Ask Amelia Nutrition

Is There MSG Hiding in Your Snack Food?

Before you polish off that next handful of cheese-flavored Goldfish, Chex Mix, or Doritos, you may want to take a closer look at the ingredients list.  See anything like “autolyzed yeast,” “hydrolyzed soy protein,” or “glutamate?”  If so, the product contains an MSG-equivalent.  These additives are not labeled as monosodium glutamate (true MSG), but they are essentially the same thing.

Are these additives bad? 

Depends on who you ask.  The FDA, World Health Organization, and Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations concluded many years ago that MSG and other synthetically produced glutamates are not harmful.  Yet some scientists insist that glutamates do have negative effects on health, and should be avoided.

Why do food companies add MSG?

Its a flavor booster, especially for cheese and ranch flavored products.  It provides the super intense, salty, “umami” flavor that makes our snack foods highly tasty.

What kinds of foods have MSG or its equivalents?

Too many to list, really.  Many packaged salty snack foods, chicken and vegetable broths, sauces and flavorings, some low-fat yogurts, even some canned tuna.  You can bet that any cheese or ranch-flavored snack product probably has hydrolyzed soy protein or autolyzed yeast, or both.

Should I avoid foods with glutamates?

This is a good time to recall two of Michael Pollan’s recommendations in his book Food Rules:

1. Eat mostly plants, not food that was made in a plant.

2. You can eat whatever you want, as long as you make it yourself.  (The idea here is how often would you expend the time and energy to make your own French fries, cream puffs, or Goldfish crackers from scratch? Not very often.  But on that note, check out this cool homemade Goldfish cracker recipe).

Another way to put it: as long as most of the foods you eat are whole foods – veggies, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts, sustainably-raised meats and fish, organic dairy – you don’t need to worry about eating the occasional glutamate-containing processed food (unless you notice it gives you unpleasant symptoms).

image credit: Tony Cenicola, New York Times, March 2008

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3 Comments

  • Reply
    Deana
    January 19, 2012 at 10:04 am

    wow even canned tuna?

    • Reply
      Amelia
      January 20, 2012 at 4:05 pm

      Crazy, right? Usually it will just say “vegetable broth” or “chicken broth” in the ingredients list but these broths are what contain the glutamate. Again, doesn’t seem to be harmful in small amounts but just something to be aware of.

  • Reply
    Kimberly
    February 22, 2018 at 8:41 pm

    In like most people any small amount of MSG, sets off a horrible migraine in my head. I suffer around 24-28 migraines a month so I am super vigilant about checking food packages for MSG content. I buy only one particular chicken and need broth because it contains no MSG. I recently found out that Doritos had MSG in them (I don’t like cheese so I don’t eat them but was curious because my son who is also a migraine sufferer loves Doritos. It really is amazing how many prepared foods have MSG. Thanks for the article as I have now learned new foods to stay away from, i.e. Chex mix (I will just make it at home, esp spicy because I can control that and cut the salt levels as well).

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