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Is MSG a Migraine Trigger?

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: December 2022

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is an additive in many recipes, cuisines, and canned foods. It is considered a “flavor enhancer,” an ingredient added in very small amounts to improve the flavor of different foods.1,2

MSG is in many foods but is most often associated with Chinese takeout. Though it has been used for decades, it was considered a dangerous ingredient during the 1960s. Since then, experts have clarified that it is not dangerous. However, some feel that MSG can trigger migraine attacks.3

What is MSG?

MSG is a chemical used in food to add the “umami” taste. Umami is one of the 5 basic tastes and is best described as savory. MSG is often associated with processed foods. However, it can be found naturally in protein-rich foods like meat, fish, and cheese. It can even be found in some vegetables, like tomatoes and broccoli.4

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Is MSG safe?

MSG has been used in foods since the early 1900s. In the 1960s, there was widespread concern that MSG could be “toxic” or harmful. Since then, experts have looked into MSG extensively. They found that at the very small doses humans consume, MSG is considered safe.4

There have been animal studies that showed concerning effects on the brain from MSG. However, these studies used MSG doses far higher than a person can eat in 1 sitting. Also, these studies looked at MSG given in an injection or shot, not eaten in a meal.4

What is MSG symptom complex?

Just because MSG is safe to consume, that does not mean that some people are not sensitive to it. In 1968, some people reported experiencing symptoms after eating MSG. These included headaches, nausea, flushing, and heart palpitations. This was named “MSG symptom complex.”3

Further research found that these symptoms only happen to a very small part of the population. They also only happen after consuming a very large dose of MSG, and generally, the symptoms resolve in less than an hour.3

Does MSG cause migraine attacks?

To this day, scientists have not found a clear connection between MSG and migraine attacks. It is possible that migraine and other symptoms could be caused by other ingredients in the food. They may also be caused by a placebo effect. In essence, worrying that MSG might trigger a migraine can trigger a migraine itself.3

How can I learn if MSG is in my food?

The best way to know if you are eating MSG is to check food labels. Because of MSG’s history, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that any processed food, including MSG, must have it listed as an ingredient. Some restaurants may also advertise that they are MSG-free.3

However, if a food naturally has MSG, that will not be listed on the label because it is not an ingredient that has been added. Some ingredients that include MSG are:3

  • Hydrolyzed vegetable protein
  • Soy extracts
  • Autolyzed or hydrolyzed yeast

If you are testing whether MSG triggers migraine for you, you may also want to avoid foods that have any of these ingredients on the food label. You can also try keeping a migraine journal. This may help you see patterns between your migraine attacks and what you eat. You can also share the journal with your doctor to see if they can help you identify patterns.3

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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