Is MSG Causing Your Headache?

I was recently working a crossword puzzle and the clue was:  food additive that causes headaches.  The answer:  MSG.  So when something becomes a crossword question and answer the association is fairly common and widely accepted.  So is it true? Does the MSG found in food cause headaches?

What is MSG?

MSG is a common food additive that enhances the natural flavors of foods such as meat, poultry, casseroles, gravies and snacks, to name a few.

MSG – Monosodium Glutamate.

The amino acid glutamate is one of the most abundant amino acids found in nature.  This amino acid is non-essential because our body can produce it.  There is no difference between glutamic acid in MSG and that found in natural foods.

MSG is made from water, sodium and glutamate.  Table salt is made from sodium and chloride.

The average daily intake of MSG in the US: 0.55 – 0.58 grams

The average daily intake of MSG in Japan:  1.2 – 1.7 grams


What is the History of MSG?

In 1908 a Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda isolated glutamic acid as a taste substance from seaweed.  This new taste he labeled “umami” for delicious.  It did not fit into the standard taste categories:  salty, sweet, bitter or sour.  Umami is now considered the 5th taste or “savory”.

Sensitivity reactions to Chinese food started the controversy over the safety of MSG as a food additive. MSG has been controversial since 1969.

Because of the controversy, MSG must be listed on the label whenever added to food.


Naturally Occurs in Foods:

  • Seaweed
  • Mushrooms
  • Meat
  • Fish
  • Parmesan Cheese
  • Milk / Breast Milk
  • Tomatoes
  • Walnuts
  • Pecans

 MSG Used as an Additive in Foods:

  • Potato chips
  • Fast food
  • Seasonings
  • Convenience meals
  • Cold cuts / processed meats
  • Iced tea mixes
  • Instant noodles
  • Sports drinks
  • Canned soups
  • Bouillon
  • Salad dressings
  • Crackers

Reported Side Effects of MSG Consumption

  • Headache
  • Itching
  • Heart Palpitations
  • Sweating
  • Hyperactivity
  • Swelling of the tongue and throat
  • Nausea

Symptoms are usually mild, don’t last long and don’t require treatment.

 Possible Dangers:

  • Weight Gain
  • Increases Blood Pressure
  • Asthma Attacks
  • Metabolic Syndrome

Possible Health Benefits:

MSG may help in keeping a low sodium diet.  Excess sodium intake can increase risks for high blood pressure, bone loss and kidney problems.  Because MSG provides flavor with only about 1/3 the amount of sodium it could help those with high blood pressure get the flavor they desire without additional salt.

What is Chinese Restaurant Syndrome?

Since MSG is common in Asian cooking, symptoms of MSG sensitivity were referred to “Chinese restaurant Syndrome”.

If you have a strange reaction after eating Chinese food, it may not be the MSG.  Don’t jump to any conclusions.  There could be another spice in there that is affecting you.  Some Chinese restaurants allow you to order “MSG Free” or ask for your soy sauce on the side.

Anecdotal Evidence vs Scientific Evidence

Anecdotal Evidence is evidence based on personal observation, case study reports or random investigations rather than systematic scientific evaluation.  There does seem to be a lot of self-reported physical reactions to food that contains MSG.

MSG health danger claim:  because MSG contains a concentrated amount of free glutamic acid, it can increase glutamate levels in the blood rapidly. While some people can tolerate moderate amounts without noticing any side affects others may have adverse reactions.

According to the FDA glutamate in MSG is chemically indistinguishable from glutamate present in food proteins; we metabolize both natural and additive in the same way.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has classified MSG as a food ingredient that’s “generally recognized as safe”.

MSG is not a health hazard, according to Health Canada.


Crossword clues withstanding, there is not enough research to prove MSG triggers headaches.

We are living in a time where we are overly fearful of chemicals in our food and label many additives as harmful without any scientific proof.  The fact that MSG is mainly found in unhealthy, heavily processed foods, should keep us away from these foods.


A scientific association has not been found between MSG and any physical reaction.

A widespread sensitivity to MSG has also not been documented for a significant portion of the population.


Anything you consume in excess is not good for your body and paying attention to what you eat and how your body functions is wise.  If you have an adverse reaction to something you eat, stay away from consuming that food.  The complexity of how food is grown and distributed makes identifying harmful components difficult.  A balance in all things is necessary for ultimate health.


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