All food is not created equal.
In modern society, much of the food available is heavily modified, often containing considerable amounts of chemicals and artificial ingredients.
The truth is, many of the ingredients in food are difficult to interpret and may have many negative health impacts that people simply don’t think of.
The health effects of MSG, as well as other food flavor enhancers, are one example of this, and many people overlook the presence and potential impacts of these regularly added compounds.
Food is an essential ingredient of life, but humans don’t use food as a whole.
Instead, it is broken down into many different types of molecules, including fats and protein, and these molecules play different roles within the body.
Of the many types of molecules that enter the body, some play a particularly important role, either in a positive manner or a negative one.
Good health involves having the right chemicals in the body in the right amounts when they are needed.
However, this is challenging to achieve in the busy modern environment, when there are so many different components of food that aren’t obvious.
Chemistry or Manipulation?
Chemistry is prevalent in human bodies and in food.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Even the components of entirely natural products can be broken down into chemical agents, all of which act differently in the body.
Adding additives to food can be considered as similar to baking bread or a cake, as the chemicals do play a role in creating the end product.
In themselves, additives, including flavorings, are not a bad thing, in fact, they can be essential for keeping food fresh and safe by the time it reaches consumers.
In many cases, not using additives could result in increased occurrences of food poisoning, which isn’t exactly the desired effect.
So, additives themselves aren’t the problem.
The problem is when additives are used in ways that aren’t necessary, or when they have the potential to cause harm.
This makes it important to consider additives from an individual perspective, rather than collectively.
There are certainly some additives that are a cause for concern, but there are many others that are safe and are necessary to make the food we eat.
So, for healthy living, the goal must be to focus on what the body actually needs, both in terms of chemicals and food itself. This provides the starting block for dietary decisions.
It’s easy to think of the food industry as a big conspiracy, but really this isn’t the case.
Companies have just become very good at choosing products and ingredients that cost as little as possible and make consumers happy.
After all, sugar and fat are both bad for health, yet people enjoy eating them.
Many of these foods act to stimulate reward circuits within the brain, pushing people to eat more, and at times, to eat food that is unhealthy.
This can directly contribute to obesity and create a situation of food addition, where people are conditioned to seek food as a means of engaging the reward circuits in the brain (1).
Although this concept remains controversial, research indicates that food addiction may have many of the properties of drug addiction (2).
So, what is it about modern food that makes it so desirable, even addictive?
Taste, texture, flavorings and additives all play a role in making food highly desirable, but the fact remains, we don’t fully know what impact these additives and chemical changes have on health.
Even if all additives were completely healthy (and there is no evidence that this is the case), the chemically altered food prevalent in society promotes the idea of eating for pleasure, rather than for hunger.
This is a perspective that strongly contributes to the current obesity epidemic and unhealthy eating behavior for people throughout western society.
In fact, some researchers argue that the chemical additions to food create a concerning association between food that is unhealthy and food that is tasty (3).
This also creates the opposite association, where healthy foods are thought to taste bad. This can make it much more challenging for people to actually lose weight and eat healthy foods.
Food Additives and Flavor Enhancers
Additives to food are everywhere.
Often they are used as ways of preserving food, other times they add a specific flavor or smell to the food, or they are needed within the processing of the food.
Yet, many times, food additives are not necessary at all and some companies put much more additives in their products than others.
One example is baby food, where some brands add sugars and starch to their product while others do not (4).
Perhaps the most concerning thing about food additives is that they are artificially created, and often they replace naturally produced compounds.
After all, how many times have you seen products like an orange flavored drink, which obtains all of its coloring and flavoring artificially, and has nothing to do with oranges whatsoever.
In fact, even products that are often thought of as healthy contain these flavor enhancers, like Vitamin Water.
Realistically, it is very difficult to work out what flavorings or colorings a given product has without looking at the ingredients.
For example, many products have artificial red coloring, even though the product itself isn’t red, such as Doritos chips or Snapple iced tea. Likewise, you see products like Cheetos, which certainly don’t have natural coloring.
In fact, flavor enhancers are being developed that trick the taste buds into sensing tastes that are not actually there, such as salt or MSG (5).
The concept is that these flavors will help to reduce the amount of harmful compounds used, but these chemicals may have impacts that are unanticipated.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t like the idea of tricking my taste buds. I’d rather just live with less salt in my food.
The other concerning factor about this development is that the flavors will not be listed separately on ingredients labels , as they are not technically flavors, and are present in small amounts.
