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August 19, 2013 10:43 AM   Subscribe

"The Notorious MSG’s Unlikely Formula For Success: The umami craze has turned a much-maligned and misunderstood food additive into an object of obsession for the world’s most innovative chefs. But secret ingredient monosodium glutamate’s biggest secret may be that there was never anything wrong with it at all."
posted by arcolz (276 comments total) 58 users marked this as a favorite

 
It was all a dream
I used to read Saveur magazine
posted by Teakettle at 10:52 AM on August 19, 2013 [34 favorites]


I've always wondered if all those Asian restaurants that felt that they had to put up the "No MSG" signs in order not to scare away white customers actually cut out the MSG or if they just rolled their eyes, put up the signs and kept on using MSG. I've always kinda hoped the latter (given that MSG sensitivity is a totally fake made-up thing and not a real condition).
posted by yoink at 10:54 AM on August 19, 2013 [15 favorites]


shit gave me a terrible migraine once. never had one again. ate chinese with my cousin, and i was in terrible pain 10 minutes later.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:56 AM on August 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


Salt & pepper
And heavy cream up in the 'vide machine
posted by penduluum at 10:58 AM on August 19, 2013 [11 favorites]


Innovative chefs are now using extra sugar, extra salt, extra oil and MSG.
posted by orme at 10:59 AM on August 19, 2013 [43 favorites]


Dang I was hoping to get here before someone posted about MSG giving them a headache. From the fine article
Once the story was out, people began to self-diagnose as being sensitive to MSG. In several double-blind studies that administered either dosages of MSG or placebo to people who already claimed to experience “Chinese restaurant syndrome,” no statistically relevant increase in symptoms has been identified with those given real MSG over those given a placebo.
You know in your heart the world is flat.
posted by Nelson at 11:00 AM on August 19, 2013 [58 favorites]


My favorite part about this piece of pseudo-journalism is when the writer hand-waved away the industry's funding of safety research.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:01 AM on August 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


shit gave me a terrible migraine once. never had one again. ate chinese with my cousin, and i was in terrible pain 10 minutes later.

I don't doubt you had a migraine 10 minutes after eating some Chinese food, but I'd wager very large sums of money it wasn't caused by MSG. You consume pretty large quantities of naturally occurring MSG in many everyday food items; if you've only ever had one migraine and you aren't already on a very restrictive diet, it's pretty safe to conclude your one migraine wasn't caused by MSG.
posted by yoink at 11:01 AM on August 19, 2013 [22 favorites]


"shit gave me a terrible migraine once. never had one again. ate chinese with my cousin, and i was in terrible pain 10 minutes later."

So people who report the same symptoms you do are, in aggregate, significantly unable to tell the difference between MSG and a placebo when given in a proper double blind setting and there is no plausible mechanism by which MSG could have done this to you.
posted by Blasdelb at 11:01 AM on August 19, 2013 [23 favorites]


(given that MSG sensitivity is a totally fake made-up thing and not a real condition)
I must be sensitive to single salt molecules, then, if not the G of MSG. Though there are others in my family who do have a more severe reaction including hospitalization.

Be that as it may, I nearly closed the link once I saw it was buzzfeed. Once in a while they do write something that isn't a schtick list, but not often enough. Need a sub site, maybe , or just put them all on Cracked.com.

on preview: I'd sign up for a double blind study of MSG, Blasdelb!
posted by tilde at 11:02 AM on August 19, 2013


Cheese powder, Kentucky Fried Chicken, many types of cold cuts, canned soups, soy sauce, and hundreds of other processed foods

AKA, pretty much a bingo card for the stuff that leaves me with red, patchy, rashy eyes. Doubters gonna doubt, though.
posted by mochapickle at 11:07 AM on August 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


One thing I find fascinating about umami flavor is the way it was used in Western dishes for so long before it was identified as a flavor agent. Worcestershire sauce, mushroom stock, mushrooms, aged dry cheese, stewed tomatoes, anchovies, beef stock. All delicious foods with a long Western culinary tradition, all tasty in large part because of their umami note. It's fascinating to me that European cooks figured out how to use these flavors without having language to describe it other than a vague "savoury".
posted by Nelson at 11:07 AM on August 19, 2013 [31 favorites]


on preview: I'd sign up for a double blind study of MSG, Blasdelb!


It's like the Pepsi Challenge of food additives up in here. (I am totally okay with that -- get going, science-types!)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 11:09 AM on August 19, 2013


Innovative chefs are now using extra sugar, extra salt, extra oil and MSG.

You go ahead and fry a fucking stapler in that and I'll still eat it.
posted by griphus at 11:09 AM on August 19, 2013 [67 favorites]


The studies have been done over and over and over and over again. Just as with people who are "sensitive" to WiFi hotspots and so forth, when they're actually put in controlled circumstances, their symptoms are independent of exposure to the supposed toxin (unless we're talking about massive doses you would never find in a real-world dining experience).

If you have an "allergy" to MSG you should find it being triggered every time you eat meat, fish, cheese, tomatoes (especially dried tomatoes and tomato sauces etc.). You should also be "allergic" to your own body which produces glutamates all by its clever little self. Basically "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome" should also have been triggered by every dish of spaghetti bolognese ever served at every Italian restaurant in the world. The fact that people with "MSG allergies" associated these symptoms solely with Asian restaurants is sufficient in itself to tell us that this was a cultural panic and not a medical condition.
posted by yoink at 11:14 AM on August 19, 2013 [99 favorites]


It's fascinating to me that European cooks figured out how to use these flavors without having language to describe it other than a vague "savoury".

The ancient Greeks lacked a word for umami, but attempted to describe it through metaphor in phrases like "the wine-dark fried chicken".
posted by Greg Nog at 11:15 AM on August 19, 2013 [171 favorites]


I love in Japan how many restaurants have a big MSG shaker on the table. Nothing wrong with the stuff at all (although everything in moderation).
posted by KokuRyu at 11:15 AM on August 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


As someone who was raised thinking that everything from oat bran to bacon and eggs to artificial anything was going to kill me if I so much as breathed on it, and who to this day still gets a lecture from my mother about what will kill you every time I eat with her, I love this kind of shit.
posted by sockerpup at 11:15 AM on August 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


"on preview: I'd sign up for a double blind study of MSG, Blasdelb!"

With a volunteer and at least two enthusiastic confederates as well as at least two plates of food served at a time, a double blind randomized control study is straight forward enough to put together! Keeping everything truly double blinded throughout the whole series of experiments needed would require some slightly obsessive attention to it. However, MSG is safe and could be put into a pharmaceutical capsule opposite stoichiometric masses of salt, obviating the need for cooking, or would be easy enough to hide in an especially bitter dish or drink.

This would also be an especially cool kind of project to get kids involved in and I'd love to help anyone interested develop a protocol at whatever level of scientific/statistical knowledge you happen to be at.
posted by Blasdelb at 11:17 AM on August 19, 2013 [9 favorites]


the stuff that leaves me with red, patchy, rashy eyes. Doubters gonna doubt, though.

You know... peanuts and pollen do the same to me, but I don't think it's my place to petition against their use.
posted by Blue_Villain at 11:17 AM on August 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


The studies have been done over and over and over and over again.

Then by all means, cite them. And yeah, I get the same issue with Italian.
posted by mochapickle at 11:17 AM on August 19, 2013


I love in Japan how many restaurants have a big MSG shaker on the table.

Still one of the single best impulse-buys I ever made.
posted by griphus at 11:18 AM on August 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


It's fascinating to me that European cooks figured out how to use these flavors without having language to describe it other than a vague "savoury".

English, at least, has a really terrible vocabulary for talking about tastes. Using smells and comparisons to other foods will get you part of the way there, but there's a lot of food that's hard to describe because English just doesn't give you the tools. Borrowing umami, inventing words like "mouthfeel", and a whole bunch of that pretentious wine-tasting stuff is just trying to grapple with the problem.
posted by Copronymus at 11:19 AM on August 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


I used to get MSG headaches, but I've cured them by drinking an after dinner cup of tea made with colloidal silver and having a reikki session.
posted by Drinky Die at 11:22 AM on August 19, 2013 [61 favorites]


I put a fingertip of crystals to my tongue before dropping them into the pan. From birth, Americans know salt is salty and sugar is sweet, but for this peculiar taste of umami on its own, we have no context.

When I first bought a big container of MSG, I did the same thing! It was a definite taste, but I found I could only describe it by saying, "It kind of makes me want to move my tongue all around the inside of my teeth. In a good way!"

I don't usually use it directly, though I do tend to add Miso paste to any vegetarian food I make that I think could stand to be more savory.
posted by Greg Nog at 11:22 AM on August 19, 2013


Pam: So... what are you snorting off me?
Krieger: Ah, it's mostly MSG.
Pam: The flava enhancer!
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 11:23 AM on August 19, 2013 [7 favorites]


Then by all means, cite them.

Here's a fairly recent metastudy of the myriad studies that have been done. Conclusion: no one has ever been able to find any consistent sensitivity to MSG.
posted by yoink at 11:24 AM on August 19, 2013 [30 favorites]


Blasdelb: This would also be an especially cool kind of project to get kids involved in and I'd love to help anyone interested develop a protocol at whatever level of scientific/statistical knowledge you happen to be at.
Yeah, I was just thinking that. I've got some kids, gelcaps, and time next week ... me and the kids may just do that as a "stave off boredom" before school opens for the fall session in a few weeks ..
posted by tilde at 11:24 AM on August 19, 2013


I am curious though... since I'm too lazy to look it up myself... but if the anti-msg mantra was originally an anti-Asian thing. Not saying that the current reporters of the allergic reaction are racist, but since the complaint seems to be mainly against Asian foods and less so against the actual contents themselves, it would seem to follow that the people who originally reported it simply didn't like how they felt after multitudes of food and only reported it against those of a certain ethic background.

I mean, until we get some more of those aforementioned double blind studies... I'm placing this one a whole lot closer to Morgellons than Legionnaires, and chalking this one up to the xenophobes.
posted by Blue_Villain at 11:25 AM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


English, at least, has a really terrible vocabulary for talking about tastes.

Interesting. Why would English, in particular, be devoid of flavor vocabulary?

Besides the obvious, I guess.
posted by notyou at 11:25 AM on August 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


Here you go!

That was the very first link I got in a search of "MSG double-blind study." There are lots more. When anecdata butts heads with data, the anecdote loses. While it is entirely possible that something in there is causing headaches, skin rashes, red eyes, clairvoyance, or ball lightning, the evidence suggests that it's not the MSG.

Interesting. Why would English, in particular, be devoid of flavor vocabulary?
Nah, too easy.
posted by 1adam12 at 11:26 AM on August 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


I used to think I was MSG sensitive, and then we did a whole bunch of food elimination to try to figure out what was making both my husband and I chronically unwell.

Turns out I'm mildly-moderately soy sensitive instead (which is a really common allergy). And if you eat a lot of Asian and/or processed food, especially vegetarian stuff, that shit is in EVERY. THING.
posted by lonefrontranger at 11:27 AM on August 19, 2013 [43 favorites]


When I worked in China and friends taught me home-style cooking, we'd always use MSG.

I've often wondered why, if MSG is in fact such a dietary trigger, we don't see tons and tons of MSG syndrome in Asia.

I find all this cook tough-talk hilarious - the "and people would eat the shit out of it" quote in particular was spectacularly infelicitous in reference to food. It's as though there's some pressure to prove that cooking is in fact macho, challenging and manly, and so it's important to be all "fucking" this and "shit" or else people will think you're some kind of, you know, girl or something.
posted by Frowner at 11:27 AM on August 19, 2013 [12 favorites]


Yoink, thanks for the link. I'll take a look.
posted by mochapickle at 11:28 AM on August 19, 2013


Interesting. Why would English, in particular, be devoid of flavor vocabulary?
Nah, too easy.


I agree. Making jokes about the quality of English food is really overdone and tasteless.
posted by griphus at 11:28 AM on August 19, 2013 [119 favorites]


Interesting. Why would English, in particular, be devoid of flavor vocabulary?

Craig Kliborn: And finally, why does British food suck? Is there a reason for that, John?

John Cleese: We had an empire to run!

posted by Greg Nog at 11:29 AM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


From Mind of a Chef on PBS (which you should be watching on netflix): Harold McGee on MSG
posted by Nomiconic at 11:30 AM on August 19, 2013 [11 favorites]


I find all this cook tough-talk hilarious

That's just how David Chang talks, to make a name for himself in the vein of Bourdain and other celebrity chefs.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:30 AM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


When I first bought a big container of MSG, I did the same thing! It was a definite taste, but I found I could only describe it by saying, "It kind of makes me want to move my tongue all around the inside of my teeth. In a good way!"

Huh. The one time I tried pure MSG (when I was 8 or 9) I thought it tasted super weird/gross, though I also knew that it made food taste super delicious. I just figured it was one of those magical cooking transformation things. My parents would only use MSG in food being cooked, not as an additive afterwards.
posted by kmz at 11:30 AM on August 19, 2013


I never noticed a problem with Asian food, but I tend to ignore everything that isn’t really bad. But I quit eating Doritos 25 years ago because they would make me go crazy itching and twitching. Maybe it was just all the salt?
posted by bongo_x at 11:30 AM on August 19, 2013


yoink: "The studies have been done over and over and over and over again. Just as with people who are "sensitive" to WiFi hotspots and so forth, when they're actually put in controlled circumstances, their symptoms are independent of exposure to the supposed toxin (unless we're talking about massive doses you would never find in a real-world dining experience).

If you have an "allergy" to MSG you should find it being triggered every time you eat meat, fish, cheese, tomatoes (especially dried tomatoes and tomato sauces etc.). You should also be "allergic" to your own body which produces glutamates all by its clever little self. Basically "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome" should also have been triggered by every dish of spaghetti bolognese ever served at every Italian restaurant in the world. The fact that people with "MSG allergies" associated these symptoms solely with Asian restaurants is sufficient in itself to tell us that this was a cultural panic and not a medical condition.
"

It gives me migraines when ingested in large enough quantities. My allergist says it's a salt reaction, and not a legitimate allergy, per se. Until I found my current allergist, several professionals had told me it was an allergy and to simply avoid MSG. Which is practically impossible.

Interestingly enough a couple of food allergies for which I've been tested also give me migraines. But I've had similar reactions over the years from a variety of foods that contain msg like certain tomato sauces (which you mention,) some kinds of fried breading, soy, a few soups and some kinds of processed cheese. None of which I test as allergic to, but which definitely prompted a reaction.
posted by zarq at 11:31 AM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]



Interesting. Why would English, in particular, be devoid of flavor vocabulary?


No no no, it's because flavor is suspiciously close to a form of pleasure and we can't have that.
posted by The Whelk at 11:31 AM on August 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's a tiny, unimportant side note, but the article mentions that "Bitter is caused by acetic acid". Does anyone know whether that's true? It seems very counter-intuitive to me. I was always taught that acids are sour, and that bitterness is usually a sign of bases or alkalis.

tilde - on preview: I'd sign up for a double blind study of MSG, Blasdelb!
Randomise Me is a really nice tool set up to help non-scientists run and interpret RCTs at home. You need a few hours, a handful of friends to participate with you, and a jar of MSG from your local Chinese supermarket. Blasdelb's suggestion of salt or sugar in a capsule seems like a good control. I'd be genuinely fascinated to see your results.

yoink - If you have an "allergy" to MSG you should find it being triggered every time you eat meat, fish, cheese, tomatoes (especially dried tomatoes and tomato sauces etc.).

While the evidence from controlled trials is undeniably compelling, I thought it was pretty odd that the article didn't mention anything about relative doses. It's all very well saying that tomatoes contain MSG and therefore it's fine, but without comparing that to how much MSG you get in a typical meal it's not terribly useful. After all, almonds contain cyanide and my stomach produces sulphuric acid, but I wouldn't recommend either as a garnish.

(Yes, I'm being picky. I get unduly irritated when people defend sensible positions with poor arguments)
posted by metaBugs at 11:31 AM on August 19, 2013 [15 favorites]


So MSG really stands for "Magical Salty Goodness".
posted by Mister_A at 11:33 AM on August 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


if the anti-msg mantra was originally an anti-Asian thing

Eh, I'm not sure about that. It's more "anti-science" or "anti-technology" I think: "MSG" sounds like a scary thing cooked up in the lab (like "High Fructose Corn Syrup"). "OMG, people are adding this ARTIFICIAL science-goop to my food!!!" I think it got hooked onto Asian restaurants simply because A) they do actually use MSG additive rather than just concentrating MSG naturally in the way other cuisines do and B) the first medical report of the "syndrome" called to "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome."

Once you had a named "syndrome" and a catchy title like "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome" every single person who ever felt unwell within a day or two of eating a Chinese meal was going to have a handy dandy villain to blame. Then, when Asian restaurants started putting up "No MSG" signs, the association of MSG with Asian food (and the feeling that it MUST be dangerous because OMG, why would they boast about not using it if it wasn't?) just became more and more strong.
posted by yoink at 11:33 AM on August 19, 2013 [6 favorites]


Yeah I agree that English (and probably all languages) has a really limited vocabulary for talking about flavor. No point blaming language; I think it's just that it's very hard for people to talk about taste, just like it's hard to talk about color (not to mention wine-dark seas).

There's been a bunch of studies about wine tasters' vocabularies being largely meaningless. Or more specifically, wine descriptions are a private vocabulary. IIRC researchers have found that some professional wine taster consistently use the same words to describe the same wine, but two pros never describe the same wine the same way.
posted by Nelson at 11:34 AM on August 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


That's just how David Chang talks, to make a name for himself in the vein of Bourdain and other celebrity chefs.

Or maybe, that's just how David Chang talks.
posted by neroli at 11:34 AM on August 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


Using MSG is just kind of a lazy culinary practice.
posted by planetesimal at 11:35 AM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Wait, Doritos have MSG too? That might explain why eating a whole bag makes me feel sick.

Or maybe that has more to do with the "whole bag" thing.
posted by DU at 11:35 AM on August 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


De Gustibus no... something something... having trouble here... LINE!
posted by Mister_A at 11:36 AM on August 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


‘That’s got MSG in it,’ no one’s going to say, ‘Well, that sounds delicious.’


Me. I would. Mememememe.

We have a huge glorious Asian supermarket down the road from us, and there are times when I can honestly describe my diet as "well, mostly huge bowls MSG and cilantro."

I also cook with Goya Sazón , which is more MSG and is magical (especially with pork chops. Oh man.)
posted by louche mustachio at 11:37 AM on August 19, 2013 [10 favorites]


Or maybe, that's just how David Chang talks.

NYC, yo. He used to work in finance, and he's only moderately foul-mouthed by Wall Street standards.
posted by Slap*Happy at 11:38 AM on August 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


Using MSG is just kind of a lazy culinary practice.

