Now that we know the origin of MSG, we need to understand what makes it unhealthy. Keep in mind that the FDA will not tell you that MSG is bad (neither will wikipedia. . . go figure). By their definition, all forms of MSG are “naturally occurring.” But since when does “natural” mean “safe to consume”?
Poison ivy is natural, right? But nobody ever puts it in their salads. Naturally occurring only means that the ingredient began somewhere in nature.
In truth, the FDA is right (gasp!).
MSG is the sodium salt of glutamic acid, or glutamate, a very naturally occurring non-essential amino acid. It can be found naturally in some meats, veggies and many fruits. Glutamate is also a neurotransmitter which at least 50% of our body’s nervous system counts on to send messages from cell to cell through receptors. The pancreas, for instance, contains these glutamate receptors, and they regulate of release hormones (such as insulin). There are also glutamate receptors on the tongue, which help us sense that special “umami” taste Professor Ikeda studied so hard to define.
What makes MSG harmful, however, is not its “naturally occurring-ness,” but the rather what Dr. Olney coined an “excitotoxin.” Excitotoxins are excitatory amino acid neurotransmitters in the brain that “excite” neurons when they communicate with each other. The excitatory amino acids we know best are aspartate (of which aspartame is a modified form), and glutamate, our lovely MSG.
It is normal for our brains to be excited by these amino acids. The problem comes when our neurons are excited to death from excess. And herein lies MSG’s downfall. When we eat food filled with MSG, a rapid influx of glutamate occurs and the nerve cells in our brain and spine start going off so quickly that they are overstimulated. The glutamate receptors in the pancreas are also set off, causing anything from insulin overproduction to heightened hunger.
In the same way drugs mimic neurotransmitters and skew our nerve impulses, glutamate brings on the repeated excitation of nerve cells. When repeatedly excited, these nerve cells actually die, causing a varying degree of brain damage. These symptoms are similarly caused by several “recreational” drugs, like as PCP and cocaine. But, unlike MSG, PCP and cocaine are illegal. Interesting fact, at one point in time cocaine was also added to food as a taste-enhancer. Coca-Cola even proudly advertised the health benefits of cocaine in their soft-drinks.
Despite the similarities between recreational drugs and MSG, the FDA does not overtly state that MSG intake can be dangerous to ones health. When invited to committee meetings on issues of MSG safety led by the Social Issues Committee of the Society for Neuroscience, the FDA was strangely unable to attend.
Even though their own report admits to the evidence shown by Dr. Olney’s studies, the FDA currently labels MSG as ‘GRAS’ or generally regarded as safe. This basically just means our government doesn’t think that it has caused any specific, acute damage to humans. This GRAS status, however, does not rule out the possibility that MSG may still have long term harmful effects.
Check back later and we’ll discuss some of the reactions that MSG causes. . . .
Want to know more about MSG?
Check out the rest of the series:
Part 1: A Little History and Some Scientific Studies
Part 2: Excitotoxins and the FDA (you’re here now)
Part 3: Reactions
Part 4: Aliases and Misc. Uses
Part 5: What Do I Eat Now?