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Avoiding Monosodium Glutamate: One Family’s Story

Three years ago after a day spent with the in-laws, I tucked my son into bed. Minutes after walking out of the room, he stumbled in the dark, unable to stand. From there he spiraled to losing his vision, and we headed to the emergency room, rushed through the double doors, a barely breathing shell of my child delivered to doctors.

In the next 18 months we would visit the hospital three times. Each time started the same and ended with an emergency room visit, intubation, drug-induced comas, and a stay in the pediatric intensive care unit.

For the past 17 months, however, we have stayed clear of all of those things.

The answer for us, temporary as it may be, came after a long drive and a visit to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. While looking for answers and getting a “probable” diagnosis, I noticed that some research showed sensitivities to glutamates could be a cause of migraines. While not a cure, the doctor did agree that removing all instances of monosodium glutamate from his diet could help to decrease the frequency of the hemiplegic migraine episodes we were experiencing.

Avoiding Monosodium Glutamate via SimpleBites.net

Photos by Shaina Olmanson | FoodforMyFamily.com

Before we go any further, let me make a few disclaimers.

First, we don’t eat a lot of MSG in our house and never have. We were cooking from scratch, but what I had narrowed down with the three episodes was we had 1) been at a relative’s house eating food we didn’t normally eat or 2) we had been out to eat recently.

As a family who eats at home for nearly every meal and avoids most processed foods, these were distinct events that I could pinpoint happened directly before our trips to the emergency room, which helped me when narrowing down potential triggers for these episodes and putting two and two together.

Second, I am highly under qualified to make broad assumptions as I am have not researched this myself, and all of my personal research has been just that: personal, amateurish, and directed specifically at trying to limit what we were experiencing as a family.

Glutamates naturally occur in our food, specifically fermented foods like soy sauce and kimchi, in aged cheeses like Parmesan, and in mushrooms. They play a part in learning and memory. They taste good, so good that a researcher gave a particular flavor associated with them a name, umami, and started studying it in several different types of glutamates before he patented the process of recreating monosodium glutamate from one specific type of glutamate, sodium glutamate, and crystallizing it so that it could be added to food.

Monosodium glutamate as we know it today is added as a flavor enhancer to several types of processed foods. Its role is generally to make food taste even better so that we crave more of it and want to continue eating it. You can find it in powdered cheeses, breading on chicken nuggets and fish sticks, in crackers, and other foods that are often marketed to our kids.

These food additives are usually unnecessary.ย  In fact, laboratory rats are fed MSG to fatten them up for study. (Their offspring often have issues, too, such as learning and focusing issues, higher obesity rates, and seizures.)

There are other studies that show some sensitivities in humans, but nothing definitive. As with several “advances” in food technology, I would rather stick with whole foods than trust incomplete science to determine whether it is safe.

While you can often look on the back label to read the ingredients and find monosodium glutamate listed, it often comes as other names: yeast extract, autolyzed yeast, hydrolyzed protein, even “natural flavor.” You can find a list of just some of the things MSG can be listed at on the Truth in Labeling site.

Avoiding Monosodium Glutamate: One Family's Story

For my family, we’ve continued to avoid buying products that might contain MSG. We stay away from fast food chains, and when we do dine out, we research the menu before we go, especially with our children. We plan ahead, packing snacks and lunches from home.

We educated our children on why we were going to stop eating those products and which ones we should specifically watch out for when we are out in the community and with family and friends who might not know we’re avoiding them. We teach them to be smart and trust them to make their own food choices when we are not with them.

We try our best to make choices we believe in with the limited information we have available to us. For our family, these actions are all essential for good health and wholeness.

Editors note: I asked Shaina to share this story with us today, not as a whistle-blower, but as a mother realizing the utmost importance of her healthy family food choices. We hope to raise awareness on the subject of MSG in our children’s diets and encourage a positive discussion that is beneficial for all.

What are your thoughts on hidden MSG in our diets?

