Please no MSG!!

One of the very first Chinese phrases I learned when I arrived in Beijing 4 years ago was, “Wo bu yao fang wei jing.” or, “Please don’t add MSG.” I’ve avoided MSG as much as possible for years, and the Chinese predilection for liberal doses of the vile additive in all food put me quickly on the offensive. Of course, my request is often outright ignored, as evidenced by the super salty burning taste in the back of my throat and all throughout my sinuses, and sometimes the cook doesn’t see the need to substitute salt for the deleted ingredient, causing the resulting dish to be quite bland, but overall if you ask, they’ll leave it out and Chinese food is … well, simply delightful, even without MSG, or, in my case, especially without MSG.

In the US, as well as most of the developed world, as well as in economies in transition such as China, MSG is an ingredient in nearly every processed food. Even if it not listed as an ingredient, it is usually added to most food products you find on the shelf in a supermarket. As the FDA only requires MSG to be listed as an ingredient when it is 99% pure, it is disguised in many products under the following names: Calcium caseinate; Sodium caseinate; textured protein; natural flavoring; yeast food; autolyzed yeast; hydrolyzed protein; hydrolyzed vegetable protein; yeast extract; hydrolyzed yeast; natural chicken or turkey flavoring; modified food starch; and “other spices.” Although it has no taste or nutritional value in and of itself, free glutamate stimulates the taste buds and excites neurons in the brain, creating the illusion of tastier food.

As a parent, the widespread use of MSG as a food additive is a major concern of mine, as children are far more susceptible to the detrimental effects of MSG, or any other food additive for that matter. Fortunately there are plenty of healthy alternatives available, especially yummy snack food, if you are willing to pay a bit more for organic, although thanks to the lobbying efforts of the major food suppliers, even that label is now suspect. The fact that such products are now available in Beijing is wonderful, but the difference in price between the less harmful imported organic products and the highly suspect locally produced snacks is even more substantial, weighing heavily in the decision making process.

One area we can always opt out of MSG is at restaurants, although some items are prepared in advance and you can never fully escape it. It is often a complete mystery to my Chinese dining companions, and often my Western ones as well, why I would eschew something that adds flavor to food. The best I can usually manage is to say that it is bad for your health. But how exactly is it bad for your health?

Fortunately, there are a lot of great references on the web, including and that outline why MSG should be avoided. Here are some of the primary reasons:

    Research dating back to 1969 conclusively links MSG to gross obesity.
    General reactions include: a burning sensation on different parts of the body; headaches; numbness in the face; chest pain; nausea and vomiting.
    Clinical research has shown that MSG can cause the following allergic reactions, similar to side effects of neurological drugs:


Blurred vision
Difficulty focusing
Pressure around eyes


Atrial fibrillation
Rapid heartbeat
Slow heartbeat
Extreme rise or drop in blood pressure


Stomach cramps
Rectal bleeding


Flu-like achiness
Joint pain


DepressionMood swings
Rage reactions
Migraine headache
Loss of balance
Mental confusion
Panic attacks

Behavioral problems in children

Attention deficit disorders
Numbness or paralysis seizures
Slurred speech
Chills and shakes


Shortness of breath
Chest pain
Tightness in the chest
Runny nose

Urological / Genital

Bladder pain (with frequency)
Swelling of the prostate
Swelling of the vagina
Vaginal spotting
Frequent urination


Hives (may be both ..internal and external)
Mouth lesions
Temporary tightness or partial paralysis (numbness or tingling)
Extreme dryness of the mouth
Face swelling
Tongue swelling
Bags under eyes

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