Few ingredients come with as much baggage as MSG. Otherwise known as monosodium glutamate, the compound has had a bad reputation for nearly 50 years, so we at Reactions felt it was time to clear its name. In this video, we debunk MSG myths and explain why the scientific consensus is that this flavor enhancer, known for its savory umami flavor, is perfectly safe for the vast majority of people.
From Compound Interest:
Via Skeptical Raptor
One of the most frustrating things I’ve observed in nearly six years of writing (here and in other locations), is that those who want to create a negative myth about a new technology (especially in food or medicine), one of the best ways to do it is mention “chemicals.” And if the chemical sounds unnatural, the assumption is that it is unsafe.
People have demonized monosodium glutamate (MSG), a food additive that makes people run away in terror if a Chinese restaurant doesn’t have a huge flashing sign in neon that says “NO MSG.” Of course, in just about every randomized study about MSG, researchers find no difference in the effects of MSG and non-MSG foods on a random population.
Moreover, MSG has one of the evil chemical names. But MSG really is the salt of glutamic acid, a simple amino acid that is the basis of all proteins in the human body. ALL. When consumed, MSG disassociates into glutamate ions and sodium ions, both of which will be eagerly utilized by human physiology with no ill effects. Excess MSG could be problematic, not because of the glutamate, but because of excess sodium. MSG is found naturally through all foods, proteins, soy sauce, and on and on. It’s an absolutely ridiculous belief that people have, and the downside of removing MSG is that there’s less flavor. Because MSG enhances flavor–naturally!
Another current demon chemical of food is high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which has evolved into of the biggest pariahs of the food industry. Even the name sounds a bit chemical, unnatural, dangerous. But is it?
That’s where we need to look at the science, because the answers to the questions are quite complicated and quite simple.
That’s nothing to be ashamed of.
While living in China from 2003 to 2005, I often served as the designated translator for fellow expatriates. Whenever we ate out, this involved asking our server which menu items contained MSG. Invariably I was told that almost everything is made with weijing (“flavor essence”), including, on one occasion, the roast peanut appetizer my MSG-sensitive friends were snacking on as I made my inquiry.
After observing that no one reacted to the peanuts, I was inspired to conduct a simple (and admittedly unethical) experiment. One evening, instead of translating honestly, I told my companions at a large banquet that the kitchen had promised to avoid using MSG. Everyone thanked me and happily ate their meal, dish after poisoned dish.
An hour later? Two hours later? The next day? Nothing.
I repeated this experiment on multiple occasions, always with the same result. And yet foreigners living in China routinely complained of reactions to their food that included headaches, chest pain, and shortness of breath. Was there something about my presence that conferred temporary resistance to MSG? Or could it be that MSG sensitivity was only in their heads?
In April 1968, the New England Journal of Medicine published a letter by Robert Ho Man Kwok that described a strange set of symptoms: “Numbness at the back of the neck, gradually radiating to both arms and the back, general weakness and palpitation.” Stranger still was the fact that Dr. Kwok, himself a Chinese immigrant, typically noted the onset of these symptoms 20 minutes after eating at restaurants serving “Northern Chinese food.”
An editor at NEJM titled Kwok’s letter “Chinese-restaurant syndrome,” and thus began a minor epidemic. For countless sufferers, a mystery had been finally solved. “NO MSG” signs sprang up across the United States, and, eventually, the world. Study upon study confirmed the syndrome’s existence and speculated about the science underlying it.
But after reading some of these studies, even a layperson will start to get suspicious. Take the editorial note that precedes Russell S. Asnes’ article “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome in an Infant”:
“The evidence that this infant had the Chinese Restaurant syndrome may be only circumstantial. However, the description of the symptom is accurate as attested to by the Editor’s wife who suffers from the same malady. Incidentally, she remains a devotee of Chinese cuisine.”
Science, that sworn enemy of circumstantial evidence, marched on, and slowly but surely physiological explanations of Chinese restaurant syndrome began to lose credibility. Double-blinded studies failed to turn up evidence of a clinical condition. MSG, many people noted, appears in everything from sushi to Doritos. Journalists performed experiments similar to mine, their results echoing the consensus of professional scientists: In the overwhelming majority of cases, MSG sensitivity is a psychological phenomenon.
Despite this thorough debunking, a surprisingly large number of people—generally those who lived through the epidemic—still insist they are sensitive to MSG. Google around and you’ll turn up scores of alarmist websites, which tend to combine outdated research with anecdotal, indignant rebuttals of the current scientific wisdom: “How dare you suggest my MSG sensitivity is only in my head? Why, just the other day I went out for Chinese and forgot to ask about MSG. After 45 minutes I couldn’t breathe and my heart was racing.”
Occasionally, as with vaccines and climate change denial, alarmism veers into paranoia, yielding accusations that a shadowy East Asian cabal is paying off scientists and journalists to regurgitate their propaganda.
- Are we making ourselves sick over MSG and gluten? Yeah, probably. (doubtfulnews.com)
- What if your gluten intolerance is all in your head? (newscientist.com)
- Why You Should Embrace The Culinary Benefits of MSG (tested.com)
- William’s Essay on an obscure medical condition (words4useblog.wordpress.com)
- How To Diagnose an MSG Allergy (ellskety.wordpress.com)