One major reason my husband and I eat a natural diet is that he suffers from chronic migraines.
Because of his migraines, we have to avoid a lot of ingredients. For example, we never consume artificial sugar. His body is extremely sensitive to it, and aspartame has given him some of the worst migraines he’s experienced. But there’s another ingredient that we’ve learned to avoid over the past several years, one that affects his migraines almost as much as aspartame – MSG.
MSG is an acronym for monosodium glutamate, a food additive and flavor enhancer that is far more prevalent in your food than you probably think.
I need to point out that there are a lot of people, including many members of the scientific establishment, who don’t consider MSG harmful. I’ve been researching this topic for years, and usually on medical websites there is language that reports “no scientific evidence” for MSG sensitivity. While that may be true, there is widespread anecdotal support of harmful side-effects for some people.
The FDA lists the following symptoms as being associated with heavy consumption (3 grams or more) of MSG:
I know from my years of less-than-healthful eating that I don’t have an MSG sensitivity. Unlike people who report an MSG sensitivity, I have never gotten a headache or stomachache from it; still, I have watched my husband suffer with a migraine for days after accidentally ingesting MSG. I have no doubt that he suffers from a sensitivity to it, and for that reason, we all avoid it. I feel better knowing that there is no MSG in my diet, and my husband has fewer migraines now that we know how to avoid it.
Avoiding MSG is more difficult than it might sound. Sure, it’s easy to just stop eating at Asian buffet restaurants. And that’s a good first step. But if you suspect that you or someone you love has a sensitivity, or you want to avoid MSG for other reasons (and there are plenty of good reasons), then you need to be aware that MSG can be sneaking into your diet from a variety of unexpected sources.
1. Know What to Avoid at the Grocery Store
Once you decide to avoid MSG completely, your grocery store trips will begin to change. There are certain foods that won’t be options for you anymore. You might have given up many of the items on this list anyway, but if you haven’t, it’s probably time to quit buying them.
This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it will help you know what to be extra careful with:
- Highly processed, flavorful (salty) snack-food
- Flavored Chips
- Flavored crackers
- Flavored nuts
- Chicken broth (all chicken broth has naturally occurring glutamate, even if MSG isn’t added)
- Beef broth
- Non-Organic Vegetable broth
- Bouillon cubes (chicken or beef)
- Broth-based soups (chicken noodle, vegetable soups)
- Cream of _____ soups (mushroom, chicken, celery, etc.)
- Instant soup mixes
- Convenience Foods
- Ramen Noodles
- Frozen dinners
- Flavor Mixes
- Salad Dressings (You could be making your own, anyway!)
2. Learn the Other Names for MSG
Another reason that MSG can be difficult to detect is that it isn’t always labeled as you’d expect it to be. If you see “monosodium glutamate” in an ingredients list, of course you’re going to avoid it. That’s an easy one. But there are many other names for ingredients which are very similar to MSG, and which can cause similar reactions. If you’re just starting out with cleansing your diet of MSG, look out especially for the following words:
- hydrolyzed vegetable protein
- yeast extract
- soy extract
- hydrolyzed yeast extract
The above list includes the most common ingredients that contain MSG, but there are many, many more. The list is long and daunting, so it can be helpful at first to memorize just the most common ones to avoid at the store. If you’re interested in the full list, check out this article on Fooducate.
3. Be Cautious When Going Out to Eat
We’ve already discussed Asian buffet restaurants; you were probably already aware that many of them used MSG, anyway. You may not have known, however, that most other buffet style restaurants use MSG or similar preservatives. Most chain-style, large buffet, family-friendly restaurants use MSG, too. If you suspect you have an MSG sensitivity, make sure you pay attention to how you feel next time you visit a large buffet. If you have a migraine or nausea within a few hours of leaving, you’ll know that you should probably find a different restaurant next time.
Aside from big buffets, even regular menu items can be a minefield for MSG sensitive people. The following items should all be consumed with caution:
- Salads with dressings
- Heavily seasoned fries
- Soups (they’re almost always broth-based)
- Heavily seasoned and breaded meat
- Some pasta sauces
Once you realize that MSG is so commonly used at restaurants, you’ll have to put a lot more thought into what you order. That’s probably a good thing, though – there are lots of good restaurants that serve fresh, whole foods. It’s great to support them, especially when you can feel safe eating their food.
Life after MSG
Good things can happen when you start to live a lifestyle with limited MSG consumption. You might notice fewer migraines, fewer stomach upsets, and a healthier existence overall. One great thing about avoiding MSG is that you will naturally make healthier food choices. Heavily processed and flavored foods won’t be options for you anymore – and that means you’ll have more money and cabinet space left over for healthy, nutritious whole foods.
Do you have a sensitivity to MSG?
What are your best tips for avoiding it?