It's a fair cop.
posted by louche mustachio at 11:38 AM on August 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


While the evidence from controlled trials is undeniably compelling, I thought it was pretty odd that the article didn't mention anything about relative doses. It's all very well saying that tomatoes contain MSG and therefore it's fine, but without comparing that to how much MSG you get in a typical meal it's not terribly useful.

There's a little infographic partway down the page that says the amount (in mg) of glutamic acid per 100,000 mg of foodstuff; parmesan is like 1.6% glutamic acid, for example.
posted by Greg Nog at 11:40 AM on August 19, 2013


griphus: "Innovative chefs are now using extra sugar, extra salt, extra oil and MSG.

You go ahead and fry a fucking stapler in that and I'll still eat it.
"

Hello new state fair grub.
posted by boo_radley at 11:41 AM on August 19, 2013 [7 favorites]


I've tried to give the 'sensitive' folks the benefit of the doubt, but I still use MSG usually in a 1:10 ratio to salt.
posted by DesbaratsDays at 11:41 AM on August 19, 2013


I add Accent to my homemade ranch dressing. (Which starts with a packet or two of Hidden Valley Ranch dressing mix, which already has some in it.)

I've never had any symptoms relating to it that I'm aware of.
posted by no relation at 11:45 AM on August 19, 2013


I dunno, I dunno: is that kinda like me giving my Pacific Islander friends a hard time about dairy? "Hey, I eat milk or lactose stuff three meals a day! It's in dorito powder, cheese popcorn, ice cream... everything! I'm not saying you haven't had horrorshits after eating a bowl of strawberry ice cream, but it can't possibly be the dairy, man."
posted by boo_radley at 11:45 AM on August 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Notorious MSG is my rap name.
posted by Curious Artificer at 11:48 AM on August 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


So, migraines and plain ol' headaches are often caused by sensory triggers which can be quite arbitrary and have nothing to do with the trigger itself causing that reaction through some chemical "Head Pain On" switch, it's just the mental association. Odors can definitely be triggers, and odor and taste are tight. I get a headache if I linger in the baking aisle of the grocery store near the bags of sugar, with that smell of so much sugar in one place. That doesn't mean sugar has some property that causes headaches, it's just a sensation that my body registers as unpleasant and the headache is the response. For me it came from working in a grocery and being stuck in the baking aisle facing the sugar one day and happening to get a really bad headache at that time, which made my body associate the smell with having a headache. Never had the problem before that even though I was exposed to the smell consistently. Likewise, the smell of skunk cabbage makes me sick to my stomach because I happened to come down with a stomach bug on a camping trip when the smell was prevalent. I associate a certain friend's couch with the feeling of being hung over because I spent a day recovering from a fierce hangover on it, and I start feeling it again every time I sit on it for more than a few minutes. It's fascinating to me how the body can do this. So yeah, I've got no beef with the psychosomatic explanation, and perpetuating the idea that MSG's at fault will only make it happen more.
posted by jason_steakums at 11:49 AM on August 19, 2013 [8 favorites]


is that kinda like me giving my Pacific Islander friends a hard time about dairy?

No, because lactose intolerance is a real actual verifiable thing. MSG sensitivity is not.
posted by echo target at 11:49 AM on August 19, 2013 [31 favorites]


I dunno, I dunno: is that kinda like me giving my Pacific Islander friends a hard time about dairy?

Except that intolerance to dairy exists in people who aren't Pacific Islanders. It's much more common in certain parts of the world, but I'm pretty sure it happens to people of all backgrounds, so is not really analogous.
posted by hoyland at 11:51 AM on August 19, 2013


"The ancient Greeks lacked a word for umami, but attempted to describe it through metaphor in phrases like "the wine-dark fried chicken"."

I know you're just riffing off of the last thread, but the grain of truth this has is actually really cool. The four flavors of sweet, salt, bitter, and sour are an Aristotelian concept that does indeed ignore umami, but I would bet that this is likely because he would have thought of it more as a moral concept than a purely culinary one. In the Ancient Greek world there was a much deeper divide in food than the ones Aristotle invented - the one between Opson (ὄψον), traditionally translated into English as the 'relish', and Sitos (σίτος), traditionally translated as the 'staple.'

Greek concepts of morality are fundamentally alien to the ones common in the western world today, being almost entirely unconcerned with the universality of concepts like human dignity/value or even fairness exactly, but instead with self-actualization and removing impediments to it. For example, systematic institutionalized rape of enslaved women as public policy was considered a moral hazard only because the pathetic sums that women were sold for would serve no purpose towards enlarging a john's estate or esteem but instead be lost to his 'appetite.' To this end, the dangers of opson, those unessential but nice parts of a meal that over time became synonymous with the fish that Greeks most valued, to society and its free male members we're omnipresent. Those affected with fish madness we're labelled opsophagos and gossiped about in symposia as morality tales that you could squint and see as not out of place in a Chick Tract. Overindulgers would become famous for the depths they would sink to spending their days in the fish markets complaining about the truly obscene prices as they destroyed their ability to actualize their selves by draining their fortunes and their reputations dry.
posted by Blasdelb at 11:51 AM on August 19, 2013 [66 favorites]


MSG? My family calls it popcorn salt.
posted by maggieb at 11:52 AM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Using MSG is just kind of a lazy culinary practice.
One of my barbeque cookbooks has a line something like "Lots of people look down their noses at MSG. These are people who have never smoked a goat head."
posted by Killick at 11:58 AM on August 19, 2013 [28 favorites]


I love MSG, but even I was slightly alarmed late one night at my favorite Pho restaurant, Than Brothers on Aurora (in Seattle), when I got to watch a delivery out the window. A quite large delivery truck was emptied of several dozen fifty-pound sacks of the stuff, piled onto the sidewalk and then moved into the empty storefront next door, which serves as storage for most if not all of the 12 or so stores in the chain. That's a LOT of MSG.
posted by Fnarf at 11:59 AM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


MSG is the reason (in the form of Sazon Goya) I win the company chili cookoff every year. ITS MAH SEKRIT WEPON
posted by Doleful Creature at 12:01 PM on August 19, 2013 [10 favorites]


I do seem to have one issue with foods high in MSG. I get really really thirsty. Which limits my ability to make all you can eat Asian buffets regret their decision to be all you can eat. Maybe it's just the sodium. Dunno.

MC Umani is my rap name.
posted by Samizdata at 12:01 PM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Well, yeah, if I was going to smoke something kind of gross maybe some MSG would be useful, but to just put it on all your cooked food to get a cheap umami burst is indeed some lazy hack cooking.
posted by planetesimal at 12:02 PM on August 19, 2013


If MSG is so bad for you, why doesn't everyone in Asia have a headache?
posted by Uncle Ira at 12:04 PM on August 19, 2013


Um, MC Umami even.

And I have a wedge of lovely dry Parmesan in the fridge.
posted by Samizdata at 12:07 PM on August 19, 2013


but to just put it on all your cooked food to get a cheap umami burst is indeed some lazy hack cooking.

Yeah, kinda like adding sugar to everything. Sweetness is a great and enticing flavor, as is umami - but adding a ton of sugar and MSG to, say, a tomato soup does a severe disservice to the ingredients and does not say Good Things about your abilities as a cook.

Alton Brown has a recipe for vegetable stew that uses a piece of parmesan rind he got on the cheap from his supermarket's cheese section to add umami (he calls it body) - that's clever. Popping the top on an MSG shaker... ehhhh.
posted by Slap*Happy at 12:09 PM on August 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


"Doubters gonna doubt" perform properly-controlled double-blind scientific studies to investigate the hypothesis.
posted by schmod at 12:09 PM on August 19, 2013 [28 favorites]


De Gustibus no... something something... having trouble here... LINE!

Non possum credere me totum edisse.
posted by Celsius1414 at 12:12 PM on August 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


I use MSG flakes to make grocery store meat taste ... well, at all, really. I once overdid it, half on purpose, and too much MSG definitely gave it a sort of metallic tang that wasn't at all delicious. The weird thing was that it went directly from "right amount of MSG" to "whoa, I did something wrong," and at no point did I taste it while cooking and it seemed like I was adding too much until I did.
posted by griphus at 12:16 PM on August 19, 2013


Then by all means, cite them. And yeah, I get the same issue with Italian.

Here's how to tell if you're allergic to MSG.

Are you dead?

The moment Monosodium Glutamate hits water, it disassociates into Sodium and Glutamic Acid. Glutamic Acid is an amino acid. It's called a "non essential amino acid", because unlike Lysine or Valine, your body can (and does) make Glutamic Acid when needed.


So, what about sodium? Well, when Sodium Chloride hits water, it disassociates into Sodium and Chlorine atoms. We know that we're evolved to detect this substance, because it's one of the very few (like Glutamic Acid!) that our tongues are explicit detectors of.

There's a bunch of Sodium in your body right now. Unless, of course, you are dead. In which case, it's theoretically possible, but bloody unlikely, that there isn't, but if there isn't sodium in your body right now, your heart stops.

So. MSG exists in your body solelyas Sodium ions and Glutamic Acid. Both are present, every day, all the time, in your body. It is a key compound in your cellular metabolism, and it's a key neurotransmitter. You make a lot of it. You are chock full of the stuff.

Oh, about that neurotransmitter. Glutamic Acid cannot cross the blood-brain barrier. So, your CNS makes it, and regulates the amount present. You could eat a kilo of MSG and not one microgram is going to cross the BBB. If your CNS needs it, it makes more -- or you die.

You are not allergic to them. Anybody who is died well before they were born.

The only reason MSG may give you a reaction is that you have, quite irrationally, convinced yourself that you get a reaction from MSG, and the placebo effect is simply that strong.

Things that have high amounts of free glutamate (high=more than 100mg/100g). Potatoes, Tomatoes, Peas, Clams, Sardines, Grape Juices, Green Tea. Oh, yeah, lots of cheeses and asian ingredients as well.

I do seem to have one issue with foods high in MSG. I get really really thirsty.

You nailed it in one. Excess sodium in the bloodstream will trigger thirst, and lots of MSG means lots of sodium.
posted by eriko at 12:18 PM on August 19, 2013 [69 favorites]


If there's MSG in any food it's a safe bet there's also a shit-ton of regular old sodium chloride. If that same food gives you headaches or any other malady, I'd start my search there.
posted by rocket88 at 12:20 PM on August 19, 2013


Everybody believes in data until it contradicts their anecdote.
posted by Justinian at 12:21 PM on August 19, 2013 [14 favorites]


These are people who have never smoked a goat head.

that is for sure slang for some dirty filthy depraved thing
posted by echo target at 12:22 PM on August 19, 2013 [8 favorites]


The ancient Greeks lacked a word for umami, but attempted to describe it through metaphor in phrases like "the wine-dark fried chicken".

KFC-fingered Dawn.

Wait, no, that sounds rude.
posted by zippy at 12:28 PM on August 19, 2013 [8 favorites]


Wow, eriko. You don't have to be nearly so hostile. Also, if you have spent years dealing with bizarre rashes and quasimodo-like swelling moments after ingesting certain foods and with no real answers from doctors, you might be able to understand the frustration of an internet stranger bold-texting about something that I have dealt with, with no real answers, for years.

Too much of anything (water, sugar) can be a bad thing. Maybe it doesn't affect you. I can't explain it, but avoiding these foods limits these reactions. If you'd like to see what happens when I enjoy a sushi meal complete with miso soup and soy sauce, or watch my eyelids swell up when I eat something so simple as a ham sandwich, come on out.

For me, it's easier simply to avoid wheat and MSG to avoid awful rashes and just say it's the answer. Because for me, it is.
posted by mochapickle at 12:28 PM on August 19, 2013 [6 favorites]


"It gives me migraines when ingested in large enough quantities. My allergist says it's a salt reaction, and not a legitimate allergy, per se. Until I found my current allergist, several professionals had told me it was an allergy and to simply avoid MSG. Which is practically impossible."
Trust your allergist. Allergy has a very specific meaning related to a very specific kind of malfunction of the adaptive immune system that is fundamentally not possible to trigger with MSG.

Now our adaptive immune systems works in a way that should, in theory, protect us from a functionally infinite number of potential things that could hurt us but has a few significant drawbacks. As the white blood cells that mediate the adaptive immune response get made, they each are born with a completely new protein called an antibody through a very randomized process that has a very specific and very random shape on the business end of it that could, in theory, bind to anything. These antibodies are how our bodies recognize foreign invaders that have some means of evading our innate immune systems from, and in theory there are enough white blood cells with random antibodies running around our bodies that at least one of them will be effective against just about anything. One white blood cell though is not enough to meaningfully fight off an infection, and so whenever a mature white blood cell encounters something that triggers its antibody it immediately races back to a lymph node and starts dividing like crazy to make enough cells to eliminate whatever is wrong. Then, once the infection is cleared, almost all of the new clones of the cells with the effective antibody will trigger themselves for death to make room for new white blood cells. One of the big draw backs to the fantastically complex process that is the adaptive immune system is how long it takes to get going, so a significant portion of them will change in such a way as to protect themselves from degradation and remain as a reservoir of memory cells waiting in case the infection ever comes back such that the process has a big head start the second time. This is the biggest reason why when people get sick with infections they then get better as well as why people don't tend to get sick from the same thing twice.

One of the big problems with that strategy that defines how sensitively it can be targeted though, is what happens when the fundamentally randomly shaped antibody recognizes something that is actually part of us or for what ever reason actually belongs in us and shouldn't be attacked. Our bodies prevent this by immediately killing all of the white blood cells that are born with an antibody that recognizes a target within the first few weeks of being created. The idea is that if it sees something that quickly it is probably something that should be there. During these couple of weeks, white blood cells go through an extensive process of 'education' where the the antigens present in the body that actually belong are paraded in front them to see if any bind. Auto-immune disorders are what happens when this system fails for a variety of reasons and our immune cells start attacking things that are us. Allergies are what happens when our immune systems develop an ability to detect something that isn't from us, but also isn't bad - like pollen or peanuts - that isn't immediately selected against by the allergen's presence when the antibody develops.

This is all to say that even if you could somehow develop an antibody with sensitivity against glutamic acid the white blood cell that carried it would instantly kill itself to save you, because if that white blood cell were to somehow survive to generate an allergic reaction you would be very very dead very fast as your body fought its own fundamental biochemistry.
posted by Blasdelb at 12:30 PM on August 19, 2013 [43 favorites]


(I tried smoking a goat's head once - couldn't keep it lit. badum bump)
posted by DesbaratsDays at 12:32 PM on August 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


I find all this cook tough-talk hilarious - the "and people would eat the shit out of it" quote in particular was spectacularly infelicitous in reference to food. It's as though there's some pressure to prove that cooking is in fact macho, challenging and manly, and so it's important to be all "fucking" this and "shit" or else people will think you're some kind of, you know, girl or something.

Perhaps it is because the french word for cook means 'flamer'.

FACT!
posted by srboisvert at 12:34 PM on August 19, 2013


Mmmm, Dorito powder!
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 12:42 PM on August 19, 2013


Greg Nog - There's a little infographic partway down the page that says the amount (in mg) of glutamic acid per 100,000 mg of foodstuff; parmesan is like 1.6% glutamic acid, for example.

Sure, but the article is presenting the levels of MSG in those foods as evidence that the MSG in Chinese food is harmless. That only works if you assume that the dose of MSG you get from a serving of e.g. lasagne is at least as big as the dose you get from a serving of heavily seasoned Chinese food. Without that assumption the argument doesn't work, and the article doesn't provide any evidence to support the assumption.

(Continuing my rather silly analogy: I could tell you how much cyanide is in a fistful of almonds, but on its own that's not evidence that my KCN-enhanced madelines are safe to eat).
posted by metaBugs at 12:42 PM on August 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


I've often wondered why, if MSG is in fact such a dietary trigger, we don't see tons and tons of MSG syndrome in Asia.

Or ketchup. Tomatoes are full of natural glutamate. Add salt in abundance and, sure as spice weasels, MSG.
posted by bonehead at 12:43 PM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Interesting. Why would English, in particular, be devoid of flavor vocabulary?

Because it's full of flavour vocabulary.
posted by Kabanos at 12:43 PM on August 19, 2013 [9 favorites]


You consume pretty large quantities of naturally occurring MSG in many everyday food items...

Well no, not really. We consume large amounts of Glutamic acid, bound up in proteins. It's the most common amino acid in natural protein. But generally loose amino acids (including Glutamate ions) are not at all common in food.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:43 PM on August 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


You don't have to be nearly so hostile.

One might posit that entering the discussion with a statement as dismissive of scientific evidence as "Doubters gonna doubt, though" is likely to produce a reaction at least as strong as the initial claim.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:43 PM on August 19, 2013 [7 favorites]


I find that food containing MSG leaves me with a really rather horrible aftertaste in my mouth that persists for long after I eat it. I have a different, but equally pronounced aftertaste with aspartame. I can generally tell that something contains MSG based on the aftertaste. (and equally I can tell that a drink handed to me contains aspartame).

I'm quite happy to accept that there's probably a threshold level below which I can't detect MSG - unfortunately a lot of chinese food seems to fall above this level. I've *definitely* eaten chips in the past which contained MSG and noticed straight away. I'd have no problem swallowing a capsule containing it - I just don't like food with high concentrations.

I think it's quite ridiculous to argue that MSG sensitivity is somehow as crazy as claiming wifi sensitivity. We haven't been able to identify a way in which wifi can interact with the body in any meaningful way, while we know completely how MSG does. I can easily believe that people with similar levels of sensitivity to me end up with psychological reactions which appear to be allergies.

As an aside, I absolutely love parmesan. I eat far more than anyone else I know. It doesn't leave the same aftertaste in my mouth though - perhaps concentrations aren't as high?
posted by leo_r at 12:47 PM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


For me, it's easier simply to avoid wheat and MSG

Just avoiding wheat would probably be more productive, and easier (not to say easy per se, just relatively easier inasmuch as avoiding one thing is simpler than avoiding two).
posted by aramaic at 12:48 PM on August 19, 2013


I have tried just avoiding wheat, but I know that works for many. Look, it's frustrating for me, and it's more than a little weird that people I have never met take my hopscotch through rash-inducing landmines so personally.

Wait 'til I tell you guys the moon landing was FAKED.
posted by mochapickle at 12:50 PM on August 19, 2013


I really think the main aversion to MSG is because of the name, not general anti-Asian sentiment. A lot of Asian ingredients had horrible names when they were first introduced to the US: Chinese gooseberries (kiwis), bean curd (tofu), muskmelon (honeydew), and some that haven't been fixed yet like agar and carragenan and seitan.

Also, I feel seriously ill every time I eat at many American-style Chinese restaurants, just from all the oil and fat that I'm not used to. Seriously, a typical serving of lo mein is like 50% oil. Go to a real Chinese restaurant where they use quality ingredients instead of drowning everything in fat!
posted by miyabo at 12:52 PM on August 19, 2013 [6 favorites]


As an aside, I absolutely love parmesan. I eat far more than anyone else I know. It doesn't leave the same aftertaste in my mouth though - perhaps concentrations aren't as high?

