Mon Mar 18, 2019, 07:09 AM

How MSG Got A Bad Rap: Flawed Science And Xenophobia


By the 1950s, MSG was found in packaged food across the U.S., from snacks to baby food. (Sand said in his 2005 paper that his 1953 edition of “The Joy of Cooking” referred to monosodium glutamate as “the mysterious ‘white powder’ of the Orient … ‘m.s.g.,’ as it is nicknamed by its devotees.”) Soon, though, MSG’s chemical nature would turn against it. After the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and federal bans on sweeteners that the Food and Drug Administration deemed carcinogenic,3 consumers began to worry about chemical additives in their food. In 1968, the New England Journal of Medicine published a letter from a doctor complaining about radiating pain in his arms, weakness and heart palpitations after eating at Chinese restaurants. He mused that cooking wine, MSG or excessive salt might be to blame. Reader responses poured in with similar complaints, and scientists jumped to research the phenomenon. “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” was born.

Early on, researchers reported an association between consuming MSG and the symptoms cited in the New England Journal of Medicine. Inflammatory headlines and book titles followed: “Chinese food make you crazy? MSG is No. 1 Suspect,” wrote the Chicago Tribune, while books titled “Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills” and “In Bad Taste: The MSG Symptom Complex” prompted FDA reviews and “60 Minutes” investigations, as Alan Levinovitz, a professor of Chinese philosophy at James Madison University, chronicled in a 2015 book about food myths.

But those early studies had essential flaws, including that participants knew whether or not they were consuming MSG. Subsequent research has found that the vast majority of people, even those claiming a sensitivity to MSG, don’t have any reaction when they don’t know they are eating it.

That MSG causes health problems may have thrived on racially charged biases from the outset. Ian Mosby, a food historian, wrote in a 2009 paper titled “‘That Won-Ton Soup Headache’: The Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, MSG and the Making of American Food, 1968-1980” that fear of MSG in Chinese food is part of the U.S.’s long history of viewing the “exotic” cuisine of Asia as dangerous or dirty. As Sand put it: “It was the misfortune of Chinese cooks to be caught with the white powder by their stoves when the once-praised flavor enhancer suddenly became a chemical additive.”

The concern wasn’t just among the public, however. From the late 1960s to early 1980s, “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” was considered a legitimate ailment by many in the medical establishment, according to Mosby’s research. The same can’t be said today. While nearly all the U.S. research that has suggested MSG is safe has been funded by companies that have a stake in MSG’s success, researchers think the science that underlies them is sound.

Of course, a small subset of people do have negative reactions that are directly due to glutamate, but the science to date shows that is likely to be a rare phenomenon. MSG is still, and has always been, on the FDA’s “generally recognized as safe” food list. Several allergists I reached out to who were once go-to experts on the subject declined to comment, saying that they no longer keep up with the research.

Another study about the essentially political processes inherent in science, medicine and engineering.

I've been involved in both basic research and major engineering projects. The politics internal to corporations, between corporations and other organizations and within professional associations and societies plays a large role in STEM.

A famous observation is due to Max Planck: "A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it."

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