Monosodium glutamate (MSG), a common food additive, has been the center of health debates for decades. This flavor enhancer, known for its role in Chinese cuisine, has been mired in controversy since the late 20th century. But where did the notion that MSG is harmful originate, and what does the current science say?
Origins of the MSG Myth
It all began with a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) in 1968, penned by Dr. Howard Steel under the pseudonym Robert Ho Man Kwok. This letter, which described symptoms experienced after eating Chinese food, sparked widespread hysteria over MSG, a common additive in Asian cuisine.
Steel’s letter, written as a bet and not intended to be taken seriously, detailed symptoms like numbness and palpitation after consuming Chinese food, speculating MSG as a possible cause. What Steel didn’t anticipate was the ripple effect his letter would have. The letter not only fueled misconceptions about MSG but also reinforced underlying racial stereotypes about Chinese cuisine.
The response to Steel’s letter in subsequent NEJM issues revealed a disturbing blend of pseudo-scientific claims and racial prejudice. Many responses veered into ethnic name-calling, focusing more on the ‘foreignness’ of Chinese food rather than the chemical properties of MSG. This trend was not just confined to the medical community but was also evident in mainstream media coverage, which often uncritically accepted the notion of “Chinese-Restaurant Syndrome.”
This anecdotal claim led to a flurry of poorly controlled experiments and studies, many of which lacked scientific rigor. Early research often used excessive doses of MSG, far more than anyone would consume in a normal diet, and these studies failed to consider placebo effects or other dietary factors.
Debunking the MSG Myth
MSG is a naturally occurring substance with a distinctive savory taste, known as umami. It’s found in common foods like aged cheese and tomatoes. Despite the initial claims linking MSG to various symptoms, numerous scientific studies have debunked these myths.
One of the most comprehensive reviews by the FDA in 1995 classified MSG as “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS), echoing findings from the World Health Organization and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
Further, a study published in the Journal of Nutrition in 2000 found no significant evidence linking MSG to negative health effects in the general population. This research, among others, highlights that when consumed in typical amounts found in foods, MSG is harmless for the majority of people.
Current Understanding and Recommendations
Today, most scientists agree that MSG is safe for the general population. While a very small number of individuals might experience mild symptoms, such as headaches or flushing, these are rare and usually associated with large doses of MSG.
Nutritionists emphasize that MSG should be treated like any other seasoning—a little can enhance flavor, but it doesn’t need to be a staple in every meal. Balance and moderation are key in a healthy diet.
The Lingering Effects of Misinformation
Despite scientific evidence to the contrary, the stigma around MSG persists. Surveys indicate a significant portion of the population still actively avoids MSG, influenced more by cultural narratives and misconceptions than scientific fact. This ongoing stigma is a testament to the enduring power of myths and the need for greater scientific literacy.
The Reveal: A Hoax That Went Too Far
The most astonishing twist in the MSG story came when Professor Jennifer LeMesurier, researching the topic, uncovered the true origins of the NEJM letter. Howard Steel, later confessing to the hoax, expressed regret over the unintended consequences of his actions. Steel’s admission serves as a reminder of the ethical responsibilities inherent in scientific communication and the complex interplay between culture, prejudice, and science.