Scientists dismiss MSG-headache link

By Stephen Daniells

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Monosodium glutamate, Glutamic acid

Consuming glutamate or the flavour enhancer MSG from food does not produce headaches, finds a new review that supports the safety and tolerability of an ingredient increasing in use.

Scientists from the Center of Excellence for Food Safety Research (CEFSR) at the Universiti Putra Malaysia report that sufficient evidence exists to make a judgement on the link between glutamate and headaches, and this evidence provides “no strong scientific information reporting negative effects of glutamate on human health in the general population.”

Reports surfaced in the late 1960s of a link between eating Chinese food and headaches. A letter to the New England Journal of Medicine​ in 1968 describing the condition and coining the phrase ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’ was followed by a study in Science​ the following year that identified the flavour enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG) as “the cause of the Chinese restaurant syndrome and can precipitate headaches”​ (1969, Vol. 163. pp. 826-828).

Forty years later and Malaysian scientists have concluded that there is no such link. Writing in the journal Appetite​, they state that “despite a widespread belief that glutamate can elicit asthma, migraine headache and Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, there are no consistent clinical data to support this claim,”​ they stated.

“In addition, findings from the literature indicate that there is no consistent evidence to suggest that individuals may be uniquely sensitive to glutamate.”

“Because glutamate is one of the most intensely studied food ingredients in the food supply and has been found safe, the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization placed it in the safest category for food additives,”​ stated the reviewers.


MSG intensifies and enhances flavour without having a taste of its own, and also has the properties to act as a nutrient, as well as a salt substitute. The use of the ingredient, popular in many Asian cuisines, looks set to increase its presence in the west.

Indeed, the global market for fermentation products is expected to rise by 4.8 per cent per year, to reach €13.6bn ($16.7bn at today's rates) in 2009. Lysine and MSG are the largest products in this category.

Source: Appetite
Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2010.05.002
“Glutamate: Its applications in food and contribution to health”
Authors: S. Jinap, P. Hajeb

Related topics: R&D, Flavors and colors

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