The MSG Files, Part V: Public Relations

Hello, and welcome to Part V, the final installment of The MSG Files! Now, I realize this is a science blog, but to wrap up the series I wanted to write a post about the public perceptions surrounding MSG. The MSG controversy fascinates me because of its persistence and breadth. Crusaders on both sides of the debate assert their opinions with heated conviction, and somewhere in the crossfire, science and policy get implicated.

A cartoon displayed on the Truth in Labeling campaign’s website. Incidentally, fortune cookies have their origins in America, not China.

The allegations against MSG are lengthy and, frankly, quite terrifying. One of the most outspoken critics of MSG is Carol Hoernlein, a former food process development engineer who runs the site MSGTruth.org. On the home page of her website, Hoernlein explains that her experience working with food industry giants had exposed her to ugly truths about MSG that she could not share due to secrecy agreements with her employers. Now that she no longer works for food companies, she has resolved to spread the word about the hazards of MSG.

Among the information on her page, Hoernlein links MSG to 29 health conditions, including Alzheimer’s, asthma, autism, epilepsy, diabetes, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, pituitary tumors, and vision problems. One danger of MSG, explains Hornlein, is the formation of D-glutamate contaminants in the manufacturing process, the consequences of which are unknown (see Part II for an explanation of L- versus D-glutamate). She also states concern that excess amounts of L-glutamate, the form that’s physiologically relevant to humans, may contribute to neurological diseases by tipping the balance of neurotransmitters in our bodies. In response to the scientific consensus that MSG is a safe food additive, Hoernlein argues that many of these studies are funded by the food industry.

Another prominent opponent of MSG is the Truth in Labeling campaign. The tag line on their webpage states, “This Web site is dedicated to people with problems that once defied medical diagnosis — people who discovered that elimination of MSG from their diets let them be well.” Truth in Labeling characterizes MSG as a neurotoxin that plays a role in “gross obesity, stunted growth, reproductive disorders, learning disabilities, behavior disorders, and retinal degeneration (possibly leading to blindness)”, as well as “a number of pathological conditions” that include stroke, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The campaign invalidates scientific claims of MSG’s harmlessness by maintaining that such research has “always been financed, directly or indirectly, by the glutamate industry”, and further accuses the FDA of sleeping with said industry.

Books like “Excitotoxins: The Taste that Kills” catalyzed public fears surrounding MSG.

There have also been books written about the perils of MSG. Examples include Excitotoxins: The Taste that Kills, and In Bad Taste: The MSG Symptom Complex, both of which were penned by M.D.’s.

Now I don’t know about you, but hearing these charges against glutamate makes me want to eat nothing but raw vegetables for the rest of my life. The suggestion that glutamate might cause this slew of maladies is enough to make many people quit MSG cold-turkey, just to be safe. It’s no wonder that MSG has become so notorious in the public consciousness.

MSG fell from great heights. It went from being the processed food industry’s golden child to their biggest headache. By the 1980′s, a couple decades after MSG’s ascent in the US, a third of all Americans believed that MSG posed a health hazard. The hysteria sent the processed food industry scrambling to find a solution to their woes. MSG was the reason their products tasted good, and if glutamic acid-derived food additives became taboo, they would have problems.

Their solution was to disguise MSG in an avalanche of new names, including euphemisms like seasonings, spices, and natural flavors. Since then, the MSG industry has developed its own counter- campaign, touting the safety and benefits of using MSG.

MSG usage can be disguised behind vague labels, such as “natural flavors”. If you believe you are sensitive to MSG, it’s a good idea to educate yourself about MSG’s many alternative names.

The MSG industry’s PR tactics include emphasizing the fact that glutamate is produced naturally in our bodies and many commonly-encountered foods, and pointing out that the glutamate in MSG is chemically identical to that in natural sources. Ajinomoto has adopted the slogan “Eat Well, Live Well”.

There are even claims of potential health benefits to using MSG. Some suggest using MSG to reduce excessive sodium intake that can cause strokes and heart attacks. Proponents of this argue that MSG can greatly enhance the flavor of low-salt foods, and only needs to be used in small amounts. They maintain that, since MSG contains less sodium by mass, using it in place of regular table salt can reduce the sodium content of foods by up to 40% without sacrificing palatability.

Others have proposed benefits of MSG for both newborns and the elderly. A recent study found that adding glutamate to baby formula curbed overfeeding, and suggests that the glutamate acts as a signal to let babies know when they are full. This, of course, has implications for mothers who are worried about the higher rates of weight gain in formula-fed babies. Other studies suggest that applying MSG to meals helps stimulate the appetite of undernourished people, such as the sick or elderly.

Some restaurants, such as LA-based “Umami Burger”, have developed and thrived around the umami concept.

Health benefits aside, umami has also become a trend in some culinary circles. Restaurants have embraced the umami concept. You can find one such dining experience at the LA-based Umami Burger, which features burgers loaded with glutamate-rich ingredients like shiitake mushrooms, caramelized onions, roasted tomatoes, parmesan cheese, and ketchup. Umami Burger’s owner, Adam Fleischman, has had so much success that he has opened several umami-themed restaurants throughout California, including his latest Umamicatessen, a re-imagination of the standard American food court. There’s also Umami Café, in Westchester, NY, which serves dishes like “dumplings drizzled with a sweet soy and sriracha glaze”, “broiled cod with sweet onion miso”, and bratwurst with “spicy curry ketchup”. Some high-profile, celebrity chefs have also promoted umami. One example is Heston Blumenthal, an English chef and owner of the restaurant The Fat Duck, who wrote an article for The Guardian entitled My heart belongs to umami. There’s even the Umami Food & Art Festival, which is held in New York and seeks to explore the scope of food as an artistic medium.

