You may have seen MSG among a list of shady ingredients in processed food items. However, food companies have found ways to sneak it into even the healthy packaged food. Here's all you need to know about what is MSG, and why it's detrimental to our health. 

What Is It?

MSG is short for monosodium glutamate, which comes from the combination of sodium and an amino acid called glutamic acid, which is found in foods like fermented soy sauce and aged parmesan cheese. Glutamic acid comes from compounds called glutamates, which are responsible for the "umami" flavor (how our tongue detects the presence of protein), which is described as "earthy," "meaty," or "savory."

MSG came to be by isolating the glutamic acid in seaweed that was used to make traditional Japanese broth. This flavoring agent is chemically composed of 78% free glutamic acid, 21% sodium, and up to 1% contaminants. But remember, MSG is different from the naturally occurring glutamates that are found in foods like mushrooms. Similarly, sugar in its natural form in fruit isn't dangerous–only when it's isolated and messed with in a lab is it a threat to our health. 

What happens with this synthetic glutamate is that it enhances and intensifies other flavors, making food ultra delicious and addictive. Food companies know this all too well, and you bet they take advantage of it. More people eating more of your food = more money. So sad. 

Known Side Effects

MSG became a widespread ingredient in the U.S. after World War II, when the American troops realized Japanese food was much more flavorful. A few years after that, the FDA rendered it Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS), despite the fact that a decade later a condition called "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome" emerged, which is now recognized as "MSG Symptom Complex." 

Some of the common symptoms of MSG toxicity include headaches, flushing, sweating, facial pressure or tightness, numbness, tingling or burning, heart palpitations, intense thirst, chest pain, nausea, and weakness. 

In the 1970s, studies suggested that around 25-30% of the population in the U.S. was intolerant to MSG, in the amounts that were found in food at the time. Since then, the amount of MSG added to foods has doubled every decade since the 1940s, which puts an estimated 40% of the MSG-sensitive population at risk.

Where Can You Find It?

Some Asian food shops sell MSG by the sack. It kinda looks like salt or sugar so make sure to double check so you don't accidentally end up putting it on everything. It's unnaturally addictive. There's a reason chip companies say "you can't just have just one"–because they make darn sure you can't. I feel so manipulated rn. 

McDonalds Fast Food Restaurant Sign Logo Building

JeepersMedia on Flickr

Fast food restaurants usually load their food with MSG, especially chicken products, but it can typically be found in most processed foods, canned soups and sauces, hams and sausages (even vegan ones), seasoning salts, salad dressings, etc. KFC is by far the worst offender in terms of free glutamate content, along with McDonald's, Olive Garden, and more foods and restaurants than you would imagine. 

However, food companies aren't dumb, and have caught up to the fact that most people that are aware of MSG's noxious effects will not buy products that list it as an ingredient. Good thing for them, they've found sneaky ways to put it in everything. Not so much for us. 

The Many Names of MSG

MSG used to only be in junk processed food, but it's made its way into the ingredient list of seemingly healthy foods. The FDA requires food manufacturers to list MSG on their food labels, but these clever people found a loophole: they do not have to label ingredients that contain free glutamic acid (the toxic component of MSG).  

There are many organic, vegan, and gluten-free items sold at health food stores or at the supermarket that have "natural flavors" listed on their nutrition label. What happens is that the US allows these natural flavorings to include protein hydrolysates, which can be up to 20% MSG by weight (!). An example of a very popular almond milk can be seen down below:

Laura Rodriguez

Instead of "natural vanilla flavor" it should say "vanilla extract," like this almond milk:

Laura Rodriguez

It can hide behind ingredient names such as "natural chocolate flavor" (and other natural or artificial flavors), and "citric acid" for instance. A student of Food Engineering and Processes shared with me that it's inevitable that glutamic acid gets created during the processing of those ingredients, and the ones I'm about to list below.