About Shaina

Shaina Olmanson is the home cook and photographer behind Food for My Family, where she shares recipes, tips, opinions and her philosophy on food as she wades through the process of feeding her family, her friends and anyone else who will let her. She strives to teach her four children how to eat well: seasonally, locally, organically, deliciously and balanced.

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Comments

  1. Hi Shaina, Thanks so much for this helpful post. I grew up in the Philippines and have a slight MSG addiction from the time spent there (you can buy MSG there in packets and people added it to the food all the time). We try to be MSG-free at home and rarely eat out as well – just out of curiosity would you recommend avoiding all glutamates? Or just MSG?

    • Hi, Devi. I don’t personally avoid all glutamates. I use aged cheeses and naturally fermented foods in our cooking. Usually these things are condiments anyway, so they are eaten in small amounts, not full plates of them. Plus, because we’re avoiding the excess MSG that is added to foods, I think we’re getting an appropriate amount.

      That said, I know some migraine suffers have severe reactions to those things, so it is worth it to avoid other sources of glutamic acid. For us, we have focused specifically on food additives that do not occur naturally. I’m writing a post for my site that details some of the other things we avoid like artificial food dyes and aspartame that have also been linked and are viewed as triggers.
      Shaina’s last post: Saag Paneer for Spring Spinach

  2. I a, grateful for posts like this as I am trying to figure out chronic reaction that my son has to foods that makes his face get red splotches or excema like bumps that last for days. No one food additive or coloring seem to be a culprit. At home we eat primarily a whole foods diet, but at school snacks are a shared event. While the teachers write down what my guy is eating it is still a mystery. Just grateful it is not life threatening or even irritating to him. Just a mystery, so it is helpful to hear about other people’s “mysteries” and how they are sleuthing.

    • Thanks for sharing, Tracy. Still, a bumpy face for days sounds like no fun at all. Here’s hoping you can figure out what is causing the reaction. Thanks for reading.

    • Sometimes food sensitivities end up causing reactions like this. My eldest had a similar reaction to strawberries and ranch dressing when she was little, but because it wasn’t anaphylaxis, we ignored it and she eventually grew out of it. Still, it is something to watch, and knowing what triggers those reactions can help you control when they are exposed. I hope you figure it out or it disappears soon!
      Shaina’s last post: Saag Paneer for Spring Spinach

  3. I have terrible issues with even small amounts of MSG/glutamates. A month ago, a spoonful of hummus with “natural flavors” on a sandwich had me in a fetal position for nearly 3 days. I was severely off balance physically, in a total brain fog, unable to do simple things like pick up a lid to put it on a jelly jar — and that’s just the physical aspect of how MSG/glutamates affect me.

    I have always leaned toward whole foods and cooking from scratch, but could never figure out my ups and downs and how they related to anything, until I chanced on that Truth in Labeling site! I’ve cleaned out my pantry and fridge of everything that I haven’t made myself and I feel so much better.

  4. Shaina, I’m glad you shared this story. I’ve always noticed after eating foods that may have MSG (Chinese takeout, for example) I feel particularly slow, tired, foggy-headed and even have headaches. We raise and prepare most of our food so I am very aware of when this comes on and it is always when we eat food that can have MSG.

    I eat lots of fermented foods – no problem. As a professional health writer, I know from research many natural substances are slightly different in their molecular shapes when synthesized, making it hard or impossible for the body to use and triggering problems. Perhaps this is why MSG causes problems that other natural glutamates won’t.
    Sarah @ Fit Family Together’s last post: The Best Spring Footwear For Family Fitness And More

    • I know some migraine suffers have said that aged cheeses and fermented foods can trigger their migraines, Sarah. We have adopted an approach to avoid MSG where it is used to “enhance” the flavor of foods where glutamate does not occur. I figure the more you have, the higher the chance of a reaction. It would be interesting to know how synthesized monosodium glutamate differs from naturally occurring, though, under the microscope and how it reacts with other food or body chemicals.
      Shaina’s last post: Saag Paneer for Spring Spinach

  5. I studiously avoid anything with MSG in it. I make so much from scratch. I don’t use “cream of” soups, etc.

    But one thing I have a question about: citric acid. I add citric acid to my canned tomatoes so that I don’t have to use lemon juice, which alters he flavor too much for thins like soups and stews. I’m just confused about it. Is it bad? or ok? Or sometimes good and sometimes bad and how do I know???

