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What are additives? Is MSG safe? An integrative doctor's opinion on the controversy.


by Jeff Geller, M.D.


Just what exactly are additives, anyway, and what’s so wrong with them?


Believe it or not, you put additives in your own food all the time.  In fact, additives are basically anything added to food—from simple seasonings like salt and pepper to all those crazy ingredients you see on labels that you couldn’t in a million years pronounce.

The FDA reminds people that humans have been using natural additives for, well, just about ever.  Even the modern man-made ones aren’t just thrown into food for no good reason; each has a purpose, like enhancing flavor or making the food last longer.

But the question is: Are they safe? The FDA says yes.  Integrative physicians like myself tend to take a bit more skeptical view.



In 1958, the FDA added the Food Additives Amendment to their Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act .  Additives used prior to this time are considered safe “through either scientific procedures or experience based on common use in food."

In other words, any substance in use before 1958 may not have been rigorously evaluated unless it was a noticed public-health concern.  Substances put into use after the amendment must be evaluated through more-rigorous scientific procedures.


The additive MSG (monosodium glutamate) is a natural substance often made from a fermented starch.  It has no flavor but rather enhances the taste of certain foods, including meats. Since MSG predated the amendment, the FDA allowed it in foods.

By the early 1990s, public concern about rumored nervous-system damage from foods containing MSG prompted the FDA to contract an independent group of scientists for further analysis.

The group’s 1995 report found no connection between MSG and nervous-system damage or any other chronic diseases, according to an FDA backgrounder from the time.  However, it did identify an infrequent condition dubbed MSG symptom complex.  This can cause any of a long list of symptoms, including headache, numbness and drowsiness.  People with “severe, poorly controlled asthma” may be among those prone to the complex, says the backgrounder, and may additionally “suffer temporary worsening of asthmatic symptoms after consuming MSG.”


So an additive can be bad for some people, even if, like MSG, it is FDA-approved and natural.

In general, foods and additives are tested for major problems and are safe in that way.  But if you aren’t feeling well, you’d be well served to track what you’re eating.

Physicians like me, who practice integrative medicine, recommend people buy foods with few ingredients or make meals from scratch; avoid pesticide residue by going organic, washing fruit well (some evidence suggests vinegar may help a bit) or growing your own food; and read the labels.  We cannot simply accept that because something is labeled safe, it cannot cause symptoms or bad outcomes in anyone.

We all respond differently to the foods we eat, so I recommend keeping yours simple.


JEFF GELLER, M.D., is director of integrative medicine at Greater Lawrence Family Health Center in Massachusetts.


Last updated and/or approved: August 2009. Bio current as of March 2008.
Original article appeared in March/April 2008 issue.

Comments (3)add comment
MSG: A Tasty Toxin
written by Gabby , April 24, 2012

MSG is a neurotoxin, so I'm not sure about MSG being safe and all. MSG exhausts the brain cells that control hunger and kills them, so you feel hungry sooner. MSG is dangerous if eaten in large quantities. READER BEWARE!!!
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msg my reaction
written by Jean Stafford , April 21, 2010

my personal reaction only two nights ago was a feeling of near death experience cronic gastro headaches dissyness tirednedd and a felling of just unwell ever since still with most simptions my advice dont eat anything with msg in it stay with as much natural
organic foods as possable and grow your own buy less or no process foods besides if our ancesters could do without all these process foods then why are we having them and so keen on gradually killy ourselves off.

jean stafford Australia

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MSG a No Go
written by JoLynn Braley , June 21, 2008

Thanks for the article! I for one don't recommend MSG and it was one of my readers who pointed me in the direction of the fact that MSG goes by many names, such as "natural flavor". Another common one is "hydrolyzed vegetable protein", which you'll find everywhere - salad dressings, frozen dinners, and hamburger helper are only a few.

If it's so safe then why does is it disguised under so many different names? Just my thoughts, based on what I've learned so far. Also in the process of writing a book review on interesting topic of how MSG is linked to Alzheimers, something else I didn't know.

Thanks again! :)

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