Many people love Chinese food and its mouth-watering taste. Of course, it is tasty and fulfilling to the consumer. Like Chinese food, most foods contain several taste enhancers, sweeteners, colouring and other additives.
MSG or monosodium glutamate is one such food additive. It is used in Asian food, processed meat, poultry and other products to enhance flavours. But like allergy to any other food or its additives, allergic reactions can occur to MSG as well. These reactions could be a symptom complex of what is often referred to as the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome with more severe reactions being breathlessness, asthma or heart arrhythmias, brain lesions or neurotoxicity and release of certain hormones from the pituitary glands.
Several ongoing studies and research activities are examining the details of how MSG causes these allergic reactions and how to manage them.
Mild adverse reactions:
The self-limited or mild adverse reactions of oral ingestion of MSG include a burning sensation in the neck, forearms and chest; facial pressure or tightness; headache; nausea; palpitation; numbness in the neck radiating to arms and back; chest pain; tingling and warmth in areas of face, back, neck, arms and temple; drowsiness and weakness. Bronchospasm or difficulty in breathing is observed only in asthmatics.
In some individuals, a dose-related response to 3 gm. or more of MSG given without food has been observed. To date, asthma is the only documented predisposing medical condition that is associated with the adverse effects from ingestion of MSG.
Serious or life-threatening reactions:
The serious or life-threatening reactions to oral ingestion of MSG include anaphylaxis, seizures, dysrhythmias, hypovolemic shock and fainting spells with marked fall in blood pressure and constricted throat.
The self-limited reactions occur between MSG levels of 0.5 gm to 2.5 gm. The serious or life-threatening complications occur at levels higher than 2.5 gm.
Time limit for the reactions to occur:
The typical reported interval is between 15 to 60 minutes but in some asthmatics, it can take up to 6 to 12 hours for the symptoms to manifest.
How MSG causes the adverse reactions:
MSG interacts at the level of either the central or peripheral glutamate receptors and increases the excitatory and stimulatory mechanisms that cause these reactions.
Identifying sensitivity to MSG is extremely difficult. The only way to determine this is to feed the person MSG-laden food and observe her/him for as long as 48 hours after the meal. Similarly, diagnosing MSG sensitivity is also extremely difficult. This is because none of the symptoms of MSG toxicity is caused exclusively by it. In most cases, it is caused in combination with other food additives. In addition, these reactions are dose-related.
MSG is often hidden in food. The difficulty in diagnosing it is compounded by the illegal advertising of “No MSG”, “No MSG added” or “No added MSG” on labels when the products do contain it. Hence, it is advisable that the consumer is aware of this, and in a situation like this, to rush to the nearest healthcare facility.
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