    • *things

      :)
      Tammy’s last post: ~Apron Dress~

      • Hi, Tammy. I don’t avoid citric acid, especially for canning purposes. I think it serves an important role there. That said, I believe it is like anything else, and too much of it is probably not a great idea. Unless you have a daily love for sour candy, though, I don’t think adding it to your tomatoes is terrible.
        Shaina’s last post: Saag Paneer for Spring Spinach

    • I do avoid citric acid as it will contain free glutamate (MSG) in varying degrees. However some of the strictest MSG avoiders that I have encountered seem to tolerate canned foods such as tomatoes that contain citric acid. Others don’t. My issue with citric acid is that while it may be used as a preservative, at the end of the day, it is a flavor enhancer. And it’s made from GMO corn, not citrus.

  6. So informative! I never knew half this stuff!
    Tieghan’s last post: Tortilla Chip Crusted Chicken Salad with Avocado Chipotle Lime Dressing and Queso Fresco

  7. That is completely terrifying. I cannot even imagine what that was like to go through. I have a pretty terrible reaction myself that runs the gammut of a fever, vice like grip around the back of my neck and then a migraine. Good times. Lets just say that I am very careful about where we eat out. Thanks for this post.

  8. Thanks for sharing your story Shaina!! This will be helpful to so many people!

  9. Thanks for sharing your story. As a neuroscientist, I focus on the good effects of glutamate in the brain and how we can’t survive without it. But I never thought about what it could be doing to the rest of the body.

    • Thanks, Zainab. Glutamate definitely plays an important role in learning, memory, and metabolism. The science behind it is fun to dig into. I mention in a comment above that we don’t avoid glutamate, just added MSG to foods where it does not naturally occur through fermentation or aging.
      Shaina’s last post: Saag Paneer for Spring Spinach

  10. great post Shaina. I do not have any problems eating MSG but its always great to be informed about it because my boyfriend and few friends suffer from it terribly. I will definitely make them aware of it and see if avoiding MSG in their diet will help with migraines.
    dixya@food, pleasure, and health’s last post: Weight Maintenance : Highs and Lows

  11. I am highly allergic to MSG. If I even encounter a little bit, my mouth itches and my throat will swell shut. MSG also gives my dad severe migraines. I read every label of everything I buy so I don’t encounter it accidentally, but it can be hard.
    Tammi’s last post: Wordless Wednesday

  12. Shaina!

    1: Thank for you sharing this story
    2: So great to see you this weekend. Can we do it again this month too?
    3: We try to stay away from MSG as much as possible. We don’t typically eat out a lot, but in the fast when we’ve ordered in, typically Chinese take out, I get super ill about 20 minutes after eating. To be totally honest, I never really put 2 and 2 together to think that it was MSG, rather I would just think my body didn’t like whatever I just ate and that typically Chinese take out is pretty heavy…. but now this makes so much sense. So thank you for that!
    Gaby’s last post: Greek Village Salad

  13. Such an interesting and informative post from Shaina. Thanks for sharing, ladies!

  14. Lisa Imerman says:

    I have avoided MSG for over 11 years. I got extremely sick after eating at a restaurant with my mother when I was pregnant with my second child. It was so sudden we didn’t even make it down the street and had to stop at a gas station. I was so sick that my mom took me back to her house and called my doctor. She said it sounded like an allergic reaction.

    That was the beginning of finding out I am very sensitive to MSG. Within minutes of ingesting any I am violently ill. It can last for 12-24 hours or so and then I am just completely wiped out and have a headache. I avoid it like the plague. Sometimes I get it by accident, no matter how careful I am, it lurks where you least expect it. A relative who saw me have a reactions swore to my husband that it was a stomach virus, even thought it was within minutes of me eating something. My husband told them, no, this is what happens when she has MSG.

