Maria Konnikova of the New Yorker, also author of the book Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, has a biweekly program on Slate called “Is that Bullshit?” where the plain truth about science and cures are investigated and then confirmed or debunked. Two days ago it touched on monosodium glutamate or MSG, which has been believed to be unhealthy for us, the one blamed for dizziness and drowsiness after eating Chinese food, sometimes even called “the silent killer” since it allegedly damages our brains. But is all that true?
MSG is a sodium or salt of glutamic acid, one of the non-essential amino acids. It occurs naturally in food like tomatoes, seaweed, Parmesan cheese, and mushrooms—pretty much anything that has the umami taste. MSG is responsible for that flavor, hence has been used as an additive in food to enhance its taste. It’s been used since the 1970s, and all was well until there was a report on a “Chinese restaurant syndrome”—the chest tightens, the breath shortens, the tongue swells after eating Chinese food which usually has MSG.
There have been tests to see if MSG was safe, and scientists found that it was cancerous to rats in very high doses. In 1987 food commissions around the world thoroughly studied MSG’s effect in rats, dogs, and humans, and they discovered that sometimes MSG can have a bad effect, but only when taken in “ridiculously high doses. For humans, it basically made no sense.” Maria reasons “No one would ever have something in that dose.”
The same food commissions did a follow-up research, but this time with a normal dose of MSG. They saw that it had no bad effect whatsoever. Maria reports that “it’s only if you swallow MSG as a standalone pill that things go wrong.”
What about those people who say they’re feeling a bit unwell after eating Chinese food? Maria says it’s because of the mass delusion over MSG. It’s a psychosomatic reaction: If you’ve been told about the effect of eating food with MSG, you’d think (maybe even worry) you’d get it and then you actually do. It’s much like eating something really delicious and finding out after you finish your food that it’s made of disgusting stuff that you’ll want to throw up. Some of our reactions are caused by our thoughts: “You can make your heart rate elevated and make your blood pressure go up.”
All that said, it seems that MSG is not something to worry about. “We metabolize MSG efficiently,” Maria says. Conclusion? MSG in food being bad for you is, in her words, “bullshit.”
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