02/08/2014 11:45 EST | Updated 04/10/2014 05:59 EDT

My Complicated Relationship With MSG

I'm at war with a food additive and it looks like I may be fighting a losing battle. The additive is monosodium glutamate, better known as MSG, and just when I think I've neutralized the enemy, it adopts a new disguise and breaks through my defenses.

Let me explain. Twenty-five years ago, my wife Cheryl and I would often end the work week by dining at a local Chinese restaurant. The food was delicious and we became regular customers.

The only problem was that after we got home, I would inevitably and invariably end up with a flushed face, stomach cramps and ongoing bouts of diarrhea. Not being the sharpest tool in the shed, I made no connection. It was Cheryl who finally pointed out that my unpleasant reactions always followed a meal at our local Chinese eatery.

Like most people, I was aware of the common use of MSG in Chinese cooking and the headache reaction some folks suffered after eating it. But I never figured that there were other possible side effects from this additive.

Once I realized the connection between Chinese food and my digestive symptoms, I figured the problem was solved. No more eating at our favourite restaurant or at least no more ordering any MSG-laden dishes served there.

That solution worked for awhile but not for long. Pretty soon, I realized that I was having the same gastric reactions even when I had avoided all Chinese restaurants. What the heck was going on?

What was going on was the proliferation of MSG not only in restaurant meals but also in all kinds of processed food. Slowly I realized that I had to check food items to see if monosodium glutamate was on the label and to ask restaurant servers if a particular menu item contained MSG.

Checking food labels helped as I quickly discovered that everything from mushroom soup to flavoured potato chips to in-store barbecued chicken contained MSG. This greatly reduced my risk of self-poisoning. Unfortunately, asking food servers was less successful since they often didn't know and sometimes didn't care. Trial and error with restaurant food seemed to be the preferred course.

Yet even with all these precautions, I was still occasionally defeated by MSG. Further investigation revealed one reason why: there are dozens of other substances that always or often contain the stuff. So even if a product label doesn't say MSG, it may well be there in the form of soy protein isolate, autolyzed yeast extract, hydrolized soy protein or any of several dozen other ingredients including "flavours" and "seasonings."

This information upped the challenge considerably but I did my best. I religiously checked product labels for MSG and its lookalikes and, for the most part, managed to avoid the deleterious effects of ingesting this nasty flavor enhancer.

The problem is that most people don't react to MSG and, in fact, love the stuff since it makes most things a whole lot tastier. So there's little motivation on the part of the food industry or government to protect the small percentage of people like me who aren't that fond of all the nasty side effects.

Canada's federal department of health, Health Canada, acknowledges that some people may have a reaction to foods containing MSG. Their website states:

"Such reactions have generally been reported to be temporary and not associated with severe adverse health effects. People sensitive enough to be affected are advised to avoid the use of this substance."

Great advice so long as you have enough information to avoid the stuff which, sadly, is not always the case.

Research apparently consistently shows that reactions to MSG are rare or non-existent. I'm not so sure. I suspect that these studies are financed by the food industry and designed to scare off any sufferers.

Ten years ago, I saw a newspaper ad from a local university seeking volunteers for a study of the effects of MSG. Initially, I thought I would sign up but, on further reflection, decided not to subject myself to repeated bouts of sweats, nausea and diarrhea. I suspect other sufferers had the same thought and avoided the study like the plague thereby ensuring pro-MSG results.

I figured I was pretty much resigned to my fate fighting a rearguard action against my flavour-enhancing enemy until the other day when, following two MSG-style reactions from eating very tasty tortilla chips, I discovered that sea salt, of all things, can do me in. At this point, I think I'm finally ready to sign up for one of those studies.


Photo gallery
10 Unhealthy Ingredients
See Gallery