“Tasting the fifth” (MSG hysteria)


Before GMO was a term or a thing, before gluten was known to anyone besides dieticians, and when “organic” was a word limited to advanced chemistry classes, MSG reigned supreme in the Field of Food Fears.

While it has given way to other unfounded panics, concern over monosodium glutamate still exists and “No MSG” signs are obligatory adornments to Chinese restaurant storefronts.

Meanwhile, umami is afforded grand status and is considered a staple of the culinary in-crowd. Enterprising chefs have built lucrative careers centered on this fifth taste, which is a darling of the Food Network and similar outlets. When an Umami Burger chain opened in New York City, customers waited three hours for a table.

The fifth taste is treated as the culinary equivalent of finding the Fifth Dimension, while MSG gets kicked out like a fifth Beatle. Yet they are chemically related and umami is detected by the receptors that MSG targets. When the three-hour wait was up, customers began chomping on a burger that contained 2,185 milligrams of glutamate.

The tale began in 1908 when scientist Kikunae Ikeda pondered why a certain Japanese vegetarian soup tasted meaty. In his lab, Ikdea isolated the soup’s seaweed, dried it, and noticed that a crystalline form was developing. Tasting the crystals, he found them to be soup’s mystery flavor. Ikeda deduced that the amino acid glutamate was largely responsible for producing this distinctive flavor. He received a patent for MSG and began producing it. He named this taste umami – essentially Japanese for delicious – and salt, sweet, sour, and bitter welcomed a new member to their fraternity.  

A great flavor revolution had begun, but 60 years later, Dr. Ho Man Kwow wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine that he had experienced numbness, weakness, and heart palpitations whenever he ate at Chinese restaurants. He suggested MSG was to blame. This post hoc reasoning gave way to mass hysteria, and Chinese Restaurant Syndrome was born. Anti-MSG books were published and Chinese restaurants moved to eliminate MSG foods from their establishments.

However, a more measured response took place in the form of double blind scientific studies. And in 1993 a study showed that MSG symptoms occurred at the same rate whether a person was consuming MSG or a placebo. That was followed two years later by a report that concluded MSG is safe when “eaten at customary levels.” Then epidemiologist Matthew Freeman published a review of 40 years of MSG research and concluded that, “Clinical trials have failed to identify a consistent relationship between the consumption of MSG and the constellation of symptoms that comprise the syndrome.”

In fact, the no-MSG trend is a Western idiosyncrasy, so the Chinese would be suffering perpetual fatigue and discomfort if this phenomenon were real. Still, to avoid the MSG label and its unfounded stigma, most persons who target the umami audience will use natural glutamates instead of what Ikeda discovered. But chemically, these are the same.

There is little beyond anecdotes to suggest MSG consumption will result in unpleasant symptoms. These symptoms include headaches and other pedestrian annoyances, but for those who prefer their fears more exaggerated, we have Joseph Mercola, who claims MSG will cause brain damage that leads to ALS, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s.

He bases this on an assertion that MSG is a toxin which instigates a pathological process that damages nerve cells by excessively stimulating neurotransmitters. I could come across no science to support this, a distinction I suspect I share with Mercola.

The blogger Skeptical Raptor noted it’s possible that a microscopic percentage of the population could be at risk of negative reactions owing to the relationship between the glutamate ion and neural transmitters. But even if that were the case, it is supremely unlikely that one could consume enough MSG to cause this.

And even if that could somehow happen, the population as a whole wouldn’t need to avoid MSG any more than everyone should bypass Reese’s Pieces because a few among us have peanut allergies.



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