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October 03, 2014
Producer Chau Tu

Order from any number of Chinese

takeout restaurants these days, and
you may notice that many menus
boast NO ADDED MSG. The label
can also be found in supermarket
aisles on snack foods or on
packaged seasonings.
The labels are meant to ease
consumers worries, because MSG,
which is used as a flavor enhancer,
has for decades been popularly
linked to various health problems,
such as headaches and allergic
reactions. It's even been
considered a factor in infant

I see people all the time who are

absolutely convinced that their
allergic reactions are caused by
MSG it causes this, it causes
that, says allergist and
immunologist Katharine Woessner
of the Scripps Clinic Medical Group,
who conducted a study on MSG's
effects. But, she says, I think
theres a great misunderstanding.

Indeed, most scientists today agree

that the notion that MSG causes
sickness in humans is unfounded.

Its ridiculous, says Ken Lee, a

professor and the director of food
innovation at Ohio State University.
Its wacko, its weird; its not true
that MSG has any kind of toxic or
causative role in food allergies.

Lee breaks down his reasoning:

MSG stands for monosodium
glutamate. So sodium everybody
knows what that is [is] the first
ingredient in common table salt.
(Natural salt found in foods
accounts for about 10 percent of a
persons total daily intake,
according to the Food and Drug
Administration.) Meanwhile,
glutamate, the basic component of
MSG, is a synonym for glutamic
acid [and] is a naturally occurring
amino acid. Its one of the building
blocks of protein, says Lee. In
aqueous solutions, MSG breaks
down to sodium and glutamate.

Most living things on earth contain

glutamate, says Lee, and its also in
many foods, including tomatoes,
walnuts, pecans, Parmesan cheese,
peas, mushrooms and soy sauce.
An average adult consumes about
13 grams of glutamate each day
from the protein in food, according
to the FDA; added MSG contributes
another 0.55 grams.

Monosodium glutamate was

discovered more than 100 years
ago by a Japanese chemist named
Kikunae Ikeda, who derived it from
seaweed and discovered that it had
unique flavor-enhancing
properties. These days, MSG is
made by fermenting starch, sugar
beets, sugar cane, or molasses,
according to the FDA.
The additive's negative reputation
can be traced back to the 1960s,
when The New England Journal of
Medicine published a letter from a
Maryland doctor named Robert Ho
Man Kwok. Kwok wrote that he
experienced symptoms similar to
those of an allergic reaction every
time he ate food from a Chinese
restaurant, and he questioned the
cause. Was it the wine he was
drinking, the spices in the food, or
the MSG? Kwok's letter which
referred to the collection of
symptoms as Chinese Restaurant
Syndrome, or CRS prompted
people to write in to the journal
with their own experiences feeling
flushed or getting headaches after
consuming Chinese food, according
to Lee.

On the heels of Kwoks letter, a

neuroscientist named John Olney
published a study on MSG in
Science. In his experiment, he
injected the additive directly into
white laboratory mice and found
that the tests caused a number of
neurological problems in his
subjects, including brain lesions or
impaired development. Taken
together, Kwoks letter and Olneys
study implicated MSG as the likely
culprit behind CRS.

But there are problems relating

Olneys experiments to human
subjects. He chose to inject mice
with MSG under their skin, whereas
the only way humans consume
MSG is by eating it, says John
Fernstrom, a professor of
psychiatry, pharmacology and
chemical biology at the University
of Pittsburgh School of Medicine,
and glutamate is largely
metabolized in the gut. You have
to read between the lines very
carefully to see when there is [a
study about] MSG-induced brain
damage, says Fernstrom, Its
always by injection.

Furthermore, Olney injected the

MSG into his mouse subjects in
doses that were actually fit for
horses far higher than what any
human would ever consume.
Anything consumed in excess is no
good, says Lee. Everything
consumed in excess could be toxic,
including MSG. However, that
being said, I have yet to see any
documented account of somebody
killing [himself] by consuming vast
quantities of MSG. It would be
extremely difficult to do.

Subsequent experiments have

helped dismantle the MSG-is-bad-
for-you theory. For instance, in one
study from 1993, researchers
tested 71 subjects for reactions to
MSG in relation to CRS, concluding
that rigorous and realistic
scientific evidence linking the
syndrome to MSG could not be

In 1999, Katherine Woessners

team conducted a single-blind,
placebo-controlled study to test the
effects of MSG on 100 asthmatic
patients (an earlier paper
suggested that asthmatics with a
sensitivity to aspirin might be
sensitive to MSG). The researchers
found that, while 30 participants
believed they had a history of CRS,
only one showed signs of reduced
lung function after exposure to
MSG. When that subject was tested
again this time in a double-blind,
placebo-controlled challenge the
test came out negative.

Then in 2000, researchers

conducted the largest double-blind,
placebo-controlled study on MSG,
consisting of 130 subjects who said
they were sensitive to the additive.
The researchers found that MSG
produced short-lasting and minor
reactions in a subset of people
but these could not be reproduced
consistently upon retesting. (Read
about more MSG-related
experiments in this peer-reviewed
essay appearing in Clinical
Correlations: The NYU Langone
Online Journal of Medicine.)

Meanwhile, the FDA calls MSG

generally recognized as safe (a
classification that the agency
originally made in 1959). On its
website, the agency writes,
Although many people identify
themselves as sensitive to MSG, in
studies with such individuals given
MSG or a placebo, scientists have
not been able to consistently
trigger reactions.

So what about Chinese food? If

you think you get a reaction to
Chinese food, maybe you do its
just not the MSG, says Fernstrom,
who is also a scientific advisor to
the International Glutamate
Technical Committee, which funds
MSG research. The thing is, there
are all kinds of spices in Chinese
food that are obviously plant-based
and people get allergic reactions
to plants.

Adds Woessner: As humans, we

like to have an explanation for
things, and we have to eat every
day, so if you arent feeling well,
she says, its normal to trace your
steps back to the last meal you ate.
But whats important to keep in
mind is, Yes, you had that meal,
yes you had those symptoms but
they're not necessarily cause and