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Is MSG (Monosodium Glutamate) Misunderstood?

By Joe Donatelli

Ever wondered why so many Chinese restaurants are festooned with “No MSG” signs? You probably heard somewhere that monosodium glutamate, or MSG as it’s more commonly known, is bad. And all those restaurant signs just confirmed it.

But what do you really know about MSG? Does it represent everything that is unholy about modern cuisine? Or is MSG just misunderstood and representative of the sometimes gaping disconnect between scientific research and public knowledge?

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Here’s a hint: It’s the second thing -- the “gaping disconnect” one.

'Chinese Restaurant Syndrome' Was a Thing Back in the 1960s

MSG is a flavor-enhancing food additive that comes in the form of a white powder. It is the sodium salt of the common glutamic acid, an amino acid. The human body contains glutamic acid, as do many foods and food additives.

MSG was invented in Japan in the early 20th century to give bland Japanese fare more savory “umami” flavor. It made its way into Chinese pantries as a cheap, delicious ingredient for instant stock and wound up in America’s Chinese restaurants sometime around the 1950s.

In 1968, MSG gained infamy when Chinese-American doctor Robert Ho Man Kwok wrote a letter to The New England Journal of Medicine that said, “I have experienced a strange syndrome whenever I have eaten out in a Chinese restaurant, especially one that served northern Chinese food. The syndrome, which usually begins 15 to 20 minutes after I have eaten the first dish, lasts for about two hours, without hangover effect. The most prominent symptoms are numbness at the back of the neck, gradually radiating to both arms and the back, general weakness and palpitations...”

The journal labeled the malady "Chinese restaurant syndrome," and a consensus that was formed through anecdotes and animal research concluded that MSG was the culprit. This animal research, according to Alex Renton’s historical review of MSG for “The Observer,” typically involved force-feeding animals large amounts of MSG -- far beyond the amount most humans consume. The animals gained weight or suffered brain damage, leading to the specious belief that if MSG can have that effect on mice, it can have it on humans too.

Subsequent tests on primates were unable to replicate those findings, but by the late 1960s and early 1970s the damage was done. The Nixon White House called for the removal of MSG from baby food. The manufacturers complied voluntarily, and a widespread public backlash against the imported flavor additive followed.

MSG, The 'Silent Killer' in Your Lo Mein

Today researchers are still unable to solidly link MSG to Chinese restaurant syndrome or any other human ailment.

Yet claims that MSG is unhealthy persist:

“It is pretty assuredly addictive, and it is a frontal assault on the health of Americans by a greedy food industry that only considers bottom line.” -- Say No to MSG website

“A widespread and silent killer that’s worse for your health than alcohol, nicotine and many drugs is likely lurking in your kitchen cabinets right now.” -- Dr. Joseph Mercola

“(MSG) can cause brain damage to varying degrees, trigger or worsen learning disabilities, lead to Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease and more, and even result in death.” -- The Safety Report

MSG is blamed for hypertension, heart disease, depression, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, asthma, migraines, dehydration, chest pain, attention deficit disorder, anaphylactic shock, obesity and a great many allergies.

No accusation seems too outlandish. In 1984, James Huberty fatally shot 21 people in a San Ysidro, California McDonald’s. His widow claimed in a lawsuit that the MSG used in the restaurant’s food helped spark her husband’s violent outburst. Her lawsuit was summarily dismissed.

Let it be known: We’re pretty sure that MSG does not cause mass murder.

What You Don’t Know About MSG

In a 1997 double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized study published in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, researchers studied individuals who said they were sensitive to MSG. Some 36 percent of the 61 people studied responded to being given MSG. When the study was rechallenged, the severity of responses increased with higher doses of MSG among the 36 percent. But researchers found the placebo effect in this study “confounding.”

Of the claimed MSG-sensitive subjects, 30 percent didn’t respond at all to MSG or to the placebo, 25 percent responded to just the placebo and 6 percent responded to both MSG and the placebo.

A consistent relationship between MSG and those who believe they have MSG sensitivity has not been established.

