Why MSG allergy is fake science
Source of Article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/aug/12/msg-allergy-chinese-restaurant-syndrome-myth
Our failure to differentiate between quackery and hard science has perpetuated the Chinese restaurant syndrome myth
In May this year, the medical journal Clinical & Experimental Allergy published a review of more than a decade of scientific research into "the possible role of MSG in the so-called 'Chinese restaurant syndrome'".
Chinese restaurant syndrome is the popular slang for allergies or adverse reactions that some people claim they get after eating food containing the flavour-enhancer monsodium glutamate, or MSG, that is widely used in many processed foods and also added to many Asian dishes.
What is amazing about the publication of this research is not that it concludes MSG allergy is a myth, but that a scientific journal still needs to bother debunking such pseudoscience at all. As the New York Times put it in an article by Julia Moskin published last year, "'Chinese restaurant syndrome' has been thoroughly debunked (virtually all studies since then confirm that monosodium glutamate in normal concentrations has no effect on the overwhelming majority of people)".
This newspaper published an article in 2005 by Alex Renton that says "at no time has any official body, governmental or academic, ever found it necessary to warn humans against consuming MSG".
Renton also writes about experimenting on a friend of his named Nic, who claimed to have adverse reactions to MSG: Renton feeds him a meal full of the MSG and closely related naturally occurring glutamates that are found in a huge range of foods including tomatoes, cheese, Marmite, seaweed and Worcester sauce. But Nic feels no pain or adverse reaction after his glutamate-stuffed meal.
That's because he did not know he was eating MSG and other glutamates: like everyone else who complains of allergy or adverse reactions to MSG, Nic has psyched himself into believing that the benign substance makes him feel bad.
In China, where I live, you don't hear many complaints about MSG allergy. They're too busy gorging themselves on the stuff. Chinese people consume 1.6m to 1.8m tonnes of MSG crystals every year, according to China's "MSG King" Li Xuechun, chairman of the Fufeng Group – a company that grew big enough to list on the Hong Kong stock exchange thanks to sales of MSG.
Most restaurants and home kitchens in China have a big bag of MSG crystals, known in Chinese as weijing, or "flavour essence", and they toss it liberally into all kinds of savoury dishes. Even chefs who don't use glutamate crystals use soy sauce in most recipes, and soy sauce tastes good precisely because it's chock full of glutamates.
Your clothes, your kids' toys and most of the stuff you own was probably produced in factories in southern China by migrant workers who power through their overtime shifts by eating instant noodles, of which MSG is a vital ingredient. Instant noodles form a big part of the diet of the country's more than 20 million university students, and you certainly don't hear any of them complaining about Chinese restaurant syndrome.
Nor do Italians complain about headaches after eating parmesan cheese (which tastes good because of the glutamates in it), Japanese don't worry about eating too much seaweed or dried shrimp (ditto), and even in Britain you don't often hear whining about adverse reactions to Marmite (ditto); you certainly don't get warnings from your doctor about the dangers of human breast milk to babies (ditto).
The fact is that unless you're eating bucket-loads of the stuff, MSG and its naturally occurring cousins are not going to do you any harm.
The persistence of the Chinese restaurant syndrome myth is a symptom of the hypochondria that has become fashionable in contemporary Anglo-American culture, and the failure of our educational systems to teach people the difference between quackery and hard science.
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