According to the guardian article: Parmesan, with 1200mg per 100 grams, is the substance with more free glutamate in it than any other natural foodstuff on the planet.
posted by inertia at 12:54 PM on August 19, 2013 [8 favorites]


MSG is the reason (in the form of Sazon Goya) I win the company chili cookoff every year. ITS MAH SEKRIT WEPON

SEE I TOLE Y'ALL.

It's like a little packet of super-tasty. There are certain things that I must have in my kitchen or I get anxious - Sazon Goya, black vinegar, fish sauce, sesame oil, chili sauce, and coriander chutney.
posted by louche mustachio at 12:56 PM on August 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


I don't think having a "sensativity" to something equates to having a allergic reaction to something.

And allergy is a response of the immune system. A sensativity is when there is an imbalance that triggers a different type of reaction. Too much sodium will cause either a constriction of dilation of blood vessels. This is not an allergic reaction, this is a function of how sodium acts in our bodies. Most people walk around slightly dehydrated anyway, so when a diet includes too much sodium, this dehydration can become more pronounces.

I would be interested if instead of looking for an allergic reaction to MSG, they would measure other systemic reactions, like blood pressure, or systemic hydration levels (though I'm not exactly sure how you check that, except to measure volume of urination and frequency over time).

My aunt was sensitive to MSG until she started to take her hydration much more seriously. So instead of drinking soda (which contains sodium, sometimes in copious amounts), she switched to drinking water or tea whenever she ate chinese with us (because sino-american is delicous). Immediately she no longer had an instant migraine. Now, that's not to say that MSG in large amounts isn't all that great for you, since, well, it's sodium, and pushing your sodium levels too high can cause all kinds of adverse health problems.

However, looking outside of just blaming a single cause (MSG) and trying to assess the actual symptoms of MSG consumption (feeling ill, headache/migraine) might be a better way to go about it. This way you are not denying the actual symptoms that people are experiencing (which calling it psychosomatic does, and should be avoided), but you are also correcting the error in believing that it is an allergy when it really can't be (you are not allergic to the base components of MSG. You can't be, otherwise you'd be dead).

Also, just my take on the "typical American diet". We consume WAY too much sodium. There's a reason you are usually advised to avoid too much processed food. It is all loaded with sodium (as a preservative AND as a flavor enhancement). It is one thing to add salt to a dish you are preparing from raw ingredients. It's another thing to take that box of hamburger helper and add more salt and MSG to it. It's already got a pretty hefty load of sodium in it. Adding more is not really an improvement.
posted by daq at 1:02 PM on August 19, 2013 [9 favorites]


Hey, ya'll that have never dealt with trying to diagnose a food allergy (the most fun part is when your allergist throws up his hands and says "welp, no idea!") need to dial it back. My husband has suffered through constant pain, giant hives all over him, ferocious headaches, and a lot of other crap, and had to self-diagnose and test because no one had a fucking clue. Still don't. He also doesn't respond well to opiates, as we found out when he had surgery. That was fun; extreme pain or terrible hallucinations. His doc had no idea about that one either.

Human bodies are not standard. What works for you does not work for everyone. I'm not saying MSG allergies are real, but I am saying until you've spent days doubled over in pain after eating nothing but bland foods that your doctor recommended that still try to kill you, you have no idea what it's like. Have a little bit of compassion for people who have actually had to wonder if they could ever eat a normal meal again.
posted by emjaybee at 1:03 PM on August 19, 2013 [16 favorites]


Oh good grief, it's possible for people are sensitive to a food additive even if the commonly-assumed reason for their reaction has not been clinically proven. People also scapegoat food additives erroneously, and are poor at accurately tracking their food consumption anyway. Additionally, ingredient disclosures for restaurant and prepared food are often intentionally or unintentionally misleading.

None of these things contradicts the others.
posted by desuetude at 1:03 PM on August 19, 2013 [8 favorites]


I suspect (having done a little research!) that the difference between the taste of parmesan and MSG is due to the fact most naturally occurring glutemates come attached to things other than sodium. I don't have any sodium lying around to test my theory... I could be wrong though - there doesn't appear to be much on the web beyond Yahoo Answers style "I get a bad aftertaste with MSG".

I will say categorically that I can detect MSG (at the sort of concentrations many foods contain) in food I eat, and so that alone suggests that it's quite easy for people to develop (perhaps psychologically) MSG sensitivities.
posted by leo_r at 1:03 PM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


MSG IN THE HOUSE
I was so sure this article was going to be about The Notorious MSG, the band.

The fermentation angle is interesting - the article seems to suggest that they tend to involve MSG production, but I wonder if that's common in most traditional preserved food, or if it was just talking about David Chang's experiments in particular. I definitely like a lot of fermented and preserved things because of how intensely savoury they are, but I would have assumed that was mostly down to concentration of flavours.
posted by lucidium at 1:03 PM on August 19, 2013


Also, getting a blood panel done to check your sodium levels is probably never a bad idea. Too much and you have issues, but also too little and you have even worse issues (kidney function impairment, heart palpitations). I really wish someone would create a device that could show you in real time what your typical blood panel test does. That would be awesome for diagnosing a lot of common ailments.
posted by daq at 1:04 PM on August 19, 2013


Go to a real Chinese restaurant where they use quality ingredients instead of drowning everything in fat!

What? In real Chinese restaurants there's dishes like kourou, which is pork with a huge hunking piece of pork fat attached. It's pure fat, and it's frickin' delicious.
posted by FJT at 1:05 PM on August 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


Human bodies are not standard. What works for you does not work for everyone.
Oddly enough... the human "body" requires a very specific subset of conditions to exist, and if anything falls outside of those conditions it ceases to be "alive". For example, human being (1ea) + sulfuric acid (1L) = bad

Those of us in the know call this bizarre fact "chemistry".

As provided above, you cannot be allergic to MSG. Why? Because "chemistry".

The fact that some people choose to believe that they are allergic to MSG despite the evidence to the contrary is known as "cognitive dissonance", which, oddly enough, is also somewhat required for human beings to exist.
posted by Blue_Villain at 1:14 PM on August 19, 2013 [7 favorites]


If you're worried about sodium levels, worry about table salt, not about MSG. If it's the sodium that is triggering problems for you after you eat at a Chinese restaurant it will be because of the NACL they put in the food, not because of the MSG.

Hey, ya'll that have never dealt with trying to diagnose a food allergy (the most fun part is when your allergist throws up his hands and says "welp, no idea!") need to dial it back.

Tracking down food allergies is a royal pain in the ass: but that isn't, actually, a good reason for pretending that MSG is actually a remotely plausible trigger for the vast majority of symptoms people attribute to it--any more than the fact that having a child who suffers from autism is a horrible nightmare for many parents would be a good reason to shut up about the overwhelming evidence that whatever else caused that horrible nightmare it wasn't childhood vaccinations. Misinformation is misinformation. Misinformation about "what might be causing your symptoms" isn't actually helpful, even if it happens to provide a comforting explanatory narrative to some people. The fact is that if there were some group of people out there (like, for example, lactose intolerant people) who actually have allergic type reactions to normal restaurant-like levels of MSG those people would have been identified by now in one of the many, many controlled tests that have been run. People who are "avoiding MSG" (which means, basically, no one, because none of the people "avoiding MSG" actually cut out all the foods which should, supposedly, trigger their reactions) may occasionally luck into a dietary pattern in which by "avoiding MSG" they also avoid whatever the real triggers of their allergic responses are; but they would be infinitely better served if they were to identify that actual trigger (say, soy allergy?) and not falsely attribute their symptoms to something they are A) probably eating in reasonably significant quantities anyway and B) which is probably forcing them to avoid some foods that would cause them no problems.
posted by yoink at 1:17 PM on August 19, 2013 [15 favorites]


When seasoned with MSG, products like soup bouillon cubes or hot dogs were able to taste nearly as savory as their freshly made counterparts for months or even years after manufacturing. ...

I always assumed the problem wasn't MSG itself, it's that foods that have MSG added to them are often unhealthy. Does anyone feel great after eating a giant portion of super greasy Americanized Chinese food, MSG or no MSG?

I have compassion for people with food allergies. I have both food allergies and an intolerance. It's a pain in the ass. I don't see how people are being cruel by pointing out the scientific evidence about the safety of MSG or the impossibility of an MSG allergy.
posted by inertia at 1:20 PM on August 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


Those of us in the know call this bizarre fact "chemistry".

Those of us in the know - we call it the real world - are aware that different people react to different things in different ways, because we are not clones. If you require proof of this I will come to your house and drink a glass of milk and eat a shrimps.
posted by elizardbits at 1:22 PM on August 19, 2013 [13 favorites]


Or maybe, that's just how David Chang talks.

NYC, yo. He used to work in finance, and he's only moderately foul-mouthed by Wall Street standards.


Yeah, he probably acquired his penchant for lots of cursing an tough talk at Georgetown Prep and Harvard.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 1:22 PM on August 19, 2013


I'd love to sign up for a double blind study on MSG.
I didnt figure out what was causing it--and even mis-attributed my brain-fog and other issues with the lighting in Target (we'd always go to the Target nextdoor after I had stir-fry).
Oddly, my--evidently fake--reaction to MSG does seem to be helped if I consume about 250mg of Taurine powder (and swallow the other 250mg in the capsule).

I remember years ago, reading on mefi, tons of comment on how MSG was totally safe--I dont doubt it must be for many people, but I also can't explain the fact that despite facts and studies, my experience (which may be mental/"nocebo"?) has led me to avoid it like the plague (though it appears I get forms/variations of it in some things I eat--though I don't eat anything with labelled MSG in it).
posted by whatgorilla at 1:23 PM on August 19, 2013


Blasdelb: "Trust your allergist. Allergy has a very specific meaning related to a very specific kind of malfunction of the adaptive immune system that is fundamentally not possible to trigger with MSG.

My current allergist is a freakin' prince among men.

So in addition to helping to set me straight regarding MSG, he also managed to correct a misconception I had about my shellfish allergy and iodine. Had been told by four different physicians over nearly two decades that I should avoid having scans with iodine contrast at all costs, since my (severe) shellfish allergy was actually an iodine allergy. Current allergist explained that wasn't the case, and went out of his way to find studies to convince me.

The whole experience was frustrating to me on several levels, but it's worth noting that in both cases I would never have questioned it without prompting. I mean, I've gone into anaphylaxis twice after eating shellfish. Who in their right mind would want to risk going through that again, especially after being advised to avoid iodine by more than one doctor? Ditto for migraines. (I used to take Imitrex for them.)

For those of you who are being aggressive about this, I'd like to mention: A migraine headache is a very specific and painful physical ailment. It's not constructive or helpful to tell someone that a phenomenon which is clearly happening to them (something they might even be taking medicine for) is undoubtedly psychosomatic. In my case, I was reacting to an overabundance of salt. This isn't an uncommon problem, and it's one I can actually reproduce by eating other heavily salted foods. (Science!) But it took a knowledgeable professional to correctly identify the problem, and years of experience eating a variety of foods to see it clearly.

This is all to say that even if you could somehow develop an antibody with sensitivity against glutamic acid the white blood cell that carried it would instantly kill itself to save you, because if that white blood cell were to somehow survive to generate an allergic reaction you would be very very dead very fast as your body fought its own fundamental biochemistry."

This full explanation was fascinating, blasdelb. Thanks very much for taking the time to lay the entire immune response process out in plain language. :)
posted by zarq at 1:24 PM on August 19, 2013 [18 favorites]


different people react to different things in different ways
And... as mentioned before... if you were actually allergic, or had bad reactions to MSG (instead of something else) then you'd be dead. It's a core building block of the chemical reactions that are required for human life. Saying you're allergic to sodium is like saying you're allergic to oxygen... it doesn't happen.

Trying to dispute that is just... anti-science?
posted by Blue_Villain at 1:28 PM on August 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


In my case, I was reacting to an overabundance of salt.

I wouldn't be surprised if many of the migraines that are being attributed to MSG are actually due to the lavish quantities of NACL which are often a feature of the same dishes. Tracking down migraine triggers, though, is unbelievably frustrating; there are so many potential causes. But, again, we have very strong scientific evidence that MSG per se is a very, very unlikely one.
posted by yoink at 1:32 PM on August 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


It's as though there's some pressure to prove that cooking is in fact macho, challenging and manly...

Well, cooking is a competitive sport, judging by Food Network's schedule of shows.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:39 PM on August 19, 2013


yoink: " I wouldn't be surprised if many of the migraines that are being attributed to MSG are actually due to the lavish quantities of NACL which are often a feature of the same dishes. Tracking down migraine triggers, though, is unbelievably frustrating; there are so many potential causes. But, again, we have very strong scientific evidence that MSG per se is a very, very unlikely one."

*nod* Yep. Been there. I should probably also mention... I'm actually allergic (as in 'have been tested') to a couple of food ingredients and do react to them with migraine headaches. One of which is sunflower oil. Add this to the mix and now identifying what has given you a migraine in a given meal might get a LOT harder.

For example, there are many brands of potato and tortilla chips that are prepared by frying them in sunflower oil. Let's say I eat a handful of tortilla chips and get a migraine headache. Let's also say those chips contain only corn, salt, sunflower and msg. Trying to narrow down the cause of the headache becomes a challenge and it's easy to blame the wrong ingredient.
posted by zarq at 1:40 PM on August 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


yoink: "I've always wondered if all those Asian restaurants that felt that they had to put up the "No MSG" signs in order not to scare away white customers actually cut out the MSG or if they just rolled their eyes, put up the signs and kept on using MSG. I've always kinda hoped the latter (given that MSG sensitivity is a totally fake made-up thing and not a real condition)."

So a total stranger once told me what I still consider to be the final word on the subject of MSG.

As a kid in the early 90s in a state in the middle of the US I became confused while reading the yellow pages one day about all the ads for Chinese restaurants that proclaimed "NO MSG!" or "WE USE NO MSG" or the like. This MSG was clearly some sort of hyper-poison or something, but since it was pre-internet it's not like I could easily find out just what sort of toxin it was.

So being an inquisitive young teenager, I did the next best thing: I picked one Chinese restaurant at random and dialed them. The (ostensibly Chinese) person who answered the phone didn't speak perfect English (but who am I to talk?! It's not like I speak any variant of Chinese, so who I know who wins that one!) and it took a little bit for me to convince them that no no no I didn't actually want to order any food, I just wanted to ask a question.

Young barnacles: "So, what is MSG? Is it something really bad for you?!"
Person on other end of phone: "No, MSG is fine! White people are just stupid!"

I thanked them for their informative candor and hung up. That factoid has pretty much served me well when it comes to MSG ever since.

MSG in food? Yes, please; I'm not stupid!
posted by barnacles at 1:41 PM on August 19, 2013 [45 favorites]


I'm actually allergic (as in 'have been tested') to a couple of food ingredients and do react to them with migraine headaches. One of which is sunflower oil.

Geez, that must be a pain in the...well, I guess the head, mostly. Do sunflower seeds have the same effect?
posted by yoink at 1:47 PM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Blue_Villain: " if you were actually allergic, or had bad reactions to MSG (instead of something else) then you'd be dead. "

this is a well known fact; hay fever kills one hundred and eighty two billion people a year. it's like a corpse grinder every time i turn on my lawn mower. Maybe you should switch majors away from "chemistry" to "something else".

I'm not defending this MSG allergy idea. It seems goofy to me. But to have somebody talk down to people about allergies on the internet, when even medical professionals seem to have a hard time pinning down certain responses from food or environment or other factors, seems super shitty to me.

If I had to guess (and I don't, but here we are), I'd think that there was a bad industrial batch of MSG at some point in time. My dim recollections is that this nonsense started off in the late 80s or so -- I remember seeing news articles on it and etc around then. If you have an industrial batch of the stuff -- I'll spitball at around 10 tons of MSG based on some other wholesale chemical experience -- and you have a processing impurity or etc. in it, how long would it take to go through all 10 tons? A decade? A year?
posted by boo_radley at 1:49 PM on August 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


until you've spent days doubled over in pain after eating nothing but bland foods that your doctor recommended that still try to kill you, you have no idea what it's like.

That sounds horrible. And those stakes are why nonrational beliefs in things like "MSG causes headaches" frustrate me so much. Because the MSG is a false explanation, or rather an explanation with no scientific evidence. It is a folk belief. At best a folk belief is harmless, so hey you miss out on some good food (except those times you eat MSG and don't know it). At worst the folk belief prevents belief in the truth. Maybe the real explanation of the headaches is higher sodium and dehydration. Wouldn't you rather know that than continue to believe a demonstrated falsehood?

The higher stakes analogy are the people who believe vaccinations cause autism. That folk belief is actively harmful, as measured by the number of unvaccinated childrens dying of preventable diseases. But it's also passively harmful in that it obscures the search for the actual real causes of autism.
posted by Nelson at 1:51 PM on August 19, 2013 [12 favorites]


eriko: "I do seem to have one issue with foods high in MSG. I get really really thirsty.

You nailed it in one. Excess sodium in the bloodstream will trigger thirst, and lots of MSG means lots of sodium.
"

So what you are saying is that this is not Chinese Food Syndrome, but Chinese Food Conspiracy?

My belly demands justice!

WAKE UP, SHEEPLE!
posted by Samizdata at 1:52 PM on August 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


zippy: "The ancient Greeks lacked a word for umami, but attempted to describe it through metaphor in phrases like "the wine-dark fried chicken".

KFC-fingered Dawn.

Wait, no, that sounds rude.
"

But I'd watch...
posted by Samizdata at 1:53 PM on August 19, 2013


"there are many brands of potato and tortilla chips that are prepared by frying them in sunflower oil. Let's say I eat a handful of tortilla chips and get a migraine headache. Let's also say those chips contain only corn, salt, sunflower and msg. Trying to narrow down the cause of the headache becomes a challenge and it's easy to blame the wrong ingredient."

Absolutely. Add that to the fact that most Americanized Asian restaurant dishes (and many lunchmeats, and most other processed meat products) are positively LADEN with oil, salt and soy derivatives (not to mention the oil used in most Asian takeout places is frequently peanut oil, and sometimes of questionable age/quality) - there are any number of very common triggers there aside from MSG, so teasing out which ones affect you is... difficult to say the least.

the dehydration thing is also key. So many of us Westerners walk around either mildly dehydrated, or with a wack sodium/potassium/magnesium balance, that it's no wonder a big dose of sodium brings on epic-hangover-quality symptoms. Add a (not so) healthy dose of dodgy oil and that sick headache is not actually psychosomatic, but the cause is likely to not be MSG (as I discovered).
posted by lonefrontranger at 1:54 PM on August 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


My dim recollections is that this nonsense started off in the late 80s or so

Probably the local manifestation of Russell Blaylock.

...and 10 tons would be gone almost instantly. Ajinomoto, on their own, produces something like one and a half million tons annually.
posted by aramaic at 1:55 PM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


this is a well known fact; hay fever kills one hundred and eighty two billion people a year. it's like a corpse grinder every time i turn on my lawn mower. Maybe you should switch majors away from "chemistry" to "something else".