Here are ingredients that ALWAYS contain MSG, no matter what:

Autolyzed YeastCalcium Caseinate



Glutamic Acid

Hydrolyzed Protein


Glutamate Monosodium

Glutamate Sodium


Textured Protein

Yeast Extract

Yeast Food

Yeast Nutrient (sadly, nutritional yeast as well–don't shoot the messenger!)

The following ingredients often contain MSG or create it during processing:

Whey Protein

Flavors and Flavorings


Natural Flavors and Flavorings

Natural Pork Flavoring

Natural Beef Flavoring

Natural Chicken Flavoring

Soy Sauce

Soy Protein Isolate

Soy Protein




Malt Extract

Malt Flavoring

Barley Malt

Anything Enzyme Modified






Corn Starch

Citric Acid

Powdered Milk

Anything Protein Fortified

Anything Ultra-Pasteurized

These are only a few of the things that contain free glutamic acid, and these ingredients can contain anywhere from 12-40% MSG. Yikes. 

Is It Really That Bad?

Honestly, yes. It literally eats away at our brain, creates lesions, and can make neurological symptoms 100x worse. Just because you don't suffer from the MSG-symptom complex described previously doesn't mean it's not affecting your nervous system in some way or another, with symptoms that may remain silent for decades.  

Monosodium glutamate is an excitotoxin, meaning it overexcites your cells to the point of damage or death, causing neurons to fire impulses very rapidly, which brings about a broad spectrum of brain damage, and could be a potential trigger or aggressor for learning disabilities, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and many other brain diseases.

Dr. Russell Baylock even wrote a book titled Exitotoxins: The Taste That Kills, where he explains how substances like MSG, aspartame (used to sweeten diet coke), cysteine, and hydrolyzed protein are slowly getting the best of our health.

MSG used to be added to baby food, can you believe it? The worst part is, that ingredients like maltodextrin and corn starch, which are disguised versions of MSG, are still added to baby formula. Sickening. This is especially harmful because during critical brain development periods, an imbalance of exitotoxins can result in abnormal formation of important brain pathways.

Because a child's brain is 4 times more sensitive to these toxins, the disruption of these pathways can lead to hyperactivity, aggression, attention deficit disorders, learning disorders, poor learning ability, and a lifetime of endocrine problems such as menstrual difficulties, infertility, and premature puberty. The boom of the childhood obesity epidemic may also be tied to the overuse of exitotoxins in food

Toxic packaged baby food and formula are not the only ways an infant can be exposed to this overtly harmful substance. The damage can be done even when the baby is in utero, through the mother's diet. Pregnancy cravings might have you wanting some cheesy Doritos (which have 4 sources of free glutamic acid to trip your senses and trick you into wanting more–there's even a book about it called The Dorito Effect), but you might want to rethink that, as it could mean future brain degeneration, behavioral, and learning difficulties–to name a few–for your child. 

What It Does To Our Brain

brain 53

ajeofj3 on Flickr

As I touched on previously, the danger in MSG lies in the subtle way it damages the nervous system. This powerful neurotoxin wreaks havoc on our system for years before it becomes a clinically recognizable disease. It's a slow poison, and not everybody feels its effects immediately.

MSG crosses the blood-brain barrier into our hypothalamus (which regulates our appetite, sleep cycles, endocrine system, and growth), and it's been discovered that it destroys hypothalamic neurons. The exitotoxin is derived from an amino acid called glutamate, which also happens be a neurotransmitter that carries nerve cell impulses throughout the body, and is responsible for causing these nerve cells to fire. 

Glutamate and aspartate–the amino acids from which MSG and aspartame come from, respectively–are "s" neurotransmitters (the keys), which are normally found in the brain and spinal cord. However, when their concentrations rise above a critical level, they become deadly toxins to the neurons with glutamate receptors (the locks).

This means is that excessive quantities of glutamate will kill the neurons with the receptors for it, and will also kill any neuron that happens to be connected to it, even if it uses another type of transmitter.

Within 15-30 minutes after exposure to high doses of the taste-altering substance, neurons suspended in tissue culture have been observed to "swell" like a balloon. And in less than 3 hours, those neurons are not only dead, but the body's defense mechanism begins to get rid of the "debris".

