there is an FDA requirement to include the protein source when listing hydrolyzed protein products on labels of processed foods. Examples are hydrolyzed soy protein, hydrolyzed wheat protein, hydrolyzed pea protein, hydrolyzed whey protein, hydrolyzed, corn protein. If a tomato, for example, were whole, it would be identified as a tomato. Calling an ingredient tomato protein indicates that the tomato has been hydrolyzed, at least in part, and that processed free glutamic acid (MSG) is present.

– Disodium guanylate and disodium inosinate are relatively expensive food additives that work synergistically with inexpensive processed free glutamic acid (MSG).

– MSG will be found in some soaps, shampoos, hair conditioners, and cosmetics, where MSG is hidden in ingredients with names that include the words “hydrolyzed,” “amino acids,” and/or “protein.”

– Drinks, candy, and chewing gum are potential sources of hidden MSG and/or aspartame, neotame. and AminoSweet (the new name for aspartame). Neotame is a relatively new ingredient that seems not to be in use in the United States.

– Aspartame will be found in some medications, including children’s medications.

– Binders and fillers for medications, nutrients, and supplements, both prescription and non-prescription, enteral feeding materials, and some fluids administered intravenously in hospitals, may contain MSG.

– According to the manufacturer, Varivax–Merck chicken pox vaccine (Varicella Virus Live), contains L-monosodium glutamate and hydrolyzed gelatin, both of which contain processed free glutamic acid (MSG). It would appear that most, if not all, live virus vaccines contain some ingredient(s) that contains MSG.

– There are a number of ingredients identified as organic that contain processed free glutamic acid (MSG). Autolyzed yeast, yeast extract, textured soy protein, and anything hydrolyzed are examples.



Glutamic acid found in unadulterated protein does not cause adverse reactions. To cause adverse reactions, the glutamic acid must have been processed/manufactured or come from protein that has been fermented.

Ingredients that always contain processed free glutamic acid (MSG):

• Glutamic acid (E 620)
• Glutamate (E 620)
• Monosodium glutamate (E 621)
• Monopotassium glutamate (E 622)
• Calcium glutamate (E 623)
• Monoammonium glutamate (E 624)
• Magnesium glutamate (E 625)
• Natrium glutamate
• Yeast extract
• Anything “hydrolyzed”
• Any “hydrolyzed protein”
• Calcium caseinate
• Sodium caseinate
• Yeast food, Yeast nutrient
• Brewers’ yeast
• Autolyzed yeast
• Gelatin
• Textured protein
• Vetsin
• Ajinomoto
These ingredients work with MSG to enhance flavor:

If these are present for flavoring purposes, so is MSG.
• Disodium 5’-guanylate (E 627)
• Disodium 5’-inosinate (E-631)
• Disodium 5′-ribonucleotides (E 635)
Ingredients that
often contain or produce
processed free glutamic acid (MSG):

• Carrageenan (E 407)
• Bouillon and broth
• Stock
• Whey protein
• Whey protein concentrate
• Whey protein isolate
• Natural flavor
• Any “flavor” or “flavoring”
• Maltodextrin
• Citric acid (E 330)
• Anything “ultra-pasteurized”
• Barley malt, Malted barley
• Pectin (E 440)
• Protease
• Anything “enzyme modified”
• Anything containing “enzymes”
• Malt extract
• Soy milk
• Soy sauce
• Soy sauce extract
• Soy protein
• Soy protein concentrate
• Soy protein isolate
• Anything “protein fortified”
• Anything “fermented”
• Seasonings

Ingredients suspected of containing lesser amounts of MSG:
• Corn starch
• Corn syrup
• Modified food starch
• Lipolyzed butter fat
• Dextrose
• Rice syrup, brown rice syrup
• Milk powder – Reduced fat milk (e.g.., skim milk; 1% milk; 2% milk)

Most things low fat or no fat Anything Enriched or Vitamin Enriched