Ah, I didn't realise pollen was as intrinsic to body chemistry as sodium.

But to have somebody talk down to people about allergies on the internet, when even medical professionals seem to have a hard time pinning down certain responses from food or environment or other factors, seems super shitty to me.

The tone is shitty in places, but the message isn't. It's not good on any level to coddle unscientific beliefs and make reassuring "maybe it is real after all" noises, at least when you're grown past Santa.

It's not constructive or helpful to tell someone that a phenomenon which is clearly happening to them (something they might even be taking medicine for) is undoubtedly psychosomatic.

Only one person is doing this. Everyone else is saying the things that are happening are either the placebo effect, or (more likely) an unidentified root cause.
posted by bonaldi at 1:57 PM on August 19, 2013 [7 favorites]


Is it nice to pretend that those that complain of MSG problems only do so from Chinese restaurants? Is it nice to pretend that it only happens when the person eating knows they're eating something with MSG? I'm looking for a reason for all the vitriol here.

I would also like someone to explain the difference between L-glutamic acid - which is found naturally - and D-glutamic acid, which is the form in MSG.

I understand that some people may be avoiding MSG (or gluten or lactose) unnecessarily for unscientific reasons but that does not mean that there are no actual sensitivities or allergies.
posted by mountmccabe at 2:04 PM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


yoink: " Geez, that must be a pain in the...well, I guess the head, mostly. Do sunflower seeds have the same effect?"

Unfortunately. My experience has been that it takes a few of them to cause a reaction, though. I've eaten a slice of 7-grain bread made with sunflower seeds and not reacted. But just a few potato chips fried in the oil... ugh. I obviously have some sort of trigger threshold, but have no idea where it is. And I don't really know if it depends on whether the seeds are hulled or unhulled, or striped or black.

Sunflower oil is a popular ingredient in many health foods because it's low in saturated fat. It's not that hard to avoid if you're reading labels, though. I'm one of those people who ask annoying questions in restaurants. :)

bonaldi: "Only one person is doing this."

True!
posted by zarq at 2:05 PM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


bonaldi: "Ah, I didn't realise pollen was as intrinsic to body chemistry as sodium. "

Well, once people started equivocating MSG with sodium, I figured we were just smugging for the smug of it. Anyway, I'm pretty sure there's some sodium in pollen, so pollen ≈ msg ≈ sodium according to some of the rhetoric in this thread, right? If you think you wouldn't have a Bad Time eating sodium, you lack clarity in your thought or presentation. You can't claim to be pro-science and be that sloppy.
posted by boo_radley at 2:10 PM on August 19, 2013


It's not good on any level to coddle unscientific beliefs and make reassuring "maybe it is real after all" noises, at least when you're grown past Santa.

It's certainly a good idea to educate people about science, but if we're all talking about the dangers of cognitive dissonance, let's not pretend that actively taking a shitty and confrontational tone when declaring Valid Scientific Beliefs is some sort of altruistic act of tough love when it's little more than egotistical dick-swinging.
posted by griphus at 2:12 PM on August 19, 2013 [13 favorites]


pollen ≈ msg ≈ sodium

If pollen dissociates into sodium when placed in contact with water, then yes.
posted by aramaic at 2:16 PM on August 19, 2013


I got a headache from a Chinese restaurant when I was a young teen, and I had never even heard of MSG. Nothing at all that would provoke a psychosomatic response. A coincidence, I suppose, but damn that was one awful headache.
posted by zardoz at 2:18 PM on August 19, 2013


And a basic amino acid which your body makes in significant quantity, don't forget about that.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 2:19 PM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Getting a little back on topic, I wonder how much of the MSG scare is generational. I'm a member of generation Y or the millennials or whatever you want to call us, and I can't really say I've ever heard someone my age complain of MSG in food or report an MSG allergy. We seem to eat Doritos and mass-produced ramen noodle with impunity.

My parents and the baby boomers, on the other hand, seem to be all about avoiding MSG. My mom and mother-in-law refuse to eat at chinese restaurants unless they explicitly declare themselves MSG-free and won't touch most savory products with a 10 1/2 foot pole. To me this makes sense since they were exposed to much of the MSG-scare related reporting when it first came out.
posted by arcolz at 2:20 PM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


My parents and the baby boomers, on the other hand, seem to be all about avoiding MSG.

Yeah, I suspect that it would be possible for a hip youth-oriented asian restaurant to hang a "Fuck yeah, of COURSE we use MSG!" sign and while they'd lose a chunk of their middle-aged customers they'd probably get nothing more than an ironic chuckle out of the younger ones.
posted by yoink at 2:23 PM on August 19, 2013 [6 favorites]


A lot of Asian ingredients had horrible names when they were first introduced to the US: Chinese gooseberries (kiwis), bean curd (tofu), muskmelon (honeydew), and some that haven't been fixed yet like agar and carragenan and seitan.

(emphasis added)

Just to clear some things up: Honeydew is a muskmelon cultivar group, not a synonym, and in any case it originated in France.

The word "carrageenan" is derived from "carrageen", the name of the red seaweed it is produced from (also called "Irish moss"). The etymology of "carrageen" is from the Irish carraigín, and the seaweed has been used for centuries in Irish and Scottish cooking to make jellies and puddings.
posted by jedicus at 2:33 PM on August 19, 2013 [10 favorites]


different people react to different things in different ways

There are some definite limits to that variability, though.

And given the ubiquity of glutamate in other foods and in our body chemistry, the difficulty in monitoring absolutely one's own diet, and the inability of any study to find people with consistent reactions to MSG, it sure seems pretty likely that people who think they're reacting to MSG are mistaken and would be better served looking for something else that's triggering whatever problems they're having.
posted by straight at 2:33 PM on August 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


Here's the thing - if you want to prove that MSG allergy is very much a thing, all you have to do is isolate MSG binding specifically to Immunoglobulin E in the serum of one of the people who claims to be thus afflicted. I've done the same basic procedure you would need to do this a dozen times or so. Once you've done that, you've pretty much incontrovertibly proven that people can, in fact, be allergic to MSG.

And yet no one has done so. Curious.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 2:43 PM on August 19, 2013 [9 favorites]


Come on, seitan is a great name. I just wish menus would put seitan dishes at #666 on the menu. And "100% pure delicious gluten!" is probably the scarier description for most people considering current food trends.
posted by Drinky Die at 2:43 PM on August 19, 2013 [11 favorites]


Kid Charlemagne: "Here's the thing - if you want to prove that MSG allergy is very much a thing, all you have to do is isolate MSG binding specifically to Immunoglobulin E in the serum of one of the people who claims to be thus afflicted. I've done the same basic procedure you would need to do this a dozen times or so. Once you've done that, you've pretty much incontrovertibly proven that people can, in fact, be allergic to MSG.

And yet no one has done so. Curious.
"

See, that's a good, definitive answer. Thanks, KC!
posted by boo_radley at 2:46 PM on August 19, 2013


That's not a definitive answer; it's a suggestion of where an answer could come from.

There is a lot of talk of history in this thread (such as talk of "Chinese restaurant syndrome") but that is not science. There have been links to studies but the one I read through dismissed the four people that consistently reacted to MSG as statistically insignificant (which means it was looking at prevalence, not possibility).
posted by mountmccabe at 2:56 PM on August 19, 2013


mountmccabe: "That's not a definitive answer; it's a suggestion of where an answer could come from."

So " if you want to prove that MSG allergy is very much a thing, all you have to do is isolate MSG binding specifically to Immunoglobulin E in the serum of one of the people who claims to be thus afflicted." is one of several possibilities?
posted by boo_radley at 3:01 PM on August 19, 2013


mountmccabe: "I would also like someone to explain the difference between L-glutamic acid - which is found naturally - and D-glutamic acid, which is the form in MSG."

It relates to the chirality of the amino acid. A chiral molecule is a type of molecule that has a mirror image that is non-superposable. To get an idea of what this means hold out your hands in front of you, barring injury or whatever, both hands are mirror images of each other but if you super impose one over the other they don't match. Chiral pairs of molecules have all the same chemical bonds, but they are just rearranged in three dimensional space, which means that they have all the same chemical and physical properties except for a few limited exceptions. Weirdly, when you shine light through pure crystals of just one mirror image, or 'enantiomer', the plane that the light oscillates in spins in one direction or the other depending on which mirror image, but the big important effect this can have is with enzymes within living systems. Levomethamphetamine, which will decongest your nose, and Dextromethamphetamine, which is more commonly known as meth, are mirror images of each other in exactly the same way - but interact with our chemistry in fundamentally different ways. Thalidomide is another famous example of how this can mess with things, where one enantiomer is a very safe anti-nausea drug that was indeed perfect for expectant mothers while the other is a horrifically effective mutagen that caused awful effects in the enantiomeric mixtures that ended up being given to pregnant women in the late 50s and early 60s.

Now before you start thinking that this is a plausible etiology for Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, keep in mind that while D-glutamic acid has yet to be found to be used in a functional protein in a natural living system, it is everywhere in nature. Indeed, anywhere you find free glutamic acid in nature some portion of it will always be D-glutamic acid. The ratio between D-glutamic acid and L-glutamic acid depends on the source, but generally you will find microbially fermented products to have higher relative concentrations and non-microbial sources like meat to have lower concentrations. Commercially sold MSG, just like cheese or kombucha, has higher than average concentrations of D-glutamic acid relative to L-glutamic acid because it is from a microbial source, specifically fermentations of Corynebacterium glutamicum. You'll find a lot of people on the internet trying to take advantage of how confusing this can be to folks who never needed to take Organic Chemistry, but there really is nothing less natural about the contents of an MSG shaker in a chinese restaurant than the contents of a brewers yeast shaker for popcorn at a fancy movie theater.
Evaluation of free D-glutamate in processed foods
Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is added to many processed foods at significant levels for flavor enhancement. It is also naturally occurring at high levels in some foods. The enantiomeric composition of free glutamate in foods was examined and all foods analyzed were found to contain d-glutamate. The relative percent of d-glutamate in the food products studied depended on the origin of the glutamate. Foods to which MSG was added by the manufacturer had a high total level of MSG but a lower relative percentage of the d-enantiomer (usually less than 0.8%). In comparison, fermented foods tend to have high relative levels of d-glutamate but a lower total amount of the amino acid. The relative percent of d-glutamate in nonfermented foods containing no added MSG was also found to be low compared to fermented products. In some cases the percent d-glutamate could be related to the relative amounts of other food ingredients such as cheese.
posted by Blasdelb at 3:02 PM on August 19, 2013 [27 favorites]


There have been links to studies but the one I read through dismissed the four people that consistently reacted to MSG as statistically insignificant (which means it was looking at prevalence, not possibility).

No, that means there is precisely zero evidence that they were not "consistent" out of mere chance. If I want to test whether or not a 2-oz dose of H2O is lethal, I might design a study with a sample of two million test subjects, half of whom receive a dose of H2O and half of whom receive a placebo. Now, out of those 500,000 test subjects, some may very well die within minutes or hours of receiving the dose of H2O, but that does not mean that "OMG, H2O actually IS lethal for some highly-sensitive people! We just don't know how many yet!" it means, simply, that there is no statistical significance to a couple of people out of a randomly selected sample of 500,000 dying within hours of any given moment in time.
posted by yoink at 3:10 PM on August 19, 2013 [14 favorites]


Oops; my (pretty crappily designed, I must say; I'm really not sure how I got it funded) study should have divided into two cohorts of a million each, not 500K.
posted by yoink at 3:28 PM on August 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Blasdeb, I will try to find a way to read that paper. I understand chirality but was asking about the differences on this case.
posted by mountmccabe at 3:32 PM on August 19, 2013


several dozen fifty-pound sacks of the stuff

Are they making muffins with it? That does sound like a lot.
posted by thelonius at 3:42 PM on August 19, 2013


Well, MSG may not have an effect, but this thread has really brought out the worst in people. Congrats.
posted by usagizero at 3:56 PM on August 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


mountmccabe: "Blasdeb, I will try to find a way to read that paper. I understand chirality but was asking about the differences on this case."

I have a standing offer to anyone with a memail account that y'all can always memail me with a link to an abstract, an email address I can send a PDF to, and a promise not to distribute that PDF any further if you ever need anything. I have access through more than one of the best stocked libraries in the world, can get my hands on pretty much anything with a relatively trivial effort, and am generally disappointed by how few take me up on it.
posted by Blasdelb at 4:00 PM on August 19, 2013 [41 favorites]


Today I have discovered that I am indeed allergic to discussions about MSG.
posted by nevercalm at 4:14 PM on August 19, 2013 [6 favorites]


Seriously, though, this is all fascinating. My SO claims an MSG allergy, but I don't argue against it. I just tell her it's all woo and she punches me and then we play fight. So I love MSG, personally, all in all.
posted by nevercalm at 4:16 PM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I have a standing offer to anyone with a memail account that y'all can always memail me with a link to an abstract, an email address I can send a PDF to, and a promise not to distribute that PDF any further if you ever need anything. I have access through more than one of the best stocked libraries in the world, can get my hands on pretty much anything with a relatively trivial effort, and am generally disappointed by how few take me up on it.

Probably in part because what you're doing is pretty obviously illegal, no matter how crappy the current publishing situation is.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:23 PM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I am a bioinformatician with a biochemistry specialization and a medical researcher, and the amount of scientific illiteracy in this thread really, really concerns me. So deep breaths, and doing my best to explain some of the confusion that I'm seeing in this thread:

Ionic Disassociation

It is true that many compounds contain sodium and glutamic acid, but remember that MSG exists as a salt. This means that its components are held together with ionic bonds, so when MSG disassociates (e.g. is dissolved in water or saliva), MSG becomes its component ions dissolved in water - sodium and glutamic acid. It is important to note that these components exist in ionic and not pure elemental forms, so they have different properties due to water neutralizing their charges - so while pure elemental sodium is highly reactive, ionic sodium dissolved in water is fairly inert. Due to its ionic property, it is purely appropriate to discuss MSG as its component forms as in any organic, aqueous environment. Other compounds may also contain sodium and glutamic acid, but they may have covalent bonds to prevent the components from separating upon disassociation. So thus, for these compounds, we cannot consider their interactions with biological systems as purely the sum of their parts - but again, in the case of MSG, we can.

Sodium and Glutamic Acid

Now that we have established that in the case of MSG, we can look at sodium and glutamic acid separately in terms of properties. Sodium, as you all know, is a component of table salt; it is important in establishing ionic gradients, and is a key player in proper function of nerves. In high enough quantities, sodium can cause dehydration as it affects osmotic gradients, and eventually hypertension. Sodium over-consumption is definitely an issue, but in most given dishes table salt will contribute more sodium than MSG will given the relative amounts used of each ingredient to create flavor.

Glutamic acid is an amino acid - in other words, it is a building block of proteins, which constitute pretty virtually every structural element in your body and virtually all of the biological pathways as well. It is an unessential amino acid - which means that your body synthesizes glutamic acid on its own. Which isn't to say that additional consumption of glutamic acid isn't beneficial, its just that its unnecessary. Overconsumption of glutamic acid generally has no adverse health effects - your body is extremely efficient at metabolizing excess glutamic acid, and indeed, if it wasn't, the effects would be immediately obvious and fatal due to its intricate role in neural function. To give you an example of what would happen if your body was unable to metabolize glutamic acid, read up on Phenylketonuria, which is the inability to metabolize phenylalanine, another amino acid. Inability to metabolize glutamic acid would have even more severe and almost immediately fatal effects compared to Phenylketonuira, given its higher abundance and its more important roles.

Food Allergies and Intolerance

It is impossible to be allergic to either sodium or glutamic acid. Allergies are an autoimmune disorder where white blood cells attack substances that are generally not supposed to be attacked; if this was the case for either sodium or glutamic acid, the effects would be immediately fatal given the omni-presence of sodium and glutamic acid, their essential roles in the human body, and given how glutamic acid is naturally produced by the human body. So the comparisons to shellfish allergies, for instance, are not particularly sound.

Similarly, for the comparisons to lactose intolerance: lactose intolerance is caused by a lack of enzymes required to metabolize lactose. Sodium has no need for any form of breakdown, and we have similarly covered how lack of glutamic acid metabolism would be immediately fatal and obvious - so intolerance is also an impossible analogy in this circumstance.

D-Amino Acids versus L-Amino Acids
Amino Acids exist as stereoisomers - which means that they can exist in two mirror configurations depending on how the atoms in the molecule are orientated - we call these L and D forms. The comparison often used is that your left and right hands are often functionally identical, but you cannot overlap them. While the physical properties of L and D forms of stereoisomers are exactly the same, they can function differently in biological environments as they fit differently into enzymatic sites. Only L-Amino Acids are used by living beings, as D-Amino Acids cannot fit into any of the sites designated for amino acids. So thus, D-Amino Acids would be essentially inert to the human body - they would not be absorbed in the first place, but even if they were in the human body, they would not interfere with any biological pathways as they simply do not interact with any of the proteins or enzymes in the human body. It should also be noted that only SOME of the methods of production of MSG create D-Amino Acids in addition to L-Amino Acids. It is my understanding that most of MSG production is actually done through bacterial fermentation - so this process would ONLY create L-Amino Acids; only synthetic methods, which would be by far the limited method due to greater cost, would create D-Amino Acids.


I hope that helps the discussion, and I can address any further questions that pop up.
posted by Conspire at 4:28 PM on August 19, 2013 [294 favorites]


I get headaches sometimes from eating hamburgers. Once had a killer headache after I ate at Five Guys. I also once got a headache from eating Punjabi food at that deli on Houston everyone likes so much. Never had a headache from eating Chinese food.
posted by pravit at 4:30 PM on August 19, 2013


Blazecock Pileon: "Probably in part because what you're doing is pretty obviously illegal, no matter how crappy the current publishing situation is."

That is not correct, personally receiving a PDF from me would not be a violation of American law. Additionally, the source I primarily use goes to great lengths to secure the explicit right of those with access rights to share the PDFs we have access to with others for a variety of specific purposes including academic discussions like the one we are currently having here - so no - not only would neither I nor any recipient be a criminal but in almost all cases I as the sender would not even be in violation of theoretical contractual obligations that would be fundamentally unenforceable at this scale anyway.

If you have questions, or other difficulties discerning the obvious, please feel free to memail me.
posted by Blasdelb at 4:50 PM on August 19, 2013 [32 favorites]


I used to be allergic to MSG but then I got the vaccine and it cleared up. Of course my declawed cats now have autism and pirate music, so YMMV.