Additionally, the small amount present in food will mean that these types of flavors do not have to go through the same level of safety testing that additives normally need to undergo.
This is deeply concerning because chemicals can still have significant effects even when they are only present in small amounts.
Health Effects of MSG
One of the most controversial food additions is MSG, also known as monosodium glutamate.
MSG comes from glutamate (also known as glutamic acid). This is a prevalent amino acid, especially as the human body is able to produce it.
Not only can we produce glutamate, but it is also prevalent in most types of food.
Specifically, MSG is the sodium salt of glutamate and it is produced by the fermentation of starches.
MSG is most commonly associated with Chinese foods, but it is an additive used in many different types of processed food.
On average, people consume between 0.55 and 0.58 grams of MSG per day in the United States and the United Kingdom, and between 1.7 and 1.7 grams in Japan and Korea (6).
MSG doesn’t have a significant taste on its own, instead it acts to trick the taste buds, making the food feel heartier.
This also acts to make the food more appealing, and many people end up preferring foods with MSG, without even being aware that they are doing so (7).
Most of the negative aspects of MSG are connected to how addictive it can make food, rather than issues with the compound itself.
This is pretty similar to the way that sugar and salt is used. Both of those compounds can also make food seem addictive and potentially contribute to overeating. Indeed, the concept of food being addictive does seem to have some scientific backing (8,9).
The food industry is well-aware of this, and MSG, sugar and salt are all used to make food more palatable and make it much easier for us to eat too much of it.
Yet, MSG has also been getting negative press for other reasons.
One key claim is that MSG results in high levels of glutamate in the brain, resulting in the nerve cells being over-excited. Because of this claim, MSG is sometimes called an excitotoxin.
But, research suggests that MSG doesn’t actually play this role.
MSG has also been associated with what is known as Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. The term refers to a set of conditions that some people feel after they have had Chinese food. Some of the symptoms are a headache, chest pain, flushing and sweating.
While Chinese food is relatively high in MSG, that doesn’t mean MSG is actually the cause of the observed symptoms. Instead, there are many different compounds or combinations of compounds that could contribute to the observed symptoms.
Indeed, few adverse events have ever been directly tied to MSG (14).
Nevertheless, MSG may result in some of these symptoms in people sensitive to MSG or sensitive to food additives in general. Because of this, one study suggested renaming the syndrome to the MSG Symptom Complex (15).
For example, one study found that an MSG-containing liquid contributed to the development of headaches. However, the study itself was limited in scope, with only 14 participants (16).
So, if feel that you are sensitive to MSG, avoiding the compound as much as possible is probably a good idea.
However, it is also worth noting that to some degree sensitivity to MSG may be the result of the placebo effect. So, people who feel that they are sensitive to MSG could experience significantly more symptoms than those who do not view themselves as sensitive (17).
This may also be true for food additives in general (18).
Regardless of the role that MSG (or other additives) play in symptoms you might experience, moving to a healthier diet with fewer additives is a good option for most people.
This lets you work out whether or not additives really are contributing to your symptoms.
At the same time, whole foods tend to be healthier than heavily processed foods, and you are less likely to end up with any nutritional deficiencies (19).
It is possible that MSG could contribute to obesity simply by making food more appealing, meaning that people end up eating more of it. Likewise, MSG may increase appetite (22).
However, research does suggest that simply adding MSG into a meal does not have this outcome (23).
That does not completely disprove the theory, as some foods have high levels of MSG (like Chinese food) and also have other elements that make them highly appealing and may even make them addictive. So, MSG may still play a role in contributing to obesity from its role on taste – even if the compound does not directly contribute to weight gain.
Some research has also indicated that MSG can affect satiety following a meal.
However, it is not clear whether MSG increases or decreases satiety. For example, there has been some evidence that MSG decreases satiety (26) and other studies suggesting that MSG increases satiety (27,28,29).
There have also been some claims that MSG may be detrimental for people with asthma, but research has also failed to find proof for this link (30).
It is also important to note that many studies that have found negative impacts of MSG have been animal studies. Such studies often make use of large and repeated doses of MSG (such as in (31).
This pattern results in very high levels of MSG. Those levels are much higher than anything we would see from dietary MSG intake in humans.
As a food additive, MSG is commonly consumed, and the potential impacts on health remain concerning even if they only affect a small proportion of the population.