Science-y enough? Maybe a little too much.

Even in low doses, MSG can damage these neurons without really killing them. So next time someone tries to tell you that "a little of the bad stuff won't kill ya," you can rest assured that it very well could. Swapping your bag of Flaming Hot Cheetos for some juicy grapes probably won't make your taste-buds explode, but it can keep your brain from doing so. 

How MSG Tricks Our Senses

While all sources of protein have glutamic acid bound in it, only the glutamic acid that has been freed from the protein before consumption is what causes the adverse effects. Free glutamic acid is detected by the taste buds as a simple way to signal the presence of protein in food, just as we have receptors to detect sweet flavors, and so forth. 

The food industry tries to confuse us by focusing on our fifth sense, a.k.a., "umami". Upon detecting the amino acid glutamate on the outside of a clump of protein, we, as human beings, are compelled to eat more. The only thing is that MSG has been detached from its protein, but just that little bit is enough to trip our sensors into believing there's more "meatiness". Our appetite responds accordingly to this, and our tongues fall for this trick over and over again.

Also, MSG stimulates our pancreas to produce insulin, even where there aren't any carbohydrates for the hormone to act on. The sudden flood of insulin causes a rapid blood sugar drop, which means you'll be hungry an hour later and come back for more. These food industry people have found a way to stimulate appetite and mess with our satiety mechanisms. How convenient. 

How It Affects Our Long-Term Health

We may be consuming MSG every day without even knowing it. Grandma's rice that just tastes too good probably has a few cubes of Knorr seasoning, which is about 30% MSG. Those healthy vegan energy bars you eat as a post-workout may have natural flavors, yet nobody tells you what they really are. And these things have a huge impact on our organs. 

For instance, our heart also contains glutamate receptors in its electrical conduction system and in the heart muscle. Athletes generally have low magnesium stores, which makes their glutamate receptors extra sensitive, meaning even tiny amounts of this dangerous excitotoxin may over-stimulate them and produce cardiac arrhythmias. This could explain many sudden deaths sometimes seen among young athletes.

Regular consumption of MSG-laden foods can have adverse effects such as eye damage, obesity, fatigue and disorientation, headaches, and even depression. 

Why Does The Food Industry Use It So Much?


free pictures of money on Flickr

Well, as we all know by now, any chance food manufacturers get to make people addicted to their food is an opportunity for extra cash. They'll use everything they can. All the backlash they've gotten for using MSG in food, as more information about its adverse effects surfaces, has got them making up different names to disguise it under and trying to hide the truth. 

Also, because MSG gives the illusion of more protein, this allows the food producers to add less protein, which means they can substantially lower their costs. Less real food in their products = more profits. They're so smart it's scary. For example, in dehydrated chicken soup, is that chicken in there, or a piece of confetti? We might never know. 

Avoiding MSG

apple, juice, sweet, pasture
Santina Renzi

The best and easiest way by far for keeping out of MSG's way is to eat whole, unprocessed foods. That is, fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and nuts and seeds. Sure, nothing beats the convenience of a box of ramen you can stick in a microwave and have within minutes, but real, unprocessed food is really worth a shot. 

When we buy things that don't have a label, we don't have to worry about all the stuff food manufacturers sneak into our food, right under the FDA's nose–which apparently "doesn't have to disclose the 'basis' of its conclusion that current labelling standards adequately protected the public". I mean, really? 

The silent lesions caused by MSG and other exitotoxins such as aspartame and L-cysteine (found in hydrolyzed vegetable protein) appear to play a key role in degenerative nervous system diseases, which is why we should want to keep it out of our food. Anything ultra-processed, salty, and extremely flavorful that does not come directly from nature almost certainly contains MSG. 

We deserve to be informed about what we're consuming, and the food industry violates that right constantly. If we opt for natural foods most of the time, and limit processed foods to no more than 5 ingredients (making sure to avoid as best as we can the sources of hidden MSG), we can take control of our health, and stop supporting this exploitation of our senses–and our wallets.