June 19, 2000 -- Yes: the food additive, monosodium glutamate (MSG), which is found in everything from spicy kung pao chicken to tangy sweet and sour pork. Chefs use MSG to enhance the flavor of your favorite dishes.
That's because MSG consists of a mixture of sodium and the amino acid glutamate. Together, they form a very powerful flavor enhancer, changing almost any food from bland to tasty.
Many people, however, pay more than just the restaurant check for their MSG-enhanced gastronomic pleasure. For some, the price includes a headache and numbness in the back of the neck, which can radiate down the arms and back. Other people report symptoms of mild to severe headaches, tightness in the chest, pressure around the cheeks or jaw, mild mood changes, weakness, tingling, burning sensations, heart palpitations, or vivid and bizarre dreams. A few people report asthma-like symptoms after consuming even small amounts of the food additive.
These temporary but uncomfortable symptoms are often so subtle that people don't realize the additive has affected them, which makes it hard to determine precisely how many people are sensitive to MSG. However, this reaction to MSG is widespread enough to have a name: Chinese restaurant syndrome.
If you're sensitive to MSG, reduce your intake of the additive or stay away from it entirely. Physicians haven't established a safe range because it varies from person to person. Generally speaking, the larger the amount of MSG, the more likely it is that you will be sensitive to it and will develop symptoms, which can surface just minutes after ingesting MSG. And people with high blood pressure or those who must watch their sodium levels should limit their MSG intake as well.
If your symptoms become really bothersome, consider consulting an allergist. Or try eliminating all MSG-containing foods from your diet for at least two weeks. This will take a bit of sleuthing. MSG goes by a variety of names and is hidden in many foods, making it difficult to avoid all the sources. It's sold in your grocery store under the brand name "Accent." On food labels, MSG is also listed as autolyzed yeast extract, hydrolyzed vegetable protein or HVP, potassium glutamate, sodium caseinate, broth, natural flavorings, or simply flavorings.
This doesn't mean that MSG-sensitive people must deprive themselves of pot-stickers and mu shu pork. Instead, frequent restaurants, Chinese or otherwise, that promise to serve only MSG-free food. And if you have a favorite restaurant, don't be afraid to ask the chef to omit the MSG from your dishes.
Elizabeth Somer, MA, RD, is author of several books, including Food and Mood (Henry Holt, 1999), and Age-Proof Your Body (William Morrow, 1998). She is an advisory board member for Shape magazine, editor in chief of Nutrition Alert, and frequently appears on national television programs such as Later Today, Good Morning America, and The Today Show.