(MCMikeNamara, attempting to diffuse arguments through humor, since, 1974.)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 5:28 PM on August 19, 2013 [13 favorites]


I swear by the family healing trick of using MSG saturated water in the neti pot.
posted by planetesimal at 5:38 PM on August 19, 2013


I went to a Chinese restaurant once and got one hell of a migraine. But that was because nobody liked their sake so I drank theirs. I don't know why they ordered sake in a Chinese restaurant, but now I warn people that bulk Gekkikan that ships in carbdoard boxes is toxic.
posted by charlie don't surf at 5:46 PM on August 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


When I first arrived in Japan I was invited to participate in a fall harvest festival. They made me put on straw sandals and a hapi coat, and joined a group of young men (I was still young then) lugging around a giant "mikoshi" float. It must have weighed 2 tons, and they had guide-lines on the mast to prevent it from tipping over. Here's a video.

Anyway, if you join the matsuri, you have to drink. They started us out on Molson Ice beer, and moved on to sake poured right from the straw-wrapped sake cask.

I ended up passing out in a ditch and was rescued by friendly Baptist missionaries. It was the first time in my life it hurt blink.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:04 PM on August 19, 2013 [9 favorites]


Talk about some serious sucktacular food allergies? See my best bud's girl friend - Gets horribly sick from honey and palm oil, among other things. If I am picking up snacks I might share, I by default check the labels before buying.
posted by Samizdata at 6:12 PM on August 19, 2013


[Take the academic paper sidebar to MeMail, please. Thanks. ]
posted by restless_nomad at 6:20 PM on August 19, 2013


MetaTalk
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 6:36 PM on August 19, 2013


The reason people get allergic reactions is because that shit been stepped on with rat poison and powdered cement in those backalley MSG labs.

In all seriousness, I wonder in how many cases they've tested samples of the MSG the restaurants were using for contaminants? Clinical tests with reference-grade MSG can put paid to the "allergic to MSG" hypothesis (let's take it as read that they have), but are some restaurants cheaping out and buying dodgy stuff that's not even food grade?
posted by George_Spiggott at 7:02 PM on August 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


I have a suspicion that there's a larger overlap than random chance between those w/ MSG sensitivity and something like, say, "chronic lyme" disease.

Spurred by this I went to Amazon to get a big shaker of the stuff. I love this page:
Marshalls Creek Spice MSG
INGREDIENTS: MSG. WEIGHT: 14 OUNCES
Blurb:
Packed weekly
No Fillers
No MSG
All Natural
posted by meehawl at 7:06 PM on August 19, 2013 [9 favorites]


I know and understand the data and studies relating to MSG. And have no problem stating that research indicates that there's no such thing as "MSG allergy".

I also know that I know the only two local Asian fast food places that use MSG because I've been violently ill after eating at both of them.

I know which brands of chips use MSG because I can bank on a shocking reaction within an hour of eating anything more than about a dozen or so of them.

I also know that the sickest I have ever been was after eating MSG-laden food whilst on holiday in Canada a few years back. I knew it had MSG, but hadn't eaten MSG in years and something in my brain thought - "Oh, I'll be OK, I'll just drink lots of water and dilute it".

No no no no no no no no no .... eugh. Never have I felt so ill. Never have I actually felt my heart try to beat so hard it seemed to be exploding out from my ribcage.

So this is where personal experience and data collide, so I know first hand how others who have had a reaction - yet get told "there's no such thing as a MSG allergy" feel.

That said, I have intolerance to a variety of foods, and realise that it is most likely something else which goes along with the MSG that causes my reaction.

But I have no real interest in doing any experimentation. So when I see that a product or eatery has/uses MSG, I leave or refrain. May as well play it safe, whatever the cause may be.
posted by chris88 at 7:09 PM on August 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


> INGREDIENTS: MSG. WEIGHT: 14 OUNCES Blurb: Packed weekly No Fillers No MSG All Natural

Heh. I saw a pack of "mushroom seasoning" that claimed to be a replacement for MSG. But one of the primary ingredients was, uh, MSG.
posted by planetesimal at 7:13 PM on August 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Soooooooooooooooooooooooo...I spend a good amount of time convincing people that MSG is not poison as part of my job. Because, for all the sciencey reasons listed above, it's pretty clearly not poisonous or toxic in the usual sense of the word. A lot of the fears about it have been really irrational and overhyped. It's also a culturally important (and delicious) seasoning that doesn't deserve the bad name its gotten in the press.

However, there is a human element to this that we often ignore in our zeal for evidence (and yes, as a huge nerd, it pains me to say that): people have real experiences and their experiences matter.

People use whatever vocabulary they have available to them to describe experiences that they have. They may reach for words like "allergy" or "intolerance" even if they do not have, say, a histamine reaction or an enzyme deficiency related to the food in question. They are attempting to describe an experience. Yes, the experience is subject to culturally-mediated interpretation and to cognitive bias and placebo and nocebo effects, but I tend to believe people's experiences because they are describing something that happened to them - for whatever reason. Their explanations for WHY it happened may leave something (or a lot of somethings) to be desired, and may be scientifically unsupportable, but that doesn't mean they didn't have the experience.

I find it troubling when people take the tone of "Oh you think you had a migraine? WELL SCIENCE." It is not helpful. It is not kind. It also shows a troubling lack of curiosity in the same people who supposedly appreciate scientific inquiry so, so much. We should be interested in people's experiences, and interested in helping them find explanations that make sense, not throwing down SCIENCE like a mic drop.

Be nice, seriously. People get migraines. They are painful and frustrating to figure out. People are going to attempt to draw connections from the migraines to what they did, or what they ate, because that is what humans do. Then they are going to interpret those connections and come up with a theory, likely making mistakes in the process.

It may, indeed, be that foods that contain MSG often contain other ingredients that do cause symptoms of the type reported, and people make the association to MSG. There probably is an explanation for the experience, possibly even a biological one.

People have to make choices based on heuristics that help them to live their daily lives. Sometimes those heuristics will be imperfect, yet workable. Some people will subsequently avoid MSG and that will work out okay for them, despite the fact that it may not be an ideal solution. I wish we could be a little more compassionate about that. We can talk about the science without invalidating people's experiences.
posted by Ouisch at 7:26 PM on August 19, 2013 [52 favorites]


My favorite MSG delivery method.
posted by Hubajube at 7:31 PM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think the pro science peoples' feelings have just been worn down so much from various anti-evidence campaigns that actively hurt or kill people, that when its something like msg they are just too tired to explain it nicely.
The vaccines=autism people sincerely believe that their connection is real too.
posted by Iax at 7:43 PM on August 19, 2013 [10 favorites]


zarq: "A migraine headache is a very specific and painful physical ailment. It's not constructive or helpful to tell someone that a phenomenon which is clearly happening to them (something they might even be taking medicine for) is undoubtedly psychosomatic. "

You hear the word "psychosomatic" as somehow denigrating. That's pretty interesting. In my experience, somewhere between a third and a half of all minor, chronic ailments without clear etiologies that people present with at primary care and allergists (and yes, I've worked at both kinds of clinics) have an enormous "psychosomatic" component. Our hospitals are full of people in the advanced stages of diseases such as chronic GI dysmotility or pain or seizure, many of whom are getting extensive workups with no identifiable etiology but very specific personality traits. Factoring in the "psychosomatic" component of abnormal illness behaviour is sometimes the only way to understand some otherwise intractably ill patients.

We are all very complicated, imperfectly evolved bags of mostly water with so many things that can go wrong or are in active states of decay or attack from micro- and macro-parasites or biochemical derangement. It's an evolutionary wonder that most of us to not perceive with pain throughout our bodies, being as they are constantly under some kind of assault or injury. I treat a lot of people for whom the cognitive and behavioral screens that prevent the real, felt sensations of the body intruding upon their consciousness have eroded or become pathological. We all have disease, but we respond to them differently and uniquely with behaviors that we call "illness". Finally, there's basically no physical correlates or lesions acute "headaches". They are as "real" as the list of symptoms and behaviors we call a psychiatric diagnosis. An "MSG Headache" is a culture-bound syndrome, as specific in time and place as multiple personality disorder or amok. In population studies, we can find neural correlates for chronic headaches associated with changes in the neural processing of pain, but that's the same kind of population-based chronic sequelae marker we'd see in something similar, such as bipolar or schizophrenia.
posted by meehawl at 7:46 PM on August 19, 2013 [13 favorites]


The reason people get allergic reactions is because that shit been stepped on with rat poison and powdered cement in those backalley MSG labs.

In all seriousness, I wonder in how many cases they've tested samples of the MSG the restaurants were using for contaminants?


Yeah, I remember reading a recent article about how a soy sauce manufacturer in China had been arrested for making adulterated products. He collected waste hair from barbers and made it into soy sauce. He got thrown into prison. This is commonplace.

There was a recent scandal in China, in 2008, over contaminated baby formula that had melamine added so it would test high in protein. They arrested several adulterators and executed two of them. You would think they would learn, in 2007, there was a scandal over melamine added to cat and dog food, which killed a lot of pets in the US and worldwide.

I also know that I know the only two local Asian fast food places that use MSG because I've been violently ill after eating at both of them.

It wasn't the MSG. This is why you got sick. Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown.
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:53 PM on August 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


English, at least, has a really terrible vocabulary for talking about tastes. Using smells and comparisons to other foods will get you part of the way there, but there's a lot of food that's hard to describe because English just doesn't give you the tools. Borrowing umami, inventing words like "mouthfeel", and a whole bunch of that pretentious wine-tasting stuff is just trying to grapple with the problem.

Excuse me? Why is umami a better word than mouthfeel? Mouthfeel is a wonderful word and it accurately describes a part of food and eating that is very important. Other words like depth, meatyness, richness (which does have two different meanings, but it's pretty clear which meaning you are talking about) just to give a few. It's actually telling that the English words are more descriptive of adding to an existing flavor, because umami by itself is a very bland taste. (Compare to plain salty, sweet, acidic, or bitter flavors which are intense all on their own.)

Umami means "good" for christ's sake. 15 years ago almost noone in the west knew what it meant, but trust me, chefs knew the concept and had plenty of vocabulary to describe it. Umami also came from a society that didn't really eat much meat at the time, so instead of associating the flavor with meat, it had to be associated on it's own. I suspect the word's foreignness is why it stuck such a nerve to people when they first heard it. It's not a word you could just use to someone who didn't know what it meant, you had to explain it, because otherwise it was just a jumble of meaningless sounds.
posted by aspo at 8:35 PM on August 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


Heh. I saw a pack of "mushroom seasoning" that claimed to be a replacement for MSG. But one of the primary ingredients was, uh, MSG.
posted by planetesimal at 7:13 PM on August 19 [+] [!]


Yes! I have a can of something like this given by my mom, who said "you should use this MSG replacement because it's healthier" and I read the ingredients and it had MSG listed... it does taste pretty damn good though.

I have very definitely had headaches immediately after eating something salty at an Asian restaurant (particularly, if I down an entire salty Miso soup cup at once) and my first instinct is to go "Oh My God, MSG headache" And then I remember I cook with MSG at least once a week anyway...
posted by xdvesper at 9:18 PM on August 19, 2013


meehawl: "Finally, there's basically no physical correlates or lesions acute "headaches"."

I'm not really sure how to parse this sentence, but if you're trying to say that we don't know what causes headaches, that's wrong. We have identified the physical symptoms of many different types of headaches. If you're trying to say instead that we don't know what physically causes migraine headaches, that's also wrong. We know that some migraine headaches are caused by a reduction in blood flow to various areas of the cerebral cortex, and that many sufferers of migraines have reduced cortical thickness and surface area in regions that control pain processing than non-sufferers. If I'm misunderstanding you, my apologies.
posted by zarq at 9:29 PM on August 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


And yes, declaring that physical symptoms someone is experiencing are all in their head, without knowing anything about their medical history or anything else about them, really is quite condescending.
posted by zarq at 9:33 PM on August 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


I find it troubling when people take the tone of "Oh you think you had a migraine? WELL SCIENCE."

One of us is skimming too fast. Maybe it's me, but I haven't seen anyone question the reality of anyone's migraine. I see people trying to help migraine sufferers by suggesting they need to look again for what's really triggering their headaches because it's very unlikely that it's MSG.
posted by straight at 9:50 PM on August 19, 2013 [10 favorites]


Man as someone with bad anxiety problems I can't even wrap my head around getting upset at being told that the trigger is psychosomatic even though the pain isn't. It doesn't make the pain any less real and it's not condescending when "psychosomatic" is the proper term. When it creeps up on me it's usually for long stretches where psychosomatic triggers are a daily thing I have to deal with, ever since the first time I was fully convinced I was having a heart attack in my early 20s. Random twitches, chest and muscle pains, headaches, lightheadedness, all that stuff is real but the triggers can be any old thing in my head.
posted by jason_steakums at 10:27 PM on August 19, 2013 [9 favorites]


I don't even care about MSG woo (I pour that shit on everything). What I care about is people saying they're "allergic" to stuff when they really mean they have a food intolerance or any number of symptomatic reactions that are not IgE-mediated allergy. I feel this way because if I eat peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, or avocados or a number of other tropical fruits, or I have the audacity to climb a tree, or roll around in freshly cut grass, or dust out my computer case, or have the misfortune of getting stung by a bee or a wasp, or I snuggle a cat, or I take some penicillin or sulfa drugs.... the entire rest of my day, possibly the week, is ruined. During an attack I can usually avoid a trip to the ER by breathing slowly and monitoring my blood pressure, but I'm sure not getting any work done.

The other day I was at this hipstery burger place with all kinds of fancy French food words on the menu, and I asked the cook about the stuff I'd ordered, and was told that it was all safe. Yay! Dig in! Oops! Throat tingling! LOL! What he meant to say was "BASIL PESTO AIOLI.. WITH WALNUTS." Fast forward a few minutes, I'm flying home to get Benadryl and Epinephrine in me, I get stopped for a half hour at a police sobriety checkpoint on the main drag, and have to explain that "NO AH HAMENT BEEN GINKING (WHEEEEEZE) OTHITHA, I'NG HAMING ANG ALLUGGIC MEACTION". He shines the flashlight on my face, flinches, and waves me on.

10 minutes later, hives everywhere (HAVE YOU EVER HAD ITCHY HIVES ON THE SOLES OF YOUR FEET? This is Biblical-level torture shit) and within a couple of hours the stomach cramps start. "Stomach cramps" is a euphemism, since I don't want to ruin anyone's appetite.

But (and I'm not accusing anyone here of doing this, just saying to keep it in the back of your mind) if you say you're allergic to something because it gives you a headache, it is probably contributing in some small way to a... general societal nonchalance about allergies (outside of, maybe, parenting forums) which causes me to dread leaving the house. The term is so watered-down nowadays, people just think it involves a runny nose and just don't pay it much attention, even in foodservice where it ought to be a big deal.

I don't want to be one of those people who demand to see an ingredient list everywhere, because a) most places don't have one on hand and do not enjoy interrogation, and b) cross-contamination (not washing a utensil or cutting surface) can screw up even "safe" stuff. So the more people in general get their facts straight and treat allergies as something actually life-threatening, the better.

Man, FUCK NATURE. </3 mast cells
posted by jake at 10:33 PM on August 19, 2013 [25 favorites]


(I promise I'm not trying to be dismissive about anyone's migraines or headaches, be they induced by MSG or the placebo effect or sodium overdose or spousal arguments or a demon's curse or space pirates. If you're having a bad time after eating a delicious meal, that sucks, I feel for you, and I hope you can track down the source through the SCIENTIFIC METHOD!!!)
posted by jake at 10:48 PM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


planetismal: Heh. I saw a pack of "mushroom seasoning" that claimed to be a replacement for MSG. But one of the primary ingredients was, uh, MSG.

And also "nucleotide seasoning!" That is basically a big ol' packet of science. Salty, salty science. (Oh got what is it I must know.)
posted by rhiannonstone at 11:31 PM on August 19, 2013


Copronymous, what other languages do you know of with better ways of describing the sense of taste? Or other senses?

That's interesting.
posted by Sleeper at 12:58 AM on August 20, 2013


The excess-sodium suggestion sounds plausible to me, but I think it's worth noting that "Chinese restaurant syndrome" is an alleged sensitivity to MSG in Chinese restaurant food. It's at least possible that people reporting a sensitivity to MSG are actually reporting a sensitivity to some product associated with cooking MSG in a specific way, or with specific ingredients, or something else typified by Chinese restaurant food. They're certainly not reporting a sensitivity to chemically-pure MSG, for all the reasons given above.
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:17 AM on August 20, 2013


I don't understand what everyone is going on about, how amazing it is that the West was using umami flavours without having a word for it. The word was invented in 1908 by Kikunae Ikeda and it basically means "delicious taste". The concept of making stuff delicious is, I would argue, pretty univeral.
posted by molecicco at 1:35 AM on August 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


The way it was explained to me was that MSG and salt worked together, i.e. MSG was a salt enhancer. The relationship was optimal at a 10:1 ratio of NaCl:MSG, so not much MSG is used at all, comparatively.
posted by DesbaratsDays at 6:56 AM on August 20, 2013


As an aside, one of the lovely food industry reactions to "ingredient controversy" is to just rename the ingredient. So, MSG is often called "Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein", and has been since the Great MSG Panic.

Technically MSG isn't exactly HVP, but HVP and NaCl in the same food has the exact same effects as MSG, namely immediate disassociation into Sodium and delicious Glutamate.

(incidentally, non-fermented soy sauce _is_ HVP. So, if you like La Choy, you love HVP.)
posted by Xyanthilous P. Harrierstick at 7:45 AM on August 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


I fed my cat some MSG after getting him declawed and circumcised, and he seemed like he might be getting a headache, though it might also be because I was reading Infinite Jest to him.
posted by Cookiebastard at 8:05 AM on August 20, 2013 [6 favorites]


I think the pro science peoples' feelings have just been worn down so much from various anti-evidence campaigns that actively hurt or kill people, that when its something like msg they are just too tired to explain it nicely.

The vaccines=autism people sincerely believe that their connection is real too.


I can understand that. It's frustrating and these beliefs can actively harm people, so it's scary as well.

One of the first comments in the thread reminded me that I try to ask myself whether what I'm saying to someone is not only correct, but whether it's actually going to help them. Even if I'm right, they might not be able to hear me, especially if I'm insulting them. Double especially if I'm insulting them while occupying some position of "authority" or status (as a practitioner of any kind), or invoking authority in the form of peer-reviewed citations.

Unfortunately, I think a lot of woo springs out of people feeling brushed off by their doctors or other authority figures, or a lack of Official Answers from those sources - because some conditions don't yet have answers or reliable treatments. Those people then feel like evidence-based approaches/practitioners are unfeeling and uncaring, or don't know anything, so they go looking for compassion and answers that unfortunately also come with a large side-order of dangerous BS.
posted by Ouisch at 8:11 AM on August 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


1) Maybe we just need a neutral word for MSG. I like "Umami-flavoured goodness", but that's a bit of a mouthful, as is "hydrolysed vegetable protein". What would be wrong with saying "glutamate" and leaving it at that?

