Also known as Chinese restaurant syndrome, many people claim adverse reactions after eating food containing the flavor enhancer ‘monosodium glutamate‘. Some people claim they experience headaches, stomachaches or muscle spasms after consuming the flavor enhancer. One reader wanted to know if there was any truth to it. Her email was short and simple – she asked, “Is the MSG allergy a myth?”
Science Has The Final Word
According to virtually all published scientific studies done over the last 20 years, the answer is a resounding ‘No‘. In controlled tests with people who claim to have an allergy, the studies confirm that MSG in normal concentrations has no effect on the overwhelming majority of people.
A study done by Dr. Nicholas Maragakis and Dr. Jeffrey Rothstein posted in the Journal of Neurology called “Glutamate Transporters in Neurologic Disease”, found no connection to claims of neurological damage or migraines from even large quantities of MSG.
Yet another study by Dr. Stevenson called “Monosodium glutamate and asthma” (J. Nutr. 130: 1067S-1073S) found no connection with MSG increasing or worsening asthma.
And most recently last year, an article in the medical journal Clinical & Experimental Allergy reported that after more than a decade of study, no connection between MSG and allergies were found.
How did the MSG myth begin?
It largely began when a Chinese-American physician wrote a letter to The New England Journal of Medicine and said that he had experienced “numbness, palpitations and weakness” for 2 hours after eating at a Chinese restaurant in the US. He wondered whether the MSG used by cooks here might be to blame. Because China, at the time, rarely used MSG in their dishes. The consequences of the letter were immediate and large in scale. MSG, a common flavor enhancer and preservative with widespread use since the 1950s, was even tagged as a toxin. It was removed from most products and driven underground, used only in natural and whole foods.
In the mid 1970s, MSG worked it’s way back onto supermarket shelves, under assumed names: hydrolyzed proteins, yeast extracts, protein concentrates and other additives that were not labeled as MSG. But according to nutritionists and the United States Department of Agriculture, are essentially the same thing: synthetically produced glutamates.
The continuance of the Chinese restaurant syndrome myth is certainly fashionable in contemporary Anglo-American culture. It’s a failure of our educational systems to not teach people the difference between science and myth.
Bonus Fact: MSG occurs naturally in many foods. It can be found in most meats, wheat, spinach, corn, tomatoes and milk.