    I always knew it was not a healthy thing, and tried to avoid it, but I never realized until I had to avoid it diligently, how it is hidden in so many foods. Thanks for doing this article.

  15. Robin-Taine says:

    Our family has always endeavored to mostly cook from scratch, and like many, are working towards living on a “whole foods” lifestyle. We certainly try to avoid foods that list MSG on the label, but I had no idea it could hide in so many ways…you see the word “yeast” you think, yeast!

    Thank you for sharing your story. In this day and age of Monsanto and highly processed everything, it is so important to get this type of information out into the world.

  16. Aimee S. says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. I have yet to read the comments, but I see there might be a wealth of information there, too. I have suffered from migraines since I was a child (I’m now 36) and 3 years ago I ended up in the hospital with stroke like symptoms caused by migraines. I haven’t had them nearly as severe since, but I’m constantly trying to figure out what is causing them. I eat 95% clean, whole foods, but on occasion I indulge and that’s when I notice changes in the way I feel. I’m slowly getting rid of all junk food in our home…much to my kids’ dismay and I’m trying to educate them on eating healthy. It has helped to have our own organic garden and for them to be a part of that process. I never considered MSG to be the real problem or root cause of my migraines and I’m so thankful that you shared your experience. I hope and pray that more people’s eyes are open to these harmful (unnecessary) additives in our food.

    • Hi, Aimee. I’m so sorry to hear you suffer from something similar. Hemiplegic migraines look very much like a stroke. One side of my son’s body goes limp during his episode. For him, he has a severe enough case where his breathing slows until he is barely breathing and at risk, which is why we end up intubated at the ER and moved to the PICU. Still, it is specifically this type of migraine that presents with its stroke-like symptoms that had literature and studies done showing MSG sensitivities that led me to figuring out where we should start. There are several other triggers that may play a role, too, so this isn’t a cure necessarily, but it is a way to help manage them.

      I hope you’re able to identify what some of those are for your specifically and it helps you tackle the migraines. As a migraine sufferer myself, I know how debilitating they can be.
      Shaina’s last post: Saag Paneer for Spring Spinach

  17. Thanks for sharing, Shaina! I’ll be sharing this post with the students in my high school classes.
    Marian (Sweetopia)’s last post: 1st Birthday Owl Cookies

  18. I know it will, Shaina. It’s nice to hear your personal story, and I know this will impact them much more than an article with only facts. Looking forward to hearing more about you and your family’s journey.
    Marian (Sweetopia)’s last post: 1st Birthday Owl Cookies

  19. Glad to see I’m not the only one! We also eat a whole/real foods diet/traditional foods and without exceptions EVERY time we eat out or visit people, we have unpleasant symptoms afterwards. Ranging from head aches and upset stomach to rashes and off-the-wall behavior in my kids. Naturally I try to either pack my own or avoid it, but that’s impossible with visiting friends and relatives – it wouldn’t feel right to come there with my own food (I usually bake something of my own for everyone to have, but can’t prevent kids from tasting other things). Sigh…
    Anastasia @ eco-babyz’s last post: Fluffy Mail: Cloth Diaper Giveaway Hop {May 1 – 15}

  20. Ellen S. says:

    Very informative. I had no idea that MSG was hidden in so many foods or could cause such health issues. I’m thankful you’ve shared your story with us.

  21. Thank you for sharing your story. The more of us that do will help to get the word out. I discovered I react to MSG about two years ago, and eliminating it from my diet has changed my life. I never realized how much MSG is in the American diet – and I have a background in nutrition! It is important to get the message out that MSG is a neurotoxin. It excites nerves, initially on the tongue, which is why manufacturers lie it so much. It makes food taste good. But too much harms cells, even causing them to die.

