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.
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. 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.
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?