2) The confusion about allergies benefits those who are selling non-standard cures and nostrums, but doesn't help regular folks understand why the distinction is important. I myself have been "tested" by someone who claimed that she could tell the difference in my arm strength while holding a glass of milk vs not, and that the test showed I was ALLERGIC to milk. Everyone else in the room seemed to buy this demonstration, and I've since learned not to argue with people who are so heavily invested in this kind of explanation for their symptoms (Having been tested by an actual allergist by having a zillion tiny subdermal injections, I know I'm allergic to lots of stuff, but not milk.)

3) boo_radley: it's like a corpse grinder every time i turn on my lawn mower.

I got me one of those push mowers - they're way lighter than a motorized mower, and they don't throw up anywhere near as much dust. I remember what you mean by "corpse grinder". (Disclaimer: I like mowing the lawn enough that I'm willing to tolerate some hay fever from this activity. The drugs help a lot, and I have a small lawn. YMMV.)
posted by sneebler at 8:26 AM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Vitamin G
posted by griphus at 8:29 AM on August 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


Come on, seitan is a great name. I just wish menus would put seitan dishes at #666 on the menu. And "100% pure delicious gluten!" is probably the scarier description for most people considering current food trends.

That's it, I'm going to re-label the giant bag of wheat gluten in my kitchen "666".

I'm going to add MSG to the broth the next time I make seitan...
posted by inertia at 8:30 AM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Fast forward a few minutes, I'm flying home to get Benadryl and Epinephrine in me

Jake, I'm not trying to be rude or dismissive at ALL, but I have to ask, since you're so deathly allergic to so many things, why aren't you carrying Benadryl and Epinephrine with you at all times? If it were me, it'd be like the American Express card I'll never qualify for - don't leave home without it. (I'm not concern trolling, I'm genuinely curious as to why you had to go home to get your meds, it's the first thing that I thought of while reading.)
posted by jennaratrix at 10:24 AM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


My favorite Chinese restaurant gives a little side bowl of MSG when you order fried squid. Oh yeah.

MSG is a hellova drug.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:17 AM on August 20, 2013


Thank you Conspire for bringing some fact to the argument. I see clones of this discussion all the time, pretty much the moment anybody anywhere says they’ve chosen not to use/eat/drink something because of the way it makes them feel.

I think it’s worth noting that most people tend to use the terms allergy, sensitivity, intolerance, and ‘makes me feel yucky’ more or less interchangeably, which admittedly isn’t scientifically appropriate. It is completely understandable though and Not A Big Deal for someone to choose not to consume a product because it makes them feel yucky.

It is very different for that person to say that because consuming a product makes them feel yucky, that therefore it is Unsafe, and nobody else should be allowed to consume it either. It also doesn’t make any sense to tell someone that because they can’t be allergic to something,( in the technical sense), then therefore they must not ACTUALLY feel yucky when they eat it and they’re just making it up.

To my mind, both of the latter activities are just a form of social bullying and don't serve any useful purpose.
posted by Morriscat at 11:29 AM on August 20, 2013


I'm going to add MSG to the broth the next time I make seitan...

Do it! MSG in the seitan dry mix and mushroom seasoning in the broth, ALWAYS. (Kitchen Bouquet/Gravy Master is a good seitan trick, too. Improves the color and makes for great grill marks.)

MSG just has that je ne sais quoi that makes people ask what I did to make the food taste so damn good. My countertop shaker has a homemade label that says "fuck yeah, it's MSG!" Any/all attempts to convince my fellow vegans that it's a perfectly harmless food additive they unwittingly eat all the time, rather than a wretched poison that must be avoided at all costs, have been unsuccessful. I really appreciate the Science! here.
posted by divined by radio at 11:29 AM on August 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


I never really knew MSG was thought of as an allergen (although, maybe I have heard rumors about headaches...). To me, those "No MSG" signs were meant along the lines of "Not from concentrate" labels - trying to claim that their food was a higher standard, fresher and better tasting than the cheap three day-old mush that's been sprinkled with some flavor salt in hopes of making it passable.

Here's how to tell if you're allergic to MSG.
Are you dead?


Perhaps you're making a point about the technical meaning of "allergic", but the issue isn't whether touching the stuff will make someone disappear in a puff of smoke. It's whether eating it causes a headache. The idea that since it's a neurotransmitter there's nothing to worry about seems misguided to me. A neurotransmitter is a powerful part of the human system and it seems all the more likely that knocking the balance of a person's brain chemicals around could cause a headache (the most common symptom mentioned).

An abundance of glutamate in the brain or spinal fluid is apparently associated with ALS, as well as Alzheimer's, stroke, epilepsy & other neuro disorders. While the blood-brain barrier is there, it doesn't seem to be absolute. And some people, at least, believe double blind trials support the other side.

I am not an expert and have no personal experience with this - I looked it up because I thought it was weird to suggest that it couldn't be dangerous because it's a synthesized brain chemical.
posted by mdn at 1:35 PM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


It also doesn’t make any sense to tell someone that...they must not ACTUALLY feel yucky when they eat it and they’re just making it up.

This seems to me to be almost entirely a straw man, though one many people in the thread have invoked. Who here has said that anyone is "making up" their symptoms? Who has said that anyone "doesn't actually feel yucky"? The most that has been said by the vast, vast majority of participants in this thread has been "it's bad that you feel yucky, but you're blaming the wrong culprit." And, yes, it's actually really, really helpful for people to know what actually causes them to feel yucky and not to pin the blame on the wrong thing.
posted by yoink at 1:37 PM on August 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


Jake, I'm not trying to be rude or dismissive at ALL, but I have to ask, since you're so deathly allergic to so many things, why aren't you carrying Benadryl and Epinephrine with you at all times? If it were me, it'd be like the American Express card I'll never qualify for - don't leave home without it. (I'm not concern trolling, I'm genuinely curious as to why you had to go home to get your meds, it's the first thing that I thought of while reading.)

Ohhhhhh, no, don't worry, it's not like I don't hear this often from genuinely concerned people, but it's down to 2 things:
1) I'm a lazy asshole, unbelievably forgetful and distractable, even when my life is at stake. My wife loves this part.
2) Benadryl doesn't really do much for anaphylaxis since it involves a broad spectrum of symptoms and (as I understand it with my limited knowledge) H1 antagonists haven't been shown to help with any of the serious stuff. It just makes me fall asleep so I don't have to be awake through the ordeal.

Still though, I'd really appreciate it if, say, I could go into a Vietnamese restaurant and the wait staff would actually communicate "no peanut garnish" to the cooks, as if forgetting this request were no more serious than "no onions please I don't like them"

BTW I totally made some bomb ass Cuban black beans and rice last night with Sazon Goya, after reading this thread. DAMN I love MSG.
posted by jake at 1:40 PM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


mdn:

To clarify your thoughts, while glutamic acid/glutamate* is most certainly a neurotransmitter, it is also one of the more common structural building blocks for proteins in your body. Consequentially, while yes, as a neurotransmitter glutamate must be tightly regulated in the brain, glutamate must also be present in ample concentration in the body to maintain proper function. Furthermore, almost every food item that has protein in it has a wealth of glutamate, even if not present in free form as MSG adds - any protein, when consumed, will be broken down into its animo acid components, so almost everything you eat, and not JUST MSG-laced food or even the foods cited as having high free glutamate content, would actually raise your glutamate levels.

So to reconcile glutamate's dual function as both a neurotransmitter and a structural building block for proteins (as well as a remover of waste nitrogen, which creates even greater importance for glutamate to be present in abundant amounts in the body), and to reconcile the fact that glutamate will be naturally present in virtually every meal thus causing potentially unpredictable spikes in glutamate, the human body has a number of adaptations for tightly regulating glutamate especially when dealing with the brain, including the blood brain barrier. Glutamate has numerous different but vital functions, so the body needs to very tightly regulate what concentration of amino acid is attributed to which roles.

In fact, the very article that you have posted on the blood-brain barrier actually does support this idea: So the blood-brain barrier actually does do a very fair job of keeping the glutamate that you consume out of the brain and preventing it from taking on a role as a neurotransmitter as opposed to its roles as a structural building block and a remover of waste nitrogen. Furthermore, keep in mind that the BBB is only one of the many tools that the body uses to regulate glutamate - so even where the blood brain barrier may not be absolutely perfect in all circumstances, metabolism would compensate. Keep in mind that even barring all that, there is still some leeway for fluctuation in glutamate concentration, because neurons work as an on-off signals relying on very clear and distinct thresholds for activations, and minute changes in concentration would not really impact whether a neuron sends an electrical signal along or not.

Furthermore, issues of chronic disorders relating to improper processing of glutamate would almost certainly point to issues with your body's proper metabolism/regulation of glutamate as opposed to consumption of glutamate. To be clear, it is virtually impossible NOT to consume glutamate in vast quantities that would create acute spikes in your glutamate level even if you avoided MSG/free glutamate-rich foods because again, the distinction between free glutamate and glutamate bound in protein would only be a matter of flavor as the glutamate bound in protein would be released upon digestion.

So yes, while glutamate is technically a brain chemical, that doesn't necessarily mean that it's dangerous to consume. I hope that helps.


* The two are actually the same compound that can exist in two different forms for those who may be uncertain about the distinction here, we just call it differently based on what form it is in (i.e. if the hydrogen is disassociated or not). For the biologists, I know I'm being sloppy with my terminology, but given how little it matters in this context especially how interchanging between the two would cause confusion - forgive me!
posted by Conspire at 2:15 PM on August 20, 2013 [15 favorites]


Makes Stuff Good
posted by molecicco at 2:24 PM on August 20, 2013


Makes Salty Gravy
posted by planetesimal at 2:25 PM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Since we are talking about allergies: I occasionally hear that all "true" allergic responses (as in an immune system response) are to proteins, and that it's not possible to have a true allergy to a non-protein. Any scientists want to chime in or link to a good source? I can't find good information on this online.
posted by insectosaurus at 3:52 PM on August 20, 2013


sneebler: "1) Maybe we just need a neutral word for MSG. I like "Umami-flavoured goodness", but that's a bit of a mouthful, as is "hydrolysed vegetable protein". What would be wrong with saying "glutamate" and leaving it at that?"

Sounds too science for the vaccination crowd. Science bad.
posted by Samizdata at 3:53 PM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


insectosaurus:

Typically, proteins are recognized because they tend to be really specific molecules for targeting, but any molecule recognizable by an antibody can potentially become an allergen. I'm having a hard time thinking of any specific examples off the top of my head, but I know that they would not necessarily need to be a protein.
posted by Conspire at 4:02 PM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Coming back with having consulted some papers, my understanding is that allergic reactions can be classified into two types, IgE-mediated, and non-IgE mediated reactions. While IgE-mediated reactions are significantly more severe and likely to be fatal, non-IgE reactions are very rarely life-threatening - but they are still considered an "allergy" under this classification. So under the latter classification would be allergies mediated by B-Cells, and it is my understanding that B-Cells can absolutely recognize polysaccharides and lipids.

Here's a good non-paywalled article on the topic, although it doesn't deal strictly with allergic responses:
http://cellular-immunity.blogspot.ca/2007/12/antigen.html

Of course, this also suggests that a non-protein allergic reaction would be extremely weak, so it may not even register.
posted by Conspire at 4:16 PM on August 20, 2013


zarq: "many sufferers of migraines have reduced cortical thickness and surface area in regions that control pain processing than non-sufferers. "

I did address population-based imaging studies like this, where I pointed out that many psychiatric diseases, such as bipolar, depression, schizophrenia or trauma demonstrate aggregate changes in neural tissue. However, these are population averages, so you can't use any of them for diagnosis. You can't scan a brain and say "Oh, *that one's a migraine, but that other one's a bipolar". We do imaging with migraines to rule out obvious physical causes but "pure" migraines are not imageable. And finally, these long-term changes in specific structural areas of the brain that regulate pain and emotion well, how can you say these are causitive of syndrome and not sequelae? Take a London cab driver, have them drive a lot. You can find brain changes onimaging. Were they born that way? Not really. They changed their brain's physical structure through continued exposure.
posted by meehawl at 5:33 PM on August 20, 2013


Conspire - thank you so much! Really interesting stuff.
posted by insectosaurus at 6:33 PM on August 20, 2013


One of the things that makes me nervous is the blithe assertion that the substance is chemically identical to another, harmless substance. This is often the defense of High Fructose Corn Syrup that's trotted out - yet it's fundamentally untrue (it's lacking a critical chemical bond) and technically untrue, as the fabrication process introduces impurities - in HFCS, lead contamination is a real issue due to the way it's manufactured. Yes, the bits that stick to the tongue to indicate sweetness are supposed to be identical - yet the difference between sugar and HFCS is easily discovered in blind taste tests. If you can't convince as imperfect a testing apparatus as the human tongue, your claims are suspect.

Maybe MSG is chemically identical to a naturally occurring substance - if it was synthesized correctly, and all of the unwanted byproducts successfully filtered out of the mass-market product. Big If.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:00 PM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


"One of the things that makes me nervous is the blithe assertion that the substance is chemically identical to another, harmless substance. This is often the defense of High Fructose Corn Syrup that's trotted out - yet it's fundamentally untrue (it's lacking a critical chemical bond) and technically untrue, as the fabrication process introduces impurities - in HFCS, lead contamination is a real issue due to the way it's manufactured. Yes, the bits that stick to the tongue to indicate sweetness are supposed to be identical - yet the difference between sugar and HFCS is easily discovered in blind taste tests. If you can't convince as imperfect a testing apparatus as the human tongue, your claims are suspect.

Maybe MSG is chemically identical to a naturally occurring substance - if it was synthesized correctly, and all of the unwanted byproducts successfully filtered out of the mass-market product. Big If
."

HFCS is not at all chemically identical to table sugar, being a combination of free fructose and glucose in non stoichiometric ratios as opposed to a combination of exactly equal parts fuctose and glucose condensed into a disaccharide. This means that they do indeed have measurably different levels of sweetness, measurably different flavors, measurably different effects on how full you feel during and after a meal, and likely different pathways through which they are metabolized in the liver. The only people telling you that they are exactly the same are plainly uninformed about human biology on the most basic of levels or trying to sell you something.

The MSG in a shaker is chemically identical, and it is chirally identical to many other fermented foods like it. It is also not synthesized in any really meaningful sense of the word, it is fermented and precipitated. The only byproducts that could conceivably come with it would be from the perfectly edible bacteria used to make it.
posted by Blasdelb at 7:02 AM on August 21, 2013 [9 favorites]


HFCS is not table sugar. It's much closer to honey in composition, though not completely identical in the glucose/fructose balance. It also, of course, doesn't have the micro-components that natural honeys have.

HFCS 55 is close enough, however, to be widely used as an "extender" of honey or as a blend component to make an outright fake. There are real concerns that some honey sold in the US may be partially or entirely non-bee. In particular, China is suspected of selling and "laundering" counterfeit honey through third-parties. And so, there are now honey detectives, forensic melissopalynologists, who try to divine the origin honey by using pollen signatures (or lack there of).
posted by bonehead at 8:51 AM on August 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


One of the things that makes me nervous is the blithe assertion that the substance is chemically identical to another, harmless substance.

There is no vital essence that differentiates substances tat were produced via a biological process in an organism or via a chemical process in a lab, same is same.

This is often the defense of High Fructose Corn Syrup that's trotted out - yet it's fundamentally untrue (it's lacking a critical chemical bond)

No. HFCS is a mixture of glucose and fructose, wheras table sugar is sucrose a completely different (yet rather similar in the terms of chemical space) substance.

as the fabrication process introduces impurities - in HFCS, lead contamination is a real issue due to the way it's manufactured.

Doubtful, the process used historically to make HFCS possibly could have contained some trace elements and also possibly contain lead from lead soldering in pipework (just like in your house) but the modern process uses enzymes isolated from bacteria and fungi. Also anything that is rated food or pharmaceutical grade goes through such stringent tests which ensure that no toxic level of impurities are present. (note from the bacteria and fungi enzymes there are no toxic impurities at all, they are going to be grown from sterile cultures in ultra-pure water with carefully controlled additions of necessary nutrients (normally autolysed yeast extracts) and under very carefully selected conditions to ensure reproducability) Now I'll give you that these stringent guidelines (GLP good laboratory practice) are really only followed in the USA and Europe and you're really rolling the dice getting bulk materials from somewhere else but hey good for government oversight right?

In all seriousness I bet there is some response (probably psychosomatic but that doesn't make it fake) that would happen with people eating certain foods. TO call it an allergic response is incorrect, I tend to see it like children running around flapping their arms and jumping off things saying they're flying. You know they're not flying but you can't tell them that without an argument and hurt feelings so you just shrug your shoulders and say "thats nice dear be careful" and try to educate them if/when they might possibly understand.
posted by koolkat at 9:13 AM on August 21, 2013


oh and one last awesome thing about MSG... a paste of MSG powder and a drop or 2 of water makes a terrific neutralizer for bee stings and insect bites. I've done this ever since I was a kid.
posted by lonefrontranger at 11:04 AM on August 21, 2013


(er, neutralizes the pain, that is... since we're dicing semantics in this thread, if you're legitimately histamine-style allergic to bee stings, for Cthulu's sake keep an epi-pen on you).
posted by lonefrontranger at 11:06 AM on August 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Unfortunately, I think a lot of woo springs out of people feeling brushed off by their doctors or other authority figures, or a lack of Official Answers from those sources - because some conditions don't yet have answers or reliable treatments."

As someone with a congenital illness who's been seeing doctors all my life, and this mutation is known to exist only in no more than a couple hundred people worldwide — so, very rare and basically I end up educating my doctors about my condition — I've found that most Americans have very unrealistic ideas about doctors and medicine. Physicians and the medical establishment themselves are responsible for no small part of this, but it's also just our culture.

People expect definitive diagnosis, well-understood etiology, and reliable treatment. As a matter of course. And because they believe this is all far more well-understood than it is, and that diagnosis is a deterministic process by which most doctors will all follow to the same conclusions, and treatments will also be well-understood and predictable and in some sense universally agreed-upon by the medical establishment at any given point in time, they expect definitive answers and effective treatments and when they don't get them, they are disappointed, confused, upset, and even resentful. They'll often decide that that doctor was one of the bad ones and find a different one. And when for whatever reason their illness improves, because of a better diagnosis or better treatment, or just because it did idiosyncratically, they decide that this doctor is the good doctor and they then trust that doctor's diagnosis and treatments implicitly.

And when they can't find any doctors to effectively diagnose and/or treat their illness, then they will turn to other sufferers, on the web or wherever, and there they will find people who will provide them with the simple answer they've been hungry for. And they will also decide that the medical establishment has failed them in some deliberate, conspiratorial way.

Note that the above process punishes doctors who aren't absolutely self-confident and decisive. It punishes doctors who are honest with their patients about diagnosis and treatment and rewards doctors who pretend to a certainty that doesn't exist. Because many conditions do resolve on their own but, not only that, there's all sorts of palliative treatments that will help symptoms and the condition will improve on its own but the patient will credit the treatment for the improvement. Few patients are truly informed about their condition and health care, and even fewer play an active role with the physician and treatment.

