Monthly Archives: March 2011

MSG vs. Aspartame: Different, Individualized Perceptions

Above: MSG use is more prevalent than many people believe or know. Many processed foods such as chips contain MSG.

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).

Above: Some claims about the dangerous effects of MSG on health.

For fun…food for thought:
Cartoon of MSG usage in Chinese food
Above: Cartoon about MSG from an original artist on


Posted by on March 14, 2011 in In our food...


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Is Caffeine Safe?

Above: top left – coffee, top middle – energy drinks, top right – soda, bottom – caffeinated drinks.

While volunteering in the hospital this week, I came across an interesting situation that I feel could really affect anyone. I was instructed to not provide caffeinated drinks to patients who have tachycardia or rapid heart rate. Thinking about how caffeine stimulates the body and the mind, it is reasonable that patients with this type of arrhythmia are not allowed caffeinated drinks. It is important to control their heart rate, not to speed it up any further with caffeinated drinks.

Although the doctor only prohibited caffeine use by the tachycardia patients, the reason behind her restriction prompted me, a college student who consumes too much coffee, to reevaluate the effects of caffeine on the body of a healthy person. Is caffeine really safe for everyone to consume? Is it harmful to increase one’s heart rate often by consuming caffeinated drinks such as soda, coffee, and energy drinks? These questions led me to search for some answers.

Dr. David Katz, a physician at Yale University, provided the answer to the question of what are the health dangers of caffeinated drinks like Red Bull and whether these beverages are safe to consume. According to Dr. Katz, the amount of caffeine in an 8 oz can of Red Bull could be dangerous to people with heart arrhythmias, high blood pressure, and sensitivity to caffeine because of caffeine’s stimulating effect on the body. However, it is reassuring to know that a can of Red Bull or a strong cup of coffee, both of which contain about 80mg of caffeine, should be safe for a healthy person to consume. In fact, an individual may consume up to approximately 350mg of caffeine everyday without any danger to health.

Even though 350mg of caffeine can be consumed safely, it is not safe to indulge in too much coffee, soda, or energy drinks. The amount of caffeine in these beverages vary widely and it is easy to consume too much of these products, leading to a caffeine overload and damaging side effects. For example, five cups of coffee with a total of 400mg of caffeine can produce nervousness, irritation, tremulousness, and insomnia. Despite the fact that caffeine is safe to consume for healthy people, Dr. Katz still advises consumption of this stimulant in moderation.

In the same article on MSN Health, Dr. Katz expresses his concern with combining caffeinated drinks with alcoholic drinks. Dr. Katz explains that more and more young people are drinking caffeinated drinks to stay awake in order to consume more alcohol. Preventing the body from turning on the protective mechanism of falling asleep to prevent further ingestion of alcohol could lead to excessive consumption of this sedative substance. Overdosing in alcohol can be extremely dangerous and potentially lethal. Dr. Katz’s concern reminded me an article a few months ago about the banning of several caffeinated alcoholic drinks by the FDA. This ban reflects Dr. Katz and many other scientists’ concern on the safety of mixing caffeinated drinks with alcohol. Research into the harmful side effects of these two substances resulting from their pharmacological interactions, facilitated overdosing in alcohol, and the physical injuries resulting from their ingestion all point to the need to regulate these drinks.

According to CNN’s article “Companies stop shipping 7 caffeine-alcohol drinks” published a few months ago, seven caffeinated alcoholic beverages were taken off the market by their respective manufactures amid warnings from U.S. Food and Drug Administration claiming that these drinks were unsafe and pose a public health concern. Caffeinated alcoholic beverages, such as Four Loko, Joose, and Moonshot, had become increasingly popular among teenagers and young adults, replacing the pure alcoholic drink and pure caffeinated energy drinks. Despite their rapid rise to popularity, until recently few research studies had been down on whether this combination of a stimulant and sedative could pose a danger to health. With the FDA claiming that the labeling of these caffeinated alcoholic drinks as dangerous to health was based on expert studies showing that caffeine can mask certain subjective experiences of alcohol consumption, thus preventing the drinker from realizing the extent of his intoxication, it gives rise to question of whether caffeine and alcohol really interact with each other to impair the drinker’s judgment of his intoxication level.

In their 2006 research study titled “Effects of Energy Drink Ingestion on Alcohol Intoxication”, Ferreira et al. found that when taken together, caffeine can reduce the perception of certain symptoms such as headaches, dry mouth, and impaired motor movements caused by alcohol consumption. Ferreira et al.’s well-desired randomized study tested the effect of vodka alcohol alone, caffeinated energy drink Red Bull alone, and combined vodka and Red Bull ingestion in 26 research participants. Subjective tests such as participants’ perception of their degree of intoxication and objective tests on breath alcohol concentration, visual reaction time, and motor coordination were then given to each test subject.

Ferreira et al. observed that although the subjects sensed reduced symptoms of alcohol intoxication, their objective tests indicate that they are just as impaired as when they were taking alcohol alone in both motor coordination and reaction time. Similarly, the blood alcohol concentration did not change whether caffeine is added to the alcoholic drink of not. Therefore, it can be concluded with a scientific basis that caffeine does interact with alcohol and the resulting impairments could pose a health risk. Furthermore previous studies by the authors suggest that this impairment might be due to caffeine’s ability to decrease the depressant effects of alcohol.

For fun…food for thought.
Cartoon: insomnia caused by caffeine
Above: Cartoon by Jason Love. This cartoon illustrates one of the side effects of caffeine use, insomnia.


Posted by on March 7, 2011 in In our food...


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