Additionally, MSG isn’t needed in food at all and is simply used to manipulate the taste buds of consumers.
Honestly, even without taking the health effects of MSG into consideration, this is reason enough to avoid the additive and pick healthier food that doesn’t contain MSG.
It’s important to note that MSG does not need to be listed as an ingredient in all cases. If MSG occurs naturally within a specific type of ingredient, such as yeast extract, only that ingredient needs to be listed (32).
This means that many people end up consuming MSG without being aware of it.
However, the absolute best way of avoiding MSG is to pay careful attention to the ingredients label and to focus on fresh food, rather than food that has been heavily processed.
Additionally, MSG is also prevalent in most types of fast food and is part of the reason that fast food is so addictive.
So, while MSG appears to be safe for most people, if you are sensitive to it, it may be worth avoiding MSG. Indeed, consuming any additive in moderation is a good idea and whole, healthy foods do tend to be better for your health overall.
The concept of umami is an important part of any discussion of MSG.
Umami is the fifth basic taste and is best described as a savory taste. It isn’t as well known as the other four, but it is just as significant. While there are some similarities between umami and saltiness, umami is considered to be an entirely distinct sense.
One reason for this is the way that people taste the flavor.
This is done through sensors for glutamate. So, MSG will trigger these sensors, as will natural sources of glutamate, particularly natural glutamate salts.
Other Food Flavor Enhancers
Flavorings of food are often complex, and it is common for there to be multiple different types of flavoring, and additives within a given food product.
In fact, many of the artificial flavorings used are synthesized from petroleum , making them highly concerning.
For the most part, food additives may appear harmless, and they have undergone safety testing. However, this doesn’t mean that they are safe for everyone.
There has been considerable research into the potential for food additives, including flavorings, to induce allergies, particularly in people who are already sensitive.
One study found that the prevalence of intolerance of additives was between 2% and 7% in children (33).
Another study found that food additives could have significant negative impacts on children with severe atopic dermatitis (34). Although this is a highly specific disorder, it is an important indication that the impacts of additives may be much greater than science has currently uncovered.
For people with asthma, the impacts of food additives may be even more significant. In some cases, consuming food additives can be highly adverse or even catastrophic (35).
Food flavorings have also been linked to behavioral problems in children.
One study on close to 300 children found that the presence of a sodium benzoate preservative or artificial flavors in the diet resulted in higher levels of hyperactivity (36).
This suggests that the hyperactive behavior of some children may be the result of a lot of additives due to a highly processed diet. Many bloggers also highlight this perspective, such as Wellness Mama. Likewise, Dr. Mercola highlighted the amount of additives in common brand name foods.
The thing is, safety testing of chemicals like food flavor enhancers, often do not consider the way that the chemical will affect the most vulnerable people in the population, such as children, people who are already sick, and people that have high sensitivity.
Additionally, chemicals tend to be tested in the short-term and independently from one another. This means long-term cumulative effects, and interactions between different chemicals are not fully tested.
Artificial sweeteners are often promoted as the solution to the ills of sugar.
Honestly, this isn’t the case at all.
Yes, using artificial sweeteners can help to reduce sugar in a diet, but there are many negative outcomes associated with artificial sweeteners.
The problem is that artificial sweeteners can help to increase cravings for carbohydrates, stimulate a person’s appetite and promote weight gain and fat storage (39).
None of these outcomes are good for weight loss.
This may mean that a much better option is simply to stick to foods that contain sugar, but consume them in moderation.
However, as is often the case, there is contradicting evidence for this point.
I imagine that some of these differences are connected to the circumstances involved in a person replacing their sugar with an artificial sweetener. For example, replacing normal soda with diet soda could work well for people who drink soda frequently, but it might not work so well for people who do not like the taste of diet soda.
With all of this, it’s easy to see why artificial sweeteners are so controversial.
Realistically, avoiding foods with high amounts of sugar or artificial sweetener is probably the best approach, especially as sugar is associated with its own negative outcomes.
What Does This Mean?
At the end of the day, additives to food are a concerning trend that is becoming more significant within the food industry.
At best, these additives trick consumers and make unhealthy foods more desirable.
At worst, the additives may cause significant health harm for some people and contribute to weight gain.
This suggests that people should minimize their MSG and additive intake.
This can be done by choosing food that is fresh and does not have much processing.
Not only does this decision help one to avoid the additives that plague processed food, but it also helps in improving health overall.