    Yes, there is glutamate in foods. But is balanced by all the other amino acids found in foods. The problem comes when it is broken away from other other amino acids in proteins, which happens in processing or even cooking. See an ingredient that contains protein isolate or concentrate? It will have free glutamate and is best to avoid. For the question on citric acid, originally it was derived from citrus fruits, hence the name. To keep the price as low as possible, it is now derived from corn through much processing. However, since the citric acid manufacturers don’t separate the corn protein out first, citric acid additives contain free MSG.

    A good source of info about MSG, besides Truth in Labeling, is http://www.msgtruth.org.

  22. Hi Shaina,
    there is a thing called “familial hemiplegic migraine.” It is associated with hemiplegic migraines and strokes and they actually use preventative meds for this. There is a blood test for it; if your son has not had that test I would strongly recommend talking with someone about it. I carry the mutation for hemiplegic migraine and both my mom and I have had them. I have had a (minor) stroke as well, as has my mom. My daughter was tested and negative, fortunately. It is apparently a pretty obscure thing, but so are hemiplegic migraines…so I thought it might be worth mentioning. (MSG is a big trigger for me too, incidentally, and I had my first migraine at 2 years old…)

    • Hi, Deb. We were actually tested at Mayo while we were there (and paid through the nose for it). :)
      Shaina’s last post: Saag Paneer for Spring Spinach

    • The reason why MGS affects those prone to such things is because it directly attacks the hypothalamus. This isn’t a plug for my own blog, but it is explained there. I invite you to take a look at it. MSG is scary stuff.

      My friend has an 8-year-old daughter who suffers from the same migraines he does. They eat horribly – pre-packaged foods loaded with MSG. I try to tell them about MSG, but they look at me like I grew a second head! They are one of the reasons I decided to write about it. Perhaps if they can read my more organized thoughts it won’t sound like such a kooky thing to them.

      Take care,

      Rebecca
      Rebecca’s last post: The Devil in Your Diet: How We Are Quietly Poisoning Ourselves

  23. Oh yes! MSG is poison for my husband. It’s so sneaky appearing in so many forms. Our last discovery of it was in Chik-Fil-A chicken. So sad :( It’s great that you are helping others be aware of the issue.

    At least we have learned to eat very well and cook everything from scratch due to this issue and other food allergies in the family.
    Sarah’s last post: Save $374 a Year on Groceries by Making this Simple Breakfast Switch

  24. I had problems from msg triggering aural migraines, leaving me in a fog for days. Of course, as my vision would fade, 911 called, and no one could figure it out, ER’s, drs. office visits etc. I finally figured it out, better late than never. Cheeses, and other foods. I too do the same, no fast food unless it’s a grass fed organic hamburger place. I must see the ingredients before I eat it. People would act like I was such a pain and snooty about my food, but what could I do?
    The auras and stress were so much I ended up having an afib attack of my heart.
    I am now doing well, and even more strict than ever with my foods. Avoiding msg, nitrates/nitrites, dyes, preservatives was not too bad since I’d taken most of them out of my diet already. Apparently not all. Label reading consumed a lot of time, at the beginning. After a while, you either make it yourself, or you already know which brands are safe. I usually avoid even organic processed foods.

  25. Shaina,
    Thank you so much for posting this. I have been trying in vain to raise awareness with my friends and family at least. Finally, I decided to write my own story. Since I posted it, I’ve been finding lots more stories of people and their MSG intolerance. Please feel free to check out what I’ve written. I think you will find it interesting.

    http://inmyownperfectworld.wordpress.com/2014/04/05/the-devil-in-your-diet/

    Take care! And keep up the good writing!
    –Rebecca
    Rebecca’s last post: The Devil in Your Diet: How We Are Quietly Poisoning Ourselves

  26. Told these stories to my SO and he pooh-poohed on the importance of eating a healthy diet with no industry additives that may actually be causing his allergies to everything on Earth! Typical stone-headed man :/

  27. MSG was the culprit for my child’s autism. She’s off the spectrum now and raising awareness like you are is how I hope to help more people like my daughter (and your son). See http://unblindmymind.org for a TEDx talk I did about our dietary journey and how I discovered that MSG was resulting in my daughter’s symptoms that were associated with her autism.

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