My quip about monosodium glutamate last week earned me several emails. Readers have been commenting that if MSG is so darn happy-making, why does it cause people to feel ill, itchy, depressed, nervous or hyperactive, and cause headaches, rashes, ADD, asthma, redness of the face, chest pains, seizures, anaphylactic shock, strokes and brain tumors? The answer, painful as it will be for some out there to hear, is that the overwhelming scientific evidence is that MSG does none of those things.
Now I want all of you who are about to send me articles about “independent studies” that link MSG to irritable bowel syndrome and fibromyalgia to push away from your keyboards and take some deep breaths.
Because — and please hear me out on this — the reality is that no major scientific body that has studied MSG seriously has ever found a connection between MSG and any of the health problems that are routinely attributed to it. Let me put that another way because it’s important: of all the academic labs and governmental food agencies that have studied MSG, up to and including the U.S. (which has evaluated it three times, in 1958, 1991 and 1998), Japan, Australia, Great Britain, the EU and the United Nations…in fact every nation on Earth that has a food licensing body…not one of them has ever turned up any evidence that MSG is bad for you.
Why might that be? Most probably because glutamate, a protein building block that is fundamental to life on Earth, is everywhere around us. It’s in our own bodies (we manufacture some 40 grams of it each day). It abounds in human breast milk. It’s found in virtually all food, but notably in tomatoes, mushrooms and seaweed.
It occurs in especially large quantities in anything fermented, including cheese, bread, beer, wine, pickles, olives, cured meats and sausages, soy and Worchestershire sauces. And why is that? Because the yeasts and bacteria that are present in fermenting cultures eat protein molecules, and in their mad rush to digest them they leave a lot of detritus lying around, much of which is free glutamate.
Aha, you might say. Glutamate is different from monosodium glutamate. In fact no, there is no meaningful difference. Monosodium glutamate is what you get when you stir glutamate together with water and table salt, which is done by commercial processors to make glutamate crystals that dissolve easier in food.
But then why do so many people complain of adverse physical effects when they consume MSG? That phenomenon itself has been studied and there are many hypotheses. One of them is the so-called “placebo effect”, whereby people who have been mentally conditioned to expect physical symptoms from eating a certain substance actually do, despite the fact that there’s no actual, physiological cause. Another that I find even more convincing is that so-called “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” (CRS) is actually the result of allergic reactions to other ingredients in Chinese food, like peanuts, exotic fungi or shellfish.
Ultimately there may be no explanation for what is essentially a popular phenomenon in the West. For indeed hundreds of millions of people in the East consume MSG daily without incidence of itchiness, depression, nervousness, hyperactivity, headaches, rashes, ADD, asthma, redness of the face, chest pains, seizures, anaphylactic shock, strokes or brain tumors.
Please make no mistake, those of you who are about to write me angry letters, it’s not that I don’t believe that you or your family member or friend ever suffered after eating at a Chinese restaurant (or consuming something with MSG in it). I believe something genuinely unpleasant happened. The preponderance of evidence, though, is that it wasn’t the MSG that caused it. So please consider not sending me that nasty note you’re even now composing in your head…pretty, pretty please?