I have a habit of crunching on snack foods periodically while working on a very long homework assignment for a very long time; eating snacks seems to give me comfort and relieve my stress. So while working with a friend on such an assignment “requiring” the periodic consumption of, on that day, Pringles, I came to register the fact that I was actually ingesting monosodium glutamate or more commonly known as MSG when I informed my friend of the “unhealthiness” of my choice of junk food snacks. This fact bothered me a little, not because I didn’t know most chips contained MSG but because I realized for the first time that I was ingesting this potentially harmful substance willingly and without caution. I was surprised at myself, who is strictly opposed to any consumption of aspartame, to not be also banning MSG from my diet. I became intrigued by the question of why I eat MSG-containing foods so often while abstaining from aspartame. What makes these substances so different to trigger such different responses? Could my reaction to MSG explain why so many others continue to consume aspartame? These are the questions that I will attempt to answer through this post entry.
Although MSG and aspartame have very different chemical structures and pharmacological actions in the body, MSG and aspartame resemble each other in several ways. For example, both MSG and aspartame are food additives that enhance the flavor of food, both are approved by the FDA as safe for consumption (MSG categorized as a Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) substance by FDA and a comprehensive review of aspartame research by Magnuson et al in 2007 shows that aspartame consumption at current level is safe), and the safety of both have been supported and challenged over the years. While both the proponents and opponents for the use of either substances come from all over the world, it seems to me that aspartame is more accepted in the United States while MSG is more accepted in Asian cultures.
Growing up in a Chinese household, I’ve consumed meals cooked with MSG ever since I was able to eat solid food. Although my parents only used MSG occasionally in soup, my grandparents cooked almost every dish with MSG. To my grandparents, adding MSG is as normal as adding salt. After eating this chemical almost every day for their entire lives, my grandparents remain healthy to this day. Myself of course continue to each this substance, albeit much rarer after moving to the United States. So far, I have not had any side effects from previous MSG use or current consumption of MSG containing food.
Although my grandparents and I did not experience immediate side effects or long term health consequences from consuming MSG, I understand that, like every chemical substance, a portion of the population do react unfavorably to this substance. Thus, knowing this, why do I still feel comfortable consuming MSG and not aspartame? Similarly, why is it more acceptable to consume aspartame than MSG in the United States? The answer, I believe, is the “got used to” factor. Every since I was young, I have consumed MSG with my family and relatives, and therefore MSG doesn’t seem dangerous at all. However, with all my relatives around me opposing the consumption of aspartame, citing its toxic effects and the danger it poses to health, I have grown up viewing aspartame as a very dangerous substance that I should never consume. In contrast, many of my peers growing up in more Americanized home environments (this include all ethnicity and nationalities, even Asian Americans, etc) are much more comfortable consuming aspartame, but they are as against consuming MSG as I am against aspartame consumption!
It is very interesting to me how despite the similarities between MSG and aspartame mentioned above, people developed opposite perceptions on their relative safety. This make me wonder whether many other such food additives and food by themselves (processed food most likely) are consider healthy or not healthy only because we have been exposed to them for such long periods of time that they’ve become an integrated part of our lives so we no longer question their safety? (i.e. food coloring).
For fun…food for thought:
Above: Cartoon about MSG from an original artist on www.cartoonstock.com..