Recently, many states in India banned Maggi because of high levels of lead and monosodium glutamate found in some samples. But do you know how MSG affects your health?
It has been around for 100 years now. But only in the last few years have we woken up to the ill-effects of monosodium glutamate (MSG), popularly known as ajinomoto, which is added to food to give it flavour.
It has yet managed to stay on in the food market under different names.
Its supporters felt that this was a racist attack on an oriental food choice since it is widely used in Chinese cooking.
Research studies have sometimes been against it and sometimes for it, and sometimes ambivalent.
According to the latter, MSG may not affect the whole population, but only individuals who are susceptible to it, whether it’s a headache, or an asthma attack.
Some believe it all depends on how much you use in your cooking, others want it right off our tables.
Yet, a lot of people will mourn its loss if it goes off the table because it adds a rare rounded flavour to food that would otherwise be bland.
It also belongs to the new taste that was discovered rather late, called umami, which is found in universal global favourites like cheese and potato.
Shameem Akthar, yogacharya trained with the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centre, examines the facts behind the fear this acronym evokes. From stomach upsets to poor circulation many illnesses have been laid at the door of MSG.
The first adverse reaction to MSG was from those who believed that eating oriental food flavoured lavishly with MSG was possibly triggering headaches within an hour of consumption.
This was dubbed the ‘Chinese restaurant syndrome’.
It could include other distressing symptoms such as light-headedness, constriction in the chest, stomach pain, and a burning sensation.
Though there have been research studies that insist that MSG is being unfairly targeted, the conclusion was that even if it was not MSG-induced, these symptoms were caused by MSG’s reaction with other food products in the dish.
Since research has been inconclusive, food producers across the globe have tried to contain the damage by limiting the amount of MSG they added to foods, mostly packaged foods.
Research on mice has conclusively proved that there is a connection between MSG consumption and obesity.
This was true of both genders, but especially evident in male mice.
The obesity was not controlled even with exercise, indicating that MSG was affecting fat storage in the body.
It also seemed to interfere with fat loss in cells, as if it was trapping fat in the body.
There is a tendency to overeat when MSG is added, even in groups with less calorie intake. This could be due to the effect of MSG on the hormone leptin, which is involved with fat release and satiation and hunger signals.
However, again, there are studies that do not attribute weight gain to MSG.
Alarm bells over the MSG-cancer link first went off in India because of the high incidence of stomach cancer among heavy MSG consumers.
Even worse, it was found that MSG interfered with the work of certain anti-oxidants needed to fight cancer.
This is a very disturbing connection because the presence of MSG in the food of cancer patients would severely limit their treatment and recovery.
The opinion on this is divided, like all things that have to do with MSG.
While international anti-cancer organisations have given MSG consumption the green signal, hotels in India reportedly limit the use of MSG because of its possible link to stomach cancers.
Here, too, research is not conclusive. But MSG is indicated as a trigger in those prone to asthma attacks.
The attack may not happen immediately after consumption and may take up to six hours or more, which could explain why many people don’t make the connection between the food and the attack.
Also, even though other nations use MSG in their cooking, there seems to be more of a reaction when the recipe is Asian. This gives rise to the possibility that other ingredients in the food interacting with MSG may be triggering the asthma attack.
In research done on rats it was found that MSG affected male fertility.
In female rats also it seemed to interfere with ova and follicle releases, and fertility was disrupted.
Even as early as the 1970s, research indicated MSG was involved in pregnancy failures in those with high MSG consumption.
Photographs: Takashi H/Creative Commons