Those nasty chemical additives

If MSG is so bad for you, why doesn’t everyone in Asia have a headache? Alex Renton takes up the story at the guardian. It is about the stuff we eat and the desire to have it ‘pure’ – especially from anything man made. The title illustrates the basic conundrum: how can we prove its bad when its bad effects are only in those who think it bad?

the Japanese – like most Asians, they have no fear of MSG. And there lies one of the world’s great food scare conundrums.

By 1909 the work on kombu was complete. Ikeda made his great announcement in the august pages of the Journal of the Chemical Society of Tokyo. He had isolated, he wrote, a chemical with the molecular formula C5H9NO4. This and the substance’s other properties were exactly the same as those of glutamic acid, an amino acid produced by the human body and present in many foodstuffs. When the protein containing glutamic acid is broken down – by cooking, fermentation or ripening – it becomes glutamate.

MSG arrived in America at a key moment. Mass production of processed food was booming. But canning, freezing and pre-cooking have a grave technical problem in common – loss of flavour. And MSG was a cheap and simple additive that made everything taste better.

But MSG’s conquest of the planet hit a major bump in April 1968, when, in the New England Journal of Medicine, a Dr Ho Man Kwok wrote a chatty article, not specifically about MSG, whose knock-on effects were to panic the food industry.

And so was born Chinese restaurant syndrome (CRS) and a medico-academic industry dedicated to the researching and publicising of the dangers of MSG – the foreign migrant contaminating American kitchens.

Other scientists were testing MSG and finding no evidence of harm

Others say that fear of MSG is a form of mass psychosis – you suffer the symptoms you’ve been told to worry about.

The fact is that, since the eighties, mainstream science has got bored of MSG.

popular opinion has travelled – spectacularly – in the opposite direction to science.

Thus since 1968 the processed food industry has had its own nasty headache as a result of MSG. Hundreds of processed products would have to be withdrawn if amino-acid based flavour-enhancers could not be used. They would become, simply, tasteless. By the 1980s a third of all Americans believed it was actively harmful. Crisp-buying teenagers thought MSG made them stupid and spotty. Mothers read that MSG could put holes in their children’s brains.

So the food industry employed its usual tactic in the face of consumer criticism: MSG was buried by giving it new names. The industry came up with a fabulous range of euphemisms for monosodium glutamate – the most cheeky of all is ‘natural flavourings’ (however, the industry did remove MSG from high-end baby foods).

Nowadays the industry’s PR beats a big drum. ‘Natural, Tasty, Safe’ is the slogan. ‘Many people believe that monosodium glutamate is made from chemicals

The anti-additive movement (check out the excellent and informative admits that ‘natural’ and ‘industrially produced’ glutamate are chemically the same, and treated by the body similarly. So why doesn’t anyone ever complain of a headache or hyperactivity after a four cheese and tomato pizza (where there’s easily as much glutamate as in an MSG-enhanced chicken chow mein)?

Let’s see: Alarmism out of the sixties? Check. Misanthropic flavor? Check. Little or no empirical support? Check. Save the children fear mongering? Check. Make life more miserable? Check.

There are many of these issues and food scares are only one category. It should be a study in its own right. Perhaps it is?

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