There's a huge class of common chronic conditions that have ambiguous or unknown etiologies, for which physicians tend to treat according to what was common wisdom when they were first trained and according to their specialty. Chronic sinusitis is a good example. Your PCP and your ENT and your allergist may all routinely diagnose and treat it differently. One PCP might regularly throw antibiotics at it (because that tends to satisfy patients even if it's not a good idea and probably won't be effective) and another won't. So someone with this condition could go to three different kinds of specialists, and two different physicians in each specialty, and get a different treatment plan from each of them. What does the average sufferer of chronic sinusitis think of this experience? They decide that doctors don't know what they're doing and aren't trustworthy.

The truth is that most doctors are very trustworthy, assuming that you understand that they have a very difficult job where "good enough" is often the best possible outcome we reasonably might expect. Because the scientific map of the territory in which they work has far more "here be dragons" than it has known territory. And even within the known territory, there's as much guesswork as anything else. A lot of the guesswork is intuitive expert heuristics in the form of intuition from experience. They'll guess right 80% of the time, and that's pretty good. If you have something particularly difficult or particularly rare, then the quick exam and a prescription turns into something very, very different. Something that for most patients is frighteningly uncertain, laborious, and where physicians seem to both be trying to reassure you that they're figuring this all out while at the same time not making promises they can't keep. A combination that feels far more slippery than they're accustomed to. It's easy to think, well, I don't know if I'm getting the full story here.

I've never had this experience because I visit doctors with an entirely different mindset. I'm active and involved and I have a lot of respect for them and I trust them to do their jobs well, but I don't expect them to be Marcus Welby or Gregory House. I expect uncertainty, differences of opinion, and mistakes.

So, getting back to the topic, we have food "allergies". Sensitivities. People having some reaction when they've eaten something. As discussed above, we really don't know much at all about migraines. We know how people experience them. We correlate them to various things, both environmental and physiological. But, really, they're still mostly a mystery. And it's also worth mentioning that we're wired to assume causal connections to correlated experiences when it involves our health (particularly pain, nausea, other symptoms of illness) and this is doubly, triply true with regard to the substances we ingest. From an adaptation standpoint, it's better safe than sorry — you get sick after you eat something, better not eat it again. Stick to those berries that you've eaten most of your life and let some other guy take the risk of discovering new edible foods.

Personally, and this is my totally non-scientist lay, bullshit opinion, I think that there's something going on in advanced countries with our immune systems. I think we're getting a bunch of auto-immune disorders, both those we know about and those we haven't recognized yet, because our environments of training our immune systems are distorted. But, whatever it is, certainly there's a rising trend of allergies. I've read of some studies that find that the vast majority of reported food allergies aren't actually allergies to that food — and I think that's almost certainly the case, but that the symptoms are still real and may very well be some other idiosyncratic allergy. But the point is, people are experiencing these things, the symptoms are real, and they want a diagnosis and effective treatment. And within the context of a contemporary medicine which is generally much more ambiguous and a guessing game than people realize, this particular sort of thing is much, much worse.

And so as a practical matter, medicine often just doesn't have much to say to people who have these things that they perceive as allergies or sensitivities or whatever. Leaving people to just rely upon what may well be a placebo effect, which is very real. The flip side of psychosomatic symptoms are placebo treatments. And even when this doesn't really help, because whatever it is that's causing this symptom is pretty reliably predictable and regular and placebo isn't helping, there's still the not-insignificant benefit of the sufferer identifying something that they can feel they understand and control about their own body and health. If it's cutting out MSG, then that at the least gives them a sense of control they otherwise lack. That's not unimportant.

I really do believe that things would be much better if patients had a better understanding of medicine and realistic expectations and were active partners in their treatment. I also want a pony.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 11:33 AM on August 21, 2013 [21 favorites]


Total aside, but before I knew what "aji no moto" was, I used it to make a gargle for my sore throat. Let's just say it was weird. Let us also say that all my subsequent cooking was amazing.
posted by ikahime at 12:28 PM on August 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


My countertop shaker has a homemade label that says "fuck yeah, it's MSG!" Any/all attempts to convince my fellow vegans that it's a perfectly harmless food additive they unwittingly eat all the time, rather than a wretched poison that must be avoided at all costs, have been unsuccessful.

I might recommend a different label if you want to keep woogans happy -- say, fermented umami powder.
posted by Celsius1414 at 12:30 PM on August 21, 2013


What I care about is people saying they're "allergic" to stuff when they really mean they have a food intolerance or any number of symptomatic reactions that are not IgE-mediated allergy.

This. More importantly, the problem with incorrectly attributing a cause to an effect is that you stop looking for the *real* cause. This is really obvious with the anti-vaxers: once they've decided that vaccination == autism and become fact immune on the topic, you get sick kids and a savage resistance to any non-vaccine related cause. Not that people are going to die because of MSG woo, but "I'm allergic to MSG" means you aren't looking for the real cause of those headaches, which just might be a bad thing.

This is often the defense of High Fructose Corn Syrup that's trotted out - yet it's fundamentally untrue (it's lacking a critical chemical bond)

Then it's not identical, is it.
posted by kjs3 at 1:23 PM on August 21, 2013


I went to a Chinese restaurant and ordered some hot soup, it contained MSG. Several days later, I got a migraine. I am not an expert in these matters, but I have done extensive research on teh internets and I can present compelling scientific evidence that this sort of migraine is caused by an allergy to phlogiston.
posted by charlie don't surf at 1:31 PM on August 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


Mentioned this upthread, but it's worth repeating: there are people in this world who have been told by medical professionals that they are allergic to MSG because they had either a single or multiple negative reactions immediately after eating certain kinds of food. I'm one of them. We were misinformed. I'm guessing, but most people who have had a negative reaction to a substance and have been told by a medical professional that said reaction is an allergy probably don't see any need to question whether that doctor or allergist is wrong.

Comparing us to anti-vaxxers isn't particularly helpful or productive. Anti-vaxxers are buying into a mindset which at best is fear-based and scientifically ignorant and at worst, is a belief in conspiracy theories.

Make jokes and be assholes if you must. But you might consider that you are talking about people who are present in this thread who really, really don't deserve your asinine snark.
posted by zarq at 1:35 PM on August 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm going to be really brutally honest here and say that when you're shopping around for medical opinions and going to doctors with a clear confirmation bias, some doctors are going to be a little less than diligent especially when it's clear that finding out what's causing your symptoms is going to be tricky with symptoms that are very difficult to physically measure and likely have a psychosomatic component, and when they're incredibly pressured to just satisfy you and move on to the next patient. If you claim that not eating MSG doesn't cause any symptoms, under time and pressure constraints and under insight that you are not going to be swayed by any evidence otherwise, the vast majority of doctors are going to go "well, okay, let's just not have this patient eat MSG then" rather than try to argue with you.

Even then, what you hear from the doctors is going to be massively filtered through a conformation bias. If you were to ask me if it's possible to have a MSG "sensitivity", because of how vague the word sensitivity is and because of how many possible factors and causes and pathways there could be, I might even cautiously tell you that "anything is possible" even though it flies in the face of everything we know about human biology just because there's so many factors and pathways that I cannot predict. I would be saying that in the same way as I would say "well, yes, evolution is a theory, just like gravity", but I know full well that some people without the same scientific background as me will interpret that as "I totally agree coming from a medical perspective that you have a MSG allergy," just as people interpret the latter as "we actually don't know anything about evolution and it's just a scam!"

Why I'm saying this now is because as someone who works in medicine, I am acutely concerned about the potential damage of misdiagnosis. While the symptoms of "MSG sensitivity" quite frankly are all over the place, vague and vary so differently from person to person, I can totally see a number of health issues that may be correlated to consumption of Chinese food and causative of these symptoms, which are less indicative of any sort of allergy/intolerance as they are a whole host of other issues. It may be purely psychosomatic; if that's the issue, it's not a total problem just to avoid MSG. It might be dehydration, as MSG is associated with foods that are savory and thus extremely high in salt and fat. It could be hypertension due to the sodium components and given how MSG is used so heavily in conjunction with high amounts of salt. It might be a soy allergy if it specifically happens with Chinese food. It might be something even as fully drastic and rare as issues with glutamate metabolism or the blood brain barrier, which would require medical intervention should one wish for it not to develop into something majorly chronic in the future.

The point is - we don't know what's causing these symptoms. While it's absolutely possible in some sort of bizarre new discovery that MSG is the cause, that would contradict so much of what we know about modern human physiology that I would prefer to defer to far more likely explanations. But so long as people keep barging into doctor's offices and insisting that their symptoms are tied to this one specific thing and refusing to work with medical experts because they want a simple, easy narrative, we are going to have a host of people running around falsely attributing correlation to cause without knowing what their true, underlying issues are. Don't get me wrong; this isn't exactly a major panic or anything - the majority of these issues are going to be perfectly harmless, granted. But even the more harmless issues could point to ways that people could be healthier and enjoy a higher quality of life with proper dietary interventions.
posted by Conspire at 4:20 PM on August 21, 2013 [10 favorites]


[Folks, ease off the soapboxing and discuss the topic of the thread.]
posted by jessamyn at 4:42 PM on August 21, 2013


Are there US food grade guaranteed pure sources of MSG, or are most Chinese restaurants using something imported?

Considering the known problems with poisonous impurities in things like baby food and dog food and milk from China, saying "I'm sensitive to MSG" might be as silly as saying "I'm allergic to cookies."

And all those studies showing no effect are probably using pure pharmaceutical MSG...

I'd love to see some studies comparing different MSG sources.
posted by mmoncur at 6:59 PM on August 21, 2013


I'd love to see some studies comparing different MSG sources.

Since MSG now is made in bulk using bacterial fermentation I bet there is little difference between sources. It certainly wouldn't be made using organic synthesis as that would be way more labor intensive and also result in a more complicated purification and testing regime to allow for food use. Bacterial fermentation is by far the cheapest means to make something especially if you want to make it on a large scale. You essentially have millions of tiny factories that in addition to making the end product also make more factories. It would be scary efficient. I would bet that the difference between sources would be detectible, but negligible and more be the result of traces of trace elements from the water used to grow the bacteria. I guess that each batch of MSG that is made is probably labelled with different companies logo's in a similar manner to generic vs brand name foods are made in factories, essentially just the label changes.
posted by koolkat at 5:51 AM on August 22, 2013


I bet there is little difference between sources

I can't really see a model under which contaminated MSG is cheaper than clean MSG, but then again certain business categories and areas of the world have gotten really really good at adulterating the food and medical supply chains with poison (we will never know how many children have died due to cough syrup contaminated with diethylene glycol).

...so even though I can't see how MSG would get contaminated, either on purpose or by accident, I have to be honest and say that it does seem like something to think about.
posted by aramaic at 6:37 AM on August 22, 2013


I might recommend a different label if you want to keep woogans happy -- say, fermented umami powder.

Woogans! Love it. I've been trying to help convince people that MSG is totally OK to eat by being a strident consumer, hence the "fuck yes," but your idea is a great one. I can make a newly labeled jar to use when guests are over.

Also, Ajinomoto's FAQ specifies that their U.S.-manufactured MSG is "made from corn through fermentation," and they're the world's largest manufacturer of MSG by volume, so I would assume most restaurants in America are using domestically produced MSG. FWIW, I get my Ajinomoto at an Asian grocery store and the box says it is manufactured in the U.S. Here's their QA initiative!

One last umami tip: for delicious grilled tofu, cut some extra-firm stuff into 1/4"-thick slices, sprinkle it with a mixture of MSG and kosher salt with a few cracks of pepper, and let it sit for about 15 minutes before you oil it and throw it on the grill. Just awesome. The MSG is essential.
posted by divined by radio at 7:01 AM on August 22, 2013


Here's a good article (in PDF) from Cornell on the various ways MSG is synthesized.

One thing to note is that other amino acids are derived the same way, using industrial brewing techniques using specially bred microbes. The impurity manufacturers worry most about is R-Glutamic Acid, which is tasteless and harmless, so they don't worry about it all that much, mostly to improve the potency of the salable product.

On the other hand, if some of the microbes are producing S-Tyrosine in addition to S-Glutamic Acid, this can cause adulteration of the final product. S-Tyrosine can cause a severe rise in blood pressure if you're on certain kinds of medicine. It may not be tested for at manufacture like R-Glutamic Acid.

It would be interesting to see if those who report MSG sensitivity or "Chinese Food Syndrome" are actually experiencing symptoms of abnormally high blood pressure when they're afflicted, and to check to see if S-Tyrosine or compounds derived from it during manufacturing are present in commercial MSG.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:09 AM on August 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


The excess-sodium suggestion sounds plausible to me, but I think it's worth noting that "Chinese restaurant syndrome" is an alleged sensitivity to MSG in Chinese restaurant food. It's at least possible that people reporting a sensitivity to MSG are actually reporting a sensitivity to some product associated with cooking MSG in a specific way, or with specific ingredients, or something else typified by Chinese restaurant food. They're certainly not reporting a sensitivity to chemically-pure MSG, for all the reasons given above.
Well, a lot of Chinese prefer 鸡精, or "Chicken Essence", to pure MSG. C.E is pretty much a sort-of-synthetic—cheap—bullion as far as I know. There may be something in that causing the reactions.
posted by flippant at 10:32 AM on August 22, 2013


C.E is pretty much a sort-of-synthetic—cheap—bullion as far as I know

No, it's pretty much pure extract-of-chicken. And it was actually invented in England in the early C19th, and became popular in Asia in the early C20th. I guess there might be synthetic analogues available but I'd be surprised if you ran across them much in US Chinese restaurants.
posted by yoink at 10:51 AM on August 22, 2013


zarq: "Mentioned this upthread, but it's worth repeating: there are people in this world who have been told by medical professionals that they are allergic to MSG because they had either a single or multiple negative reactions immediately after eating certain kinds of food. I'm one of them. We were misinformed. I'm guessing, but most people who have had a negative reaction to a substance and have been told by a medical professional that said reaction is an allergy probably don't see any need to question whether that doctor or allergist is wrong.

Comparing us to anti-vaxxers isn't particularly helpful or productive. Anti-vaxxers are buying into a mindset which at best is fear-based and scientifically ignorant and at worst, is a belief in conspiracy theories.

Make jokes and be assholes if you must. But you might consider that you are talking about people who are present in this thread who really, really don't deserve your asinine snark.
"

Ummmm, if my comment came off like that, I am honestly sorry. It was intended to make fun of anti-vaxxers. I make a serious attempt to never personally attack people here, unless it is in humor (like the time I mocked The Whelk, because he said whelks were best steamed, and, in my vocabulary, steamed is a synonym for angry and I thought quoting Mystery Men was a clever way to show the lack of seriousness).

So, if I offered offence, chalk it up to me being an idiot, okay? No hard feelings?
posted by Samizdata at 1:33 PM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


I wouldn't be surprised if some people think they had an MSG reaction when really it was a sulfite reaction.
posted by surplus at 5:25 PM on August 22, 2013


elizardbits: If you require proof of this I will come to your house and drink a glass of milk and eat a shrimps.

–That's a heck of an act. What do you call it?
–The Aristocrats!
posted by zippy at 6:30 PM on August 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


This thread is so, so, totally depressing for me. I suffer from extreme migraines. Migraines that have come close to destroying my life. About five years ago I decided that I would try to figure out if they were caused by choices I was making (or not making.) I bought this book; Heal Your Headache. And it recommends a very restrictive diet (including eliminating MSG) to discover headache triggers.

Well, instead of eliminating everything, I kept a food spreadsheet of everything that I ingested (yay science, right?) and every time I got a headache I tagged the foods in my spreadsheet. Now, obviously the overwhelming consensus in this thread is that it is impossible to have a migraine reaction to MSG, but I can say with certainty that when I eat these things: Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein, Malted Barley, Malt Extract, Yeast Extract, Maltodextrin etc... I get so totally ill I can't even crawl out of bed. And when I look these things up, what does the internet say: that these are "...names of ingredients that always contain processed free glutamic acid".

So, am I crazy? Or is it actually possible to have a headache reaction to "MSG" foodstuffs? Or are these ingredients actually: MSG + mystery thing (perhaps created in the industrial process of mfg. them?) and it's the mystery thing that makes me sick? I don't know... but I do know these things are in so many foods I have virtually stopped eating out, and at home I eat a very tedious (and labor intensive) diet. And for me this sucks and has really dampened a lot of joy in my life.

Look, I love science. Empiricism FTW. And I want a headache free life. So, I offer myself up for a double-blind study. No joke-- if you are a scientist who studies this stuff, put me in your experiment. I'll show up and ingest your placebo/MSG-thing as many times as you need to have enough trials to prove your hypothesis. If after n months of the experiment you can demonstrate that my headaches have nothing to do with these things that fall under the MSG-rubric-- I'll even donate a fat check to your favorite charity or your grant money or something.

Honestly, there is nothing I'd like more in the world than to be wrong about what I believe makes me sick. If it were all just an endless coincidence, and that eating certain things at certain restaurants, or eating certain foods, had nothing to do with my headaches, I might still get them, but at least I'd be able to live the foodie-life that I miss so much. But so far, what I am convinced of, from years of both tracking and trial and (miserable) error, is that if I eat an extremely (brutally, unpleasant) constrained diet without things like Parmesan cheese, Maltodextrin, HVP, etc, I can go months without a headache. And I know that if I get sick, and I look back at things I ate, there is almost always HVP or Maltodextrin or Malted Barley (and about 10 other things that the Internet says are processed free glutamic acid) in the ingredient list.
posted by gravitypanda at 1:00 AM on August 23, 2013 [9 favorites]


As someone wrote earlier, it's not really that hard for you to set up your own double-blind test of your reaction to MSG. I'd suggest that if you are as willing as you say you are to participate in a double-blind experiment of this sort such that you'd write a fat check for it, then surely you are motivated enough to get some friends/family/whomever together and set one up yourself?

I don't mean to sound hostile, I'm just puzzled. Well, I suppose that you're getting a bit of spillover from some frustration of mine that's related to this but has nothing to do with you. I've had a web page on the Monty Hall Problem, a famous counter-intuitive problem in probability, for about eighteen years. It was the first, and it's still fairly prominent among MHP resources. And I get emails; I've been getting them for eighteen years. From people who are certain that the correct solution to the MHP is not the correct solution, and I'm [confused][an idiot][ignorant of mathematics].

The thing is, though, is that the MHP is extremely simple to empirically investigate. You can do it alone with some kind of randomizer, like dice, and while it's statistically valid only if you repeat it for more times than you'll want to, in practice you'll see the pattern showing the correct answer very quickly. And if you have any facility with programming, you can write a short simulation that will run any number of iterations quickly. The point is: it's easy to empirically verify your conclusion.

I ask people to do this. I beg them to do this. And some of them do. Fewer than you might think, because probably half the people who end up realizing they were mistaken do so after arguing about it and playing with it and going a couple of days until they have the eureka moment and suddenly they understand. Empiricism wouldn't have provided the eureka moment, because knowing the truth doesn't mean you understand the truth. But, you know, it does help quite a bit. And they could have spent just a little time, less then fifteen minutes, and become aware that they'd been mistaken a couple days earlier.