And while MSG may get a bad rep in the States, its has been met with increasing adoration in Asia. In 2000, an article in the New York Times covered MSG’s booming popularity in China. “MSG is a cultural Rorscach test”, the article describes, “Mention it to Americans and their minds jump immediately to ‘Chinese restaurant syndrome’, a malady of after-dinner headaches, flushing and dizziness for which MSG has long been blamed. But for Chinese it conjures up different images: mouth-watering stir-fried spinach or the perfect shark’s fin soup.” According to the article, an estimated 95% of restaurants and 70% of households used MSG daily in 2000. And many believe MSG to have health-enhancing properties, such as improvement of mental alertness and prevention of constipation. What might explain this enormous disparity in public image? For Chinese consumers, the demonization of MSG in the West is baffling. One commonly-held belief is that Chinese restaurant syndrome was a manufactured problem, propagated by Western restaurant owners who wanted to dampen the success of Chinese restaurants.

Many Chinese restaurants put up “NO MSG” signs to assuage the concerns of their customers, not all too dissimilar from Chinese restaurants that had to hang signs proclaiming “We are a real restaurant, not an opium den” in the early 1900s.

In 2009, a Social History of Medicine study argued that Chinese restaurant syndrome was, “at its core, a product of a racialised discourse”. Ian Mosby, the author of the study, concluded that for many people, MSG poisoning validated larger suspicions about ethnic foods and exotic cooking practices. One of the most compelling arguments that Mosby presents is the fact that “MSG symptom complex” primarily stigmatized Chinese food, while popular American brands (i.e. Campbell’s, Kraft, and Lipton) and fast food restaurants (i.e. KFC, Burger King, Wendy’s, and McDonalds) continued to use MSG without recrimination. He concludes that MSG-associated symptoms “retained a quite specific ‘foreign’ identity well after the additive had become thoroughly Americanized”.

Another article, published in the Asian-American magazine Hyphen, highlights the hypocrisy of people who eat American fast food, or foods like parmesan that are naturally rich in glutamate, without qualms, but approach Chinese food with wariness. The article also compares Chinese restaurant syndrome with the yellow-peril hysteria of the 19th century and prevailing suspicions in the early 20th century that Chinese businesses were fronts for opium dens. “For many years, the US food industry has let independent Chinese American restaurants take the flack for MSG, while MSG’s usage by other entities goes largely unnoticed and uncontested”, the article points out.

The hypocrisy of “Chinese restaurant syndrome” might best be illustrated by the following anecdote from an article that was published in The Guardian in 2005. The article’s author, Alex Renton, had a friend who claimed that the food from a Japanese restaurant gave him strange tingling sensations until he asked them to stop putting MSG in his dishes. Renton then served his friend two salads that were identical except for the fact that one of them contained MSG-coated tomatoes. Renton withheld this information from his friend, telling him instead that one of salads had “organic” tomatoes, while the other contained “factory-farmed” tomatoes. After sampling the salads, they both concluded that the salad with “organic” tomatoes tasted better – this was, of course, the salad containing MSG.

Concerns about MSG have opened people’s eyes to the corruption of giant food corporations, and contributed to the rise of organic food and consumer power movements.

Today, the MSG debate remains hot and heavy. After combing through the literature, I don’t believe MSG poses any threat to human health as a food additive (as becomes readily apparent in Parts I-IV). That being said, I haven’t seen anything to convince me that MSG lends mental clarity or regular bowel movements to its consumers either.

However pejorative the term “Chinese restaurant syndrome” may be, I do appreciate that the crusade against MSG has spurred consumers to read the fine print and take steps to learn about the ingredients in their food. At the risk of invoking “ends justifies the means”, I believe that it is productive and important to hold food industry giants accountable, and to approach industry-sponsored science with skepticism. For all of the false claims attached to the MSG controversy, it has informed other valuable campaigns, such as the organic food and consumer power movements — and that’s not a bad thing.

I’ve learned that MSG is a cheap shortcut that makes junk foods irresistibly delicious and addicting. The good news is, it can also make real foods taste better. Umami is present in plenty of foods that are actually good for us — such as cheeses, tomatoes, and mushrooms. Understanding the way glutamate works can help us use it — whether it be through MSG or natural sources — as a tool for new creative possibilities in crafting tasty, healthy, and wholesome dishes. In the end, MSG is just like any other spice in our cabinets — adding a pinch of it here and there can bring new facets of deliciousness to our food.

References used throughout “The MSG Files” (Check embedded hyperlinks for specific works cited):

‘That Won-Ton Soup Headache’: The Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, MSG and the Making of American Food, 1968-1980 by Ian Mosby

If MSG is so bad for you, why doesn’t everyone in Asia have a headache? by Alex Renton

Glutamate. Its applications in food and contribution to health. by Jinap S, Hajeb P

Monosodium glutamate and the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome: a review of food additive safety by Patricia Taliaferro

Nutritional Genomics: Impact on Health and Disease by Regina Brigelius-Flohé, Hans-Georg Joost

Glutamate: The Purest Taste of Umami by the International Glutamate Information Service

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