But word still hasn’t made it to the public or many in the medical community.

Epidemiologist and nurse practitioner Matthew Freeman became interested in MSG after he read an article that urged medical professionals to ask patients with headaches and migraines about their MSG intakes.

“I said, ‘Wait, didn’t they disprove that? I better look this up myself,'" Freeman recalled. “I didn’t come across a good review article. There were a bunch of studies, but no one had sifted through them to come up with a solid statement.”

In 2006, Freeman published a review that analyzed 40 years of MSG research in the Journal of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners.

The conclusion will sound familiar to others who’ve studied MSG:

“Since the first report of the so-called Chinese restaurant syndrome 40 years ago, clinical trials have failed to identify a consistent relationship between the consumption of MSG and the constellation of symptoms that comprise the syndrome. Furthermore, MSG has been described as a trigger for asthma and migraine headache exacerbations, but there are no consistent data to support this relationship. Although there have been reports of an MSG-sensitive subset of the population, this has not been demonstrated in placebo-controlled trials.”

Freeman said that the chronic diseases that some associate with MSG, such as asthma and migraine, are multifactorial illnesses.

“They have genetic and environmental components,” Freeman said. “They are all different things that play into it. There is no way you could ever say, ‘Aha, if only you took MSG out, you’d be safe.’ MSG really does represent so many misconceptions we have about environmental epidemiology, especially in nutritional epidemiology.”

Epidemiology is the study of how disease spreads and can be controlled.

A largest-of-its-kind double-blind, placebo-controlled study of people sensitive to MSG was published in the Journal of Nutrition in 2000. Like those published before it, the study failed to definitively link MSG to sensitivity in MSG-sensitive individuals. The results did suggest that large doses of MSG consumed without food might elicit more symptoms than a placebo. But according to the researchers, the frequency of the responses was low, and the responses reported were inconsistent and were not reproducible. The responses also were not observed when MSG was given with food.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers MSG to be “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS), and it also has been deemed safe by the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives, the European Union, the United Nations and the Japanese, British and Australian governments.

MSG by Other Names

Here’s one more Chinese-restaurant story for you.

While he was living in China, Alan Levinovitz, an assistant professor of Chinese philosophy and religion at James Madison University, conducted an experiment on his friends, which he recounted in detail in “New Scientist.”

Levinovitz often served as a translator for his fellow expatriates. When they ate out, he always asked the server which menu items contained MSG. He was told that almost everything was made with “weijing” (aka MSG), including, on one occasion, the roasted-peanut appetizer his MSG-sensitive friends were enjoying while he asked the waiter if there was MSG on the menu.

After no one reacted negatively to the peanuts, Levinovitz decided to conduct an experiment over the course of a handful of dinners. Instead of translating honestly, he told his companions that the kitchen had promised not to use MSG. Each time the groups were fed MSG, and each time everyone enjoyed his meal.

The MSG experience led Levinovitz to wonder whether or not gluten allergies were of the mind as well. The reactions to his “New Scientist” article about this “experiment” were, as you might guess, strong.

“A lot of gluten-sensitive people got really upset by the idea that gluten sensitivity might, in some cases, be psychosomatic,” Levinovitz said. “I saw the reaction as confirming the thesis of my essay, which is that people (irrationally) hate admitting the power their minds have over their bodies.”

The Real Problem With MSG

If there is something MSG can be faulted for, it is that it makes unhealthy foods -- from fast food to restaurant food to snack food -- taste wonderful.

“If you wanted to criticize it, you could say this is an additive or an ingredient or even almost a spice that is often used in stuff that is bad for you,” Freeman said. “You add this additional flavor that is very appealing, and it might cause you to eat something saltier than you otherwise would or to eat more frequently.”

Those who have railed against MSG for decades are correct about one thing: It is a food you probably don’t want to eat in large quantities. It is contained in a lot of bad stuff. But the anti-MSG crowd appears to have been right for the wrong reasons. It used inconclusive research, selective anecdotes and scaremongering to punch up the flavor of an otherwise healthy idea.

You could say they sprinkled their arguments with MSG.


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