However, lots of people just won't ever bother with empiricism, even though it's easy. And it's because they know the answer. Why check it empirically? They know. I and all the other authorities they read on the web about the MHP are wrong.

I've struggled for eighteen years to understand this. In a way, this has become my own little variation of the Monty Hall Problem. It's the problem of understanding why some people are so willfully confused about the Monty Hall Problem.

So, you can see what I have in mind. Are you saying that you're interested in someone inviting you into a double-blind study to make a rhetorical point? Was it a whim as you wrote your comment? Or are you genuinely interested in empirically testing your conclusion about how MSG affects you? Because if you are, you don't actually need a scientist to set up an elaborate double-blind study that's already been performed numerous times with the same conclusion. You can do it yourself, with a little help.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 1:25 AM on August 23, 2013 [3 favorites]


gravitypanda: "Look, I love science. Empiricism FTW. And I want a headache free life. So, I offer myself up for a double-blind study. No joke-- if you are a scientist who studies this stuff, put me in your experiment. I'll show up and ingest your placebo/MSG-thing as many times as you need to have enough trials to prove your hypothesis."

Even better than us, you are clearly already working in a scientific way to understand the unique model organism that is you. You have already found that eating foods that you have, either previously or subsequently, associated with the presence of MSG are strongly correlated with your migraines. As someone who used to get migraines, I totally get how this is more than enough etiological elucidation for almost anyone. If you are indeed interested in figuring out more precisely what causes them in you, so long as you have an enthusiastic assistant, this stuff can be quite reasonably done at home with surprising amounts of statistical power.

The best way to test if its MSG itself would be with home filled pharmaceutical capsules and someone using this website that MetaBugs linked to upthread, with more trials you could also test whether being informed that you're being given MSG would have an effect using the same control set. That could either give you a positive answer or tell you to look elsewhere. The hypothesis I confirmed when I had migraines was that the protein rich fatty foods that benefit most from MSG triggered me, which can be tested by eating MSG free chinese or pizza or whatever with and without MSG sprinkles blind.
posted by Blasdelb at 6:22 AM on August 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


Now, obviously the overwhelming consensus in this thread is that it is impossible to have a migraine reaction to MSG, but I can say with certainty that when I eat these things: Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein, Malted Barley, Malt Extract, Yeast Extract, Maltodextrin etc... I get so totally ill I can't even crawl out of bed. And when I look these things up, what does the internet say: that these are "...names of ingredients that always contain processed free glutamic acid".

Who knows, you may be an exceptional case (although, do remember that studies have been done that specifically recruited people like you and yet found no consistent effect). But if you've ever read any account of attempts to study the epidemiology of any of these kinds of symptoms you'll know that it is incredibly hard--even with very large sample sizes--to weed out all the potential confounders. This is especially the case with things like migraines which are almost always multi-factorial or inconsistent in terms of triggers (my sister will almost always get a migraine if she drinks wine, for example, but it took her a while to just give up on wine altogether because the effect was never completely consistent, and she spent a long time chasing what proved to be will o' the wisps like "oh, it's oaked wines" or "oh, it's young wines" or "oh, it's red wines" etc. etc. Even now you could force her to drink a couple of glasses of wine and the odds are only something like 3 in 4 that she'd get a migraine").

These things are especially difficult, of course, to study using simply oneself as a test subject. For one thing, it's impossible to rule out the placebo effect when you're not actually recruiting a friend to help you do a proper double-blinded (or even single-blinded) study. Once you have suspicions about what is and isn't a trigger you simply cannot know what part those suspicions themselves play in triggering the symptoms (migraines, again, are particularly tricky in this regard because they can be induced simply by stress and it is stressful to eat something that you think might be going to cause you hours or days of wretched misery). And, of course, once you've formed your hypothesis you're going to be pretty unwilling to really put it to rigorous testing. Who wants to keep grimly eating food laden with what they suspect to be migraine triggers? It doesn't take too many positive results before you think "o.k. I think I'll just steer clear of that, thank you very much."
posted by yoink at 9:31 AM on August 23, 2013


zippy: "elizardbits: If you require proof of this I will come to your house and drink a glass of milk and eat a shrimps.

–That's a heck of an act. What do you call it?
–The Aristocrats!
"

Especially if I joined her in eating shrimp. (I like milk!)
posted by Samizdata at 4:24 PM on August 23, 2013


ok sooo.... I just went out and bought a big bag of MSG. What can/should I put it on?
posted by rebent at 8:14 PM on August 23, 2013


I like to put it on ground chuck while browning it. You can use it in tacos, sloppy joes, etc.
posted by griphus at 8:17 PM on August 23, 2013


Anything with lots of fat and protein
posted by Blasdelb at 1:44 AM on August 24, 2013


Samizdata: " Ummmm, if my comment came off like that, I am honestly sorry. It was intended to make fun of anti-vaxxers. I make a serious attempt to never personally attack people here, unless it is in humor (like the time I mocked The Whelk, because he said whelks were best steamed, and, in my vocabulary, steamed is a synonym for angry and I thought quoting Mystery Men was a clever way to show the lack of seriousness).

So, if I offered offence, chalk it up to me being an idiot, okay? No hard feelings?
"

No hard feelings. Thanks.
posted by zarq at 6:34 PM on August 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


So, one of the countries leading medical experts on Migraine Headaches has written a well received book http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0761125663/metafilter-20/ref=nosim/ on the topic and suggests that MSG is in fact a migraine trigger for many of his patients. But we have a threadful of self appointed experts who want to assure us in that the idea is preposterous. That doesn't surprise me. What does is the vehemence of the attacks. As someone who has suffered from MSG related migraines for years, and has carried out my own "blinded studies" with my wife, I can assure you, it aint make believe.
posted by dougiedd at 12:44 AM on August 25, 2013


There's a push to "reform" certain unpopular manufactured ingredients, using a lefty, capital-S Skeptic approach, HFCS being the most egregious example. I expect injecting whey into lunchmeat will gushed over by another famous chef in an upcoming article, or how beef fillet made from scrap beef with meat glue is actually good 'eatin.
posted by Slap*Happy at 10:35 AM on August 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Having just done a quick lit review of Buchholz and others focussed on specific cerebral vascular pathophysiology as the etiology of chronic headache, I'm still having trouble seeing how it's a prime cause and not a simple correlation with heightened stress and over-active hypothalamic-pituitary axis sympathetic over-activation. Given glutamate's ubiquity, still can't any reasonable pathophysiologic mechanism for minute ingestion and metabolism in the GI tract being responsible for direct CBF dysregulation.

When we study headaches in psychiatry, we find significant comorbidity between chronic psychogenic headache and affective and anxiety disorders. But the only strong psychiatric correlation (with OR ~=1.7) with acute, incident headache is a history of a specific phobia. Sadly, there's even a term for a specific phobia (with accompanying maladaptive illness behaviour) relating uniquely to headaches that develops in patients with chronic headache: cephalalgiaphobia, now with added research.
posted by meehawl at 12:46 PM on August 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


But we have a threadful of self appointed experts who want to assure us in that the idea is preposterous.

There's a difference between claiming to be an expert and claiming to be able to read the published literature on a topic.
posted by straight at 3:40 PM on August 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


I like to put it on ground chuck while browning it. You can use it in tacos, sloppy joes, etc.

Do you have to reduce the amount of salt you would normally use? (I'm thinking of things like chili, soup, etc.)
posted by triggerfinger at 6:38 AM on August 26, 2013


So, one of the countries leading medical experts on Migraine Headaches has written a well received book http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0761125663/metafilter-20/ref=nosim/ on the topic

"Well-received" by whom, exactly? You might note that even Buchholz himself consistently bewails the fact that "most doctors" do not agree with him about the ties he sees between diet and migraine and simply handwaves away the fact that, in general, his claims are not supported by what research has been done in the area. As a rule of thumb, "popularizing books that denounce the conventional wisdom in the field are usually the work of cranks who can't back up their claims in conventional academic fora" has stood me in pretty good stead.
posted by yoink at 9:51 AM on August 26, 2013


Do you have to reduce the amount of salt you would normally use? (I'm thinking of things like chili, soup, etc.)

IMO yes, you do. Remember from the chemistry discussion upthread that the moment MSG hits water it dissolves into glutamate + sodium, on top of ramping up the flavor profile, so you're getting a 1-2 punch of extra saltiness.

When I used Accent in cooking things like chili and pasta sauce years ago, I always added it to the meat during the browning process, and then corrected the seasoning in the soup/sauce/chili afterwards by tasting as I went. ymm (obviously) v.
posted by lonefrontranger at 12:26 PM on August 27, 2013


glutamate + sodium

Sodium explodes in water. Sodium chloride, surely?
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:04 AM on August 28, 2013


"Sodium explodes in water. Sodium chloride, surely?"

Elemental sodium without a corresponding cation reacts violently with water, as it does some pretty exotic chemistry to rip a cation from the water. Elemental sodium takes a lot of energy to generate and releases a lot when it goes back to a more natural form. This is pretty counter-intuitive as sodium salts, like sodium chloride (table salt) and monosodium glutamate, will quite readily disassociate into their component ions in water while releasing only a very trivial amount of energy. This is because they are not really quite completely disassociated in the way elemental sodium is, as the electron balance of of the whole solution remains neutral. Elemental sodium is just a soft lump of pure positive ions at the top of a really tall energy potential waiting for negative ions to explode with, while MSG and table salt still have their negative ions just hanging out right next to them.

One of the big lessons you'll learn in a useful chemistry class is that you can never buy ions and they'll never just appear out of nowhere*. In this case there are no salts in the rough equation that lonefrontranger set up that could give up chloride, and none that would need to as the glutamate, now glutamic acid, does the exact same thing the chloride in wet table salt would do.

*except for the times you can and the times they do, as in elemental alkalai metals. "X is always the case except for the times it isn't" is also something you end up hearing a lot in a good chemistry class,
posted by Blasdelb at 5:59 AM on August 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


the rough equation that lonefrontranger set up

what?

that's an AND symbol fwiw, probably should have been clearer on that. I'm not a chemist, I'm speaking as a layman cook who was simply paraphrasing the chemically accurate info Conspire quoted upthread.
posted by lonefrontranger at 10:46 AM on August 28, 2013


"the moment MSG hits water it dissolves into glutamate + sodium"
or more formally written,
Monosodium glutamate ↪Water → Sodium + Glutamic acid
Is a perfectly respectable, if roughly described, chemical equation.
posted by Blasdelb at 2:35 PM on August 28, 2013


"Well-received" by whom, exactly? "yoink

Well that one is easy. From the reviews:

--Howard Kirshner, M.D., Professor and Vice Chair, Department of Neurology, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine

-- Ronald J. Tusa, M.D., Ph.D., Professor of Neurology and Otolaryngology, Dizziness and Balance Center, Emory University

-- Roy A. Patchell, M.D., Chief of Neuro-Oncology, University of Kentucky College of Medicine


Not to mention that fact that Buchholz served as Director of the Division of General Neurology at Hopkins. He has published more than 150 scientific papers and articles and given over 450 invited lectures.

And you?
Your credentials?
posted by dougiedd at 12:10 AM on August 29, 2013


Reading published literature, and understanding the shortcomings of it are two completely different things.
posted by dougiedd at 12:13 AM on August 29, 2013


"Well-received" by whom, exactly?" Yoink

By 417 reviewers at Amazon , 350 of whom gave the book 5 stars and rave about how it reduced their suffering?
posted by dougiedd at 12:18 AM on August 29, 2013


Oh come on, positive amazon reviews do not prove anything, beyond that some people read the book and liked it. There's plenty of books promising medical miracles written by quacks with lots of positive amazon reviews.
posted by inertia at 10:52 AM on August 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Loud noises and bright lights can cause migraines. MSG makes tastes "louder." I'm not sure why it would be a stretch for "loud tastes" to cause a migraine in some people?

Maybe it doesn't show up in a blind study because the studies are using pure MSG powder, not actual food flavored with MSG.
posted by miyabo at 12:27 PM on August 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


I suppose it's not impossible someone could have migraines that are triggered by eating something exceptionally delicious. But if someone's headache is triggered by a bright halogen light, I wouldn't call that a halogen sensitivity.
posted by straight at 10:39 AM on August 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


but "I'm allergic to MSG" means you aren't looking for the real cause of those headaches, which just might be a bad thing.

I would for sure be interested in a study that looked past the glutamate and focused on the sodium.

I once thought I had some sort of sensitivity to MSG. I am now pretty convinced that it was the sodium in food i was having problems with. After being diagnosed with hypertension a few years back, and going on a strict low sodium diet, I began to pay much closer attention to what goes into my food. Turns out it was a lot of sodium. I was able to make some pretty direct correlations between certain foods, and the sickly, headachy, tired feeling that I now know is a result of my BP being dangerously out of bounds. Asian foods, especially cheap chinese is a huge culprit. Not only are you contending with the salt added during cooking, but the processed ingredients are bringing their own high sodium content along with the sauces and condiments. Plenty of other foods are also culprits. 1 Whopper w/ Cheese contains my daily suggested intake of sodium all by itself.

What my Dr. told me was that for a normal healthy person, eating a whopper of bowl of Ramen might not be the most healthy thing, but mostly not that big of a deal day to day. But for someone in my condition it's like throwing kindling on a fire. That might be oversimplistic, but now that I know what to look out for, I can tell almost immediately when something with too much sodium has snuck into my meal.

And I rarely get headaches anymore, where they used to be just one of those things I learned to accept as a normal part of everyday life. Like of course everyone has headaches all the time, that's why there's so many Excedrin commercials on TV. The irony of it that before my HBP put me in the hospital, I considered myself a person who never got sick. Looking back, even though I never had sore throats, or allergies, any of the other maladies that make people miss work, I was actually sick all the damn time, I had just gotten used to it.

I would for sure be interested in a study that looked past the glutamate and focused on the sodium.
posted by billyfleetwood at 7:44 PM on September 1, 2013


"There's plenty of books promising medical miracles written by quacks with lots of positive amazon reviews"
Indeed there are. This author however is hardly a quack. He is about as credentialed a neurologist as you will meet.

I must say how fascinating it is to see the level of denial that some folks can improve their migraines by avoiding msg.
posted by dougiedd at 5:05 PM on September 2, 2013


He is about as credentialed a neurologist as you will meet.

Which is why I trust him, absolutely, when he says that the vast majority of specialists in his field do not agree with him about MSG. And when he fails to provide any evidence of studies that support his opinions, I also recognize why the majority of specialists in his field do not agree with him about MSG.
posted by yoink at 6:07 PM on September 2, 2013


"Indeed there are. This author however is hardly a quack. He is about as credentialed a neurologist as you will meet."

He is acting like a quack here though. I haven't read the book you linked to, and unfortunately don't have a copy, but judging from various excerpts like this one, floridly cheesy media quotes from the author, and various reviews from it like this scholarly one, it looks like the guy has just invented a whole new nomenclature using the same words everyone else uses and decided that, since everyone else isn't using terms according to his models, only he is 'correct.' This is kind of annoying in a PI, but a dick move from someone trying to communicate to laymen who won't see the three-card-monty game for what it is. The term migraine, used to refer to some kinds of headaches to the exclusion of other kinds of headaches, does have some meaning, not so much as we might like, but enough to still be very useful for differentiating headaches with different kinds of causes - almost all of which this dude either hand waves away or just ignores. The vascular hypothesis of migraine pathophysiology, which was really shaky when the book was published and has not aged well, that he leans so heavily on also forces him into weird holes that he just refuses to address. This excerpt reads like he is trying to be a modern day Mesmer, wielding his self-actualization schtick like Mesmer's animal magnetism and his credentials like Mesmer's especially fancy hat. My own migraines definitely had a psychosomatic component to them and I would not be surprised at all if just solidly convincing people that they could gain control over their migraines through combinations of any form of self-deprivation and specific rituals could have measurable clinical effects, this does not however mean that this dude can just handwave away basic principles of biological chemistry.

The principles behind why it is not possible for the chemical compound Monosodium glutamate to itself directly be a reasonable etiology for neurological symptoms are 150 year old science. These are things that are fundamental to our understanding of how biological chemistry works that any science track undergrad should be able to explain reasonably well, and various former undergrads who are now working scientists have done so in this thread. MSG simply cannot be a direct cause of migraines in the same way that angels simply are not the reason why airplanes fly, and the only reason people think MSG directly causes headaches and do not think angels cause airplanes to fly is that most people have a pre-1900s understanding of biological chemistry and a post-1600s understanding of flight mechanics. While there are plausible theories that can explain a correlation between MSG and migraine headaches, if even that is indeed real to begin with, the one that Buchholz put forward in this book is simply not one of them.
posted by Blasdelb at 8:35 AM on September 3, 2013 [5 favorites]


Linus Pauling was pretty credentialed too. And yet, on some topics, a quack.
posted by aramaic at 9:13 AM on September 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


"The principles behind why it is not possible for the chemical compound Monosodium glutamate to itself directly be a reasonable etiology for neurological symptoms are 150 year old science."
So why not lay them out for us to see?
The real question is NOT whether or not Buchholz's vascular hypothesis is correct, but whether avoidance of MSG helps many folks with migraine headaches. I can say unequivocally that it does for me, and countless others agree. Why argue that?
posted by dougiedd at 12:12 AM on September 4, 2013


"So why not lay them out for us to see?"

Several people have. Are you reading a different thread?

"The real question is NOT whether or not Buchholz's vascular hypothesis is correct, but whether avoidance of MSG helps many folks with migraine headaches. I can say unequivocally that it does for me, and countless others agree. Why argue that?"

No one is arguing that. If your avoidance of MSG has helped reduce your migraine headaches, then it has. It's just that the cause of your headaches is not MSG. Both things can be true.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 1:18 AM on September 4, 2013


I was pretty confused by the mention of maltodextrin above, because maltodextrin is a starch (i.e. a polymer of glucose, which has no nitrogen atoms, let alone any amino acids). I poked around to try to see where this was coming from but the only sites I've been able to find linking maltodextrin to significant residual levels of MSG seem pretty actively misleading to me. For instance, this website also claims that adding acids or proteases to foods will produce MSG. This is kind of true, but only in the sense that literally any food containing protein would produce equivalent or far greater amounts of MSG as soon as it hit your stomach, because your stomach is essentially a bag full of acid and proteases.

I certainly don't want to make anyone feel bad about finding a solution that works for them. But I think it's also worth noting that the ingredients listed as potentially containing MSG elsewhere on that same site are very far-ranging and would probably lead you to avoid most processed foods in general, which tend to be high-fat, high-starch, and high-sodium.

Again, I sympathize with how intractable chronic health problems can be. I actually think to definitively nail down which compounds were associated with symptoms in an individual would be nontrivial even with a fully stocked