Monosodium Glutamate Raises Blood Pressure

Monosodium glutamate, a flavour enhancer used in many processed and Chinese foods, raises blood pressure –  especially in women and in people taking antihypertensive medication.

MSG raises blood pressure

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is an amino acid that stimulates taste bud receptors to produce a savoury, or meaty taste known in Japan as umami. This particular flavour enhancer was first discovered by extracting crystals of glutamic acid (glutamate) from a broth made from kombu seaweed.

Umami is now accepted as one of the five basic taste sensations along with saltiness, sweetness, sourness and bitterness.As its name implies, MSG contains sodium which, in excess, increases blood pressure in its own right. But consuming MSG also increases blood levels of the amino acid, glutamate, which acts as a building block for a nerve chemical called acetylcholine. In some people, eating excess monosodium glutamate produces a stress-like reaction  that typically starts 1 to 2 hours after ingestion, but can come on as long as 12 hours afterwards.

People with MSG sensitivity experience increased blood pressure and any combination of the following symptoms, which has been dubbed ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’:

  • monosodium glutamateFlushing or facial tingling
  • Burning or numbness in the back of the neck and upper body
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Shaking
  • Sweating
  • Palpitations
  • Weakness
  • Shortness of breath or wheezing
  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhoea.

Even if you are not knowingly sensitive to MSG, researchers in China have found that  people with a high intake are more likely to have persistently raised systolic and diastolic blood pressure. This effect is greatest in people who are taking antihypertensive medication, and in women.

Which foods contain monosodium glutamate?

Monosodium glutamate is hidden in a variety of prepared foods, so check labels. It may be listed as:

  • monosodium glutamate
  • sodium glutamate
  • 2-aminoglutaric acid
  • additive number E621.

MSG is also present in flavourings described as: hydrolysed vegetable protein (HVP), hydrolysed plant protein (HPP) and ‘Natural Flavour’.

When cutting back on salt and MSG, there are other ways to enhance the flavour of food that doesn’t put your blood pressure up – and may even help it come down. Black garlic, for example, has a lowly umami flavour and had beneficial effects on blood pressure, too.

Check labels to ensure you aren’t adding this unnecessary flavour enhancer to your diet without realising.

Good flavouring alternatives

Steenbergs Organic Vegetable Bouillon (no salt) enhances umami flavours using a powdered blend of dried carrot, onion, leek, mushroom, lemon peel, garlic, plack pepper and herbs. I use this every day when cooking and find it indispensible.

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A similar product in the US is Vogue Cuisine’s VegeBase Low Sodium which produces an umami flavour from a blend of non-GMO organic soy, pea, onion, carrot, alfalfa, cerely seed, herbs and spices.

This does contain some sea salt but in a relatively low amount of 140mg sodium per serving (teaspoon).

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YuHongYuan Organic Whole Black Garlic is aged for 90 days to provide 850mgl S-allyl-cystein per bulb. As well as lowering blood pressure, this amino acid also stimulates umami sensors to enhance flavour.

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If you are interested in learning more about flavour enhancing from the experts, the book Umami: The Fifth Taste by Nobu Matsuhisa, Heston Blumenthal and Michael Anthony explore this phenomenon and how it enhances the flavour of cuisines around the world.  Ten chefs each present four recipes that showcase how umami-rich dishes helped them win international recognition. A fascinating read!

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Image credit: pixabay

About DrSarahBrewer

Dr Sarah Brewer MSc (Nutr Med), MA (Cantab), MB, BChir, RNutr, MBANT, CNHC qualified from Cambridge University with degrees in Natural Sciences, Medicine and Surgery. After working in general practice, she gained a master's degree in nutritional medicine from the University of Surrey. Sarah is a registered Medical Doctor, a registered Nutritionist and a registered Nutritional Therapist. She is an award winning author of over 60 popular self-help books and a columnist for Prima magazine.

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6 thoughts on “Monosodium Glutamate Raises Blood Pressure

  • Terrance Williams

    I am a person on a beta blocker that seems quite effective. As a person with high blood pressure I did find this information very interesting. My major problem in the past with low sodium diets is the lack of flavor in the food. Some sodium free or low sodium foods are just horrible. Something like msg is very popular because it really does enhance flavors. Any real alternatives like you talk about are very welcome. I found the blog to be very well set up, interesting and especially thought provoking.

  • Henning

    Hi, thanks for your interesting article. I suffer from the opposite condition – low blood pressure – and I’m always looking out for ways to increase my blood pressure naturally. Or to avoid foods that decreases it further. MSG is a bit risky, so I wont try that. Any tips for someone with low blood pressure?

    • DrSarahBrewer

      I’ve added a post on low blood pressure as this can cause tirendess, headaches, poor concentration and dizziness. The usual approach is to suggest increasing your intake of dietary table salt (sodium chloride) and to avoid dehydration by drinking plenty of water (2 to 3 litres daily). Avoid alcohol (which causes vasodilation), avoid rigorous exercise, and try not to become over-heated. It helps to eat little and often, rather than heavy meals which can divert significant amounts of blood towards the digestive tract so BP falls. One study found that drinking two cups of coffee with a meal halved the incidence of hypotension after eating (but drink plenty of water to offset its diuretic effects). Panax ginseng and liquorice can both raise blood pressure but should not be taken long term except under supervision from a medical herbalist.

  • Jean

    I have had high blood pressure for a few years now and I had NO idea that MSG went by so many names. I am seriously starting to wonder how often I might be consuming it. Though I will admit that I am in love with chinese food but i have noticed that many have a disclaimer on the menus now that say no MSG. What do you think about these labels? Any chance they are just saying it to try and get the trust of their customers since so many people are becoming educated about the possible risk of MSG.
    I actually just watched a cartoon where he was cooking with black garlic and I had never heard of it before. It’s funny that you mention it here though. The steenbergs organic vegetable boullion that you cook with is that a good flavoring for things like chicken and fish or do you tend to use it more with certain items?

    • DrSarahBrewer

      Hi Jean, I would hope that if a restaurant says no MSG they mean it – some people are so sensitive to it that it triggers an asthma attack. I use the vegetable bouillon in any recipe that calls for salt – it’s great with chicken or meat, but fish is usually salty enough already so I tend to marinade fish in garlic, herbs and lemon juice with no salt substitute. Do give it a go – it really brings out the umami flavour of food!