Q. Is it possible to get a headache from breathing in odors at a Chinese restaurant that uses monosodium glutamate? I get terrible headaches from eating Chinese food with MSG, so I avoid it. But I just picked up food for my wife from a place that cooks with MSG. Now, two hours later, I am developing a headache — the first one I’ve had in months.
— C.D., of Belleville
A. Those peppers in the kung pao may fry your wife’s tongue, but you don’t have to turn blue holding your breath while you wait in line to pick it up. Experts I talked with say the chances of you developing a headache from simply entering a Chinese restaurant or smelling your wife’s food while she eats it are somewhere between infinitesimal and none.
“No,” Dr. H. James Wedner, chief of the Division of Allergy and Immunology at Washington University in St. Louis, said flatly at first. “We hear about these things a lot. MSG does cause headaches. There’s no doubt about it. Sensitive people who are sensitive to glutamate can develop headaches, and the only way to treat that is don’t eat that.”
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Then he seemed to moderate his stance just a smidgen
“The concept that you can handle things or there is enough that gets aerosolized has really not been shown to be true. It’s really, really, really rare. It’s almost as rare as hen’s teeth, and when people do have these reactions, it’s usually an allergic one and not a glutamate reaction. There just isn’t enough in the air to do that.”
Dr. Peter Goadsby, a neurologist and headache specialist at the University of California at San Francisco, concurred.
“Everything is remotely possible — some more remote than others,” he wrote me. “This is pretty remote.”
As Wedner explained, people started complaining about the side effects of MSG soon after the day in 1907 when Japanese researcher Kikunae Ikeda discovered brown crystals that remained after he allowed a large batch of kombu (kelp) broth to evaporate. When he tasted these, he found they had the unmistakable flavor he had tasted in many foods, especially seaweed. He called it “umami.” He then patented a method of producing a salt of glutamic acid, which everyone now calls monosodium glutamate.
Chinese food was never the same —and neither were its fans. Some studies have shown as many as 25 percent of people exhibit symptoms of what is called “MSG symptom complex” after ingesting Chinese food. These include not only headaches, but also chest pain, sweating and numbness, tingling or burning in the face, neck and other areas.
“It’s got two problems,” Wedner said. “One, it’s called monoSODIUM glutamate, so it has a lot of sodium. People who are sensitive to sodium should avoid MSG-containing foods because if you have high blood pressure or heart failure, it’s not good for you. And it’s amazing how much MSG can be in some Chinese food. If you go to your local, friendly, Chinese restaurant, there’s as much as a teaspoon of MSG in a cup of wonton soup.
“And the glutamate is glutamic acid. It’s an amino acid, but it does cause headaches in susceptible individuals. That’s been studied for many years.”
However, just why some people can eat MSG-laced Hunan spicy beef until steam comes out of their ears and some people can’t eat a bite without getting ill is still not understood, Wedner said. One guess is that because the glutamate in the MSG is a neurotransmitter that “excites” brain activity, it may cause so much electrical chaos that some particularly susceptible people complain of headaches. Studies have found that between 10 percent and 15 percent of migraine sufferers are sensitive to MSG.
Some physicians — including Dr. John Olney at Washington University, who died in April — argued decades ago that high concentrations of glutamate might actually destroy brain cells through a process called “excitotoxicity.” The Food and Drug Administration has always ruled that the food additive is safe, but MSG was removed from baby food 40 years ago because of Olney’s work and government suggestions.
However, ingesting MSG and breathing whatever fumes it might give off during cooking are two entirely different animals, Wedner argues, which is why he doubts your headache had anything to do with your recent Chinese food run. He stresses that he is not insinuating that you are guilty of any of these, but he has two or three reasons that have explained similar complaints in the past.
“Many times people say, ‘I got it from the air’ when they actually sampled it just to see what it tasted like,” he said.
Second, it could be psychosomatic. A person is so fixated on a concern of developing symptoms from MSG that the worry alone may produce the ill feelings, real or imagined
Finally, many common foods you eat every day contain MSG. The FDA estimates most of us eat a half a gram of it every day. For example, if you go to kfc.com, you’ll find that MSG shows up in everything from the restaurant’s grilled chicken to its green beans. You’ll also find it in many canned soups, cold cuts and countless other processed foods.
So on this particular day, it’s possible your headache may have resulted more from something like Colonel Sanders than General Tso.
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Answer to Sunday’s trivia: When Beetle Bailey started in 1950, he was a student at Rockview University, pattered after cartoonist Mort Walker’s own collegiate days at the University of Missouri at Columbia. At first, the comic strip barely registered a blip on the popularity scale, and King Features was considering dropping it until, just in time for the Korean War, Beetle enlisted in the Army on March 13, 1951. Now, after 65 years, it remains one of the most popular comics as the 91-year-old Walker has introduced us to an army of new characters during its run.
Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427, firstname.lastname@example.org or call 618-239-2465.