Toxic or Delicious?

By: Tracy Lahey

A Reddit Debate

“I recently found out that MSG was umami. And then I felt super cheated, why wasn’t MSG in everything I ever ate, ever? I love umami!! I felt brainwashed because I had always assumed it was “bad”. But I guess everything “bad” for you is always delicious” (li5y, 2013).

If you’re anything like this Redditor, you’ve found yourself in the grip of conflicting claims about the science behind eating. Is the MSG symptom complex real, or is MSG just another condiment, about as dangerous as table salt? If it is harmful, how does it stack up against all those other common additives in our diet? The public faces a barrage of conflicting information, adding to the difficulty of separating fact from fiction when it comes to MSG’s delicious –or was that toxic?–nature.

Scrubbing Reddit, a (in)famous online forum for discussing everything from what epic movie scene still gives you the chills to tips to date nice guys, reveals interesting patterns in the way contributors contest and internalize scientific, cultural, and personal truths. I’ve encountered various individual experiences and beliefs regarding MSG’s perceived nature  while reading seventeen different discussion threads dating back to 2012.

Conversations about scientific studies fixate on how blurred lines prevent understanding. A thread titled ‘For Those Wondering if MSG is Actually Bad For You,’ “Jheald1” (2013) questions the study design of an study which concluded that MSG injection was unsafe but consumption was. The Redditor writes, “How the hell is this applicable to eating small quantities in food? There are plenty of things that would be incredibly unsafe to inject directly into your body, let alone into the brain!”. [Author’s note: It is not and was not standard practice for researchers to inject MSG directly into the brain. ] Considering that MSG is a substance suspected of causing  adverse symptoms when ingested, the strategy of injection, according to some, represents a faux pas on behalf of researchers, diminishing the validity and relevance of clinical results. Are these study conclusions reliable, and if so, to what extent?

Redditor “Unseenpuppet” references (2012) Walker and Lupien’s study, published in Pub Med, which concludes that while MSG has been found to trigger asthma and migraines in some individuals, consistent symptoms were not reproducible in patients. The overall lack of data fails to support a relationship, leading to the conclusion that only a sensitive subset of the population is affected by MSG, but that the additive is safe for others to consume. This study highlights the difficulty in discerning a “one size fits all” standard for MSG consumption.

In addition to referencing scientific studies, Redditors rely on personal experience to deduce the nature of MSG. For example, first-hand stories and comments without scientific references help enforce the viewpoint that there’s a difference between  consuming glutamate-packed natural foods versus artificially manufactured Monosodium Glutamate. In an “Eaters of Reddit…Are You Bothered by MSG?” thread, “Miles Jarcher”  comments (2014) “MSG preys on your sense of umami which is naturally occurring but not that common.” [Author’s note: it’s actually super common.] “It is like a trigger in your brain that the food is sumptuous.  I’d rather eat food with naturally occurring umami than put a fake chemical on my food, just like i’d rather eat real sugar than high fructose corn syrup“. The precise selection of words in this post that characterizes MSG, a “fake chemical”, as a beast preying on its victim, the human brain–a danger the eater can avoid by eating more ‘real’ foods. This individual doesn’t stand alone in the suspicion of MSG as an additive. “Pohart” shares ‘For Those Wondering if MSG is Actually Bad for You’: “When I eat foods that have MSG on the label I tend to have migrains. When I eat blue cheese or other foods that have it naturally occuring, I don’t tend to have migrains. I don’t know that the migrains are caused by the msg itself or by something else that tends to be included in products with MSG”. Personal accounts like the above suggest that some Redditors draw a line in the sand between foods that might be described as whole foods, versus processed foods containing MGS as a flavor boost.

This view is not unanimous; once again, uncertainty regarding MSG generates lengthy debate. “Panfist,” in the thread titled “For Those of You Wondering if MSG is Actually Bad for You, brings up how MSG’s prevalence in the common diet and perceived symptoms create a sort of placebo effect, whereby an individual believes that consuming the additive makes them feel worse. This adds to the difficulty of attributing particular symptoms to MSG exclusively and determining a causal effect . Perhaps, “Panfist” speculates, the crystallized form of the substance, derived from natural foods, has been blown out of proportion as a health threat. Adding to this idea of wrongful blame, “Wxvqwx” declares that  impurities left over from manufacturing processes may account for some of these differences that individuals experience with naturally occurring versus commercially prepared glutamates in the thread titled ‘I’d like to Bring up Monosodium Glutamate’. In a separate thread ‘Is this Product Good or Bad- MSG for Daily Use’, “Poccnn” arrives at a similar conclusion: “MSG is simply a salt made from sodium and glutamic acid, a naturally occurring amino acid that’s inside our bodies and tons of food. It was originally isolated from seaweed soup. It’s perfectly “natural” and causes no chemical harm. If it was bad for you, we’d all be sick from eating tomatoes, cheese, and a lot of other shit.”. Reasoning through the chemical composition of MSG and its apparent equivalence with  natural sources leads some to the conclusion that perhaps all forms of MSG are the same, and there has been much ado about nothing.

There is so much truth-iness about MSG on Reddit.  While some threads, like ‘Eaters of Reddit…Are you Bothered by MSG?’, largely argue in favor of MSG as toxic, others, like ‘Is this Product Good or Bad- MSG for Daily Seasoning’, share their appreciation for its presence in common foods and foresee no threat. Still others, including ‘Is MSG Bad?’, are inconclusive–with pro and con factions equally matched in rhetoric and science-y links to supporting content. Thus, the muddy waters Redditors wade in evaluating this controversy  show no signs of clearing.

Ultimately, personal experience appears to be the most trusted source of knowledge. No matter how convincing a study may be at invalidating previous conceptions, an individual’s first-hand experience rarely submits. For example, take the thread ‘For Those Wondering if MSG is Actually Bad For You’. While “Mun-mun” contributes the following sentiment: “It’s unavoidable and in many things and it tastes good. Haven’t died yet,” others with less pleasant  experiences advocate drawing the line somewhat farther from  death. ‘Eaters of Reddit are You Bothered by MSG’ contains two accounts: “Killerxbunny” explains, “I get extreme headaches and feel like i’ll throw up”, and “darny” shares, “My stomach has been in knots for the past 2 weeks.”  In ‘Monosodium glutamate’s Bad Reputation is Not Supported by Scientific Evidence’, “Tdug” claims,  “The last three times I had Chinese food I wound up with the most painful headaches of my life.”

If eating MSG simply enhances the taste sensation of your food, great. But what if your greatest authority- the body you’re stuck in- seems to react similarly to the accounts mentioned above? The Redditors I’ve surveyed seem forced to agree to have bodies that disagree.

If You’re Interested, Read These Threads for Yourself!

“Is this Product Good or Bad?”-

“Those Wondering if MSG is Actually Bad for You” study-

“Is this Product Good or Bad- MSG for Daily Use”

Safety Evaluation of MSG (PubMed)

“MSG- Theory to Reconcile Discrepancies”

“MSG has no Extraordinary Negative Effect on the Human Body, Contrary to Popular Belief”

Results showed no connection between the consumption of monosodium glutamate (MSG) and any adverse reaction

Journal of Nutrition Study:

“Eaters of Reddit are You Bothered by MSG?”

“MSG in Pringle’s Sour Cream & Onion Chips… Isn’t MSG Cancerous?”

Mayo Clinic Study:

“MSGs Bad Reputation is Not Supported by Scientific Evidence”