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Look out for MSG

At least 80% of migraineurs can trigger a migraine by eating the wrong thing. Migraine experts have known for years that one of the substances that does this triggering is monosodium glutamate MSG). The most disturbing and useful news for those few who react to MSG is that it is in things you would never suspect.

We now know that MSG (a natural substance) is added to hundreds of processed and “natural” foods. All too often, it’s a hidden ingredient.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that MSG itself be listed on a food label. That part is easy; MSG-reacting migraineurs can just bring their reading glasses to the supermarket and read labels. Classified as a “flavor enhancer,” MSG is often added to soups, broths, sauces, gravies, spice blends, canned and frozen meats, poultry and vegetables.

The problem comes when a given ingredient contains some MSG. In such cases, the FDA does not require the manufacturer to tell you so. For instance, the flavoring agent called hydrolyzed vegetable protein (often listed as “HVP,” sometimes called “protein hydrolysate” of “hydrolyzed plant protein”) always contains MSG—and is sometimes up to 20% MSG. HVP is found in bouillon, dried soups, imitation bacon bits, croutons, frozen dinners, and most seasoning salt and canned tuna. (You can, however, wash most HVP out of the tuna.)

Even “natural flavors” can contain MSG. HVP is considered a natural flavor and may be listed as such. Kombu, a seaweed most often found in Japanese style foods like miso or ramen soups (as an extract or powder), contains MSG. That is why an announcement of “all natural ingredients” on food packages is no guarantee the product is MSG free.

Is there enough MSG in these foods to actually trigger a migraine in a sensitive individual? Research indicates that people differ widely with regard to their MSG sensitivity. To determine your own tolerance level, keep a diary and look for connections between your migraines and the intake of certain foods. “Most migraine sufferers who are sensitive to MSG will respond to it within 24 ours,” says George R. Schwartz, MD, a Santa Fe based physician and author of In Bad Taste: The MSG Syndrome (Health Press, 1988).

If you are sensitive to MSG, here’s how to avoid it when you eat out:

  • Call the restaurant first and inquire about the ingredients they use, especially hydrolyzed protein. Find out whether the foods include prepackaged mixes-they’re likely to contain MSG. Soy sauce is 10% MSG.
  • MSG is more easily absorbed on an empty stomach. So start your meal with an appetizer that it likely to be MSG-free, such as fresh fruit or a plain roll.
  • Steer clear of sauces and gravies.
  • When ordering, just say “no MSG.” Even if the chef uses seasoning salt (with MSG) instead, you may end up with a lower dose.
  • When dining on a plane, order broiled fish or a low-salt meal, both of which are less likely than meat or chicken to contain added MSG.
  • Check the ingredients in salad dressings carefully. Peanut snacks may contain MSG. So can the luncheon meats used in snack sandwiches (“natural flavoring” or “flavorings” on the package of cold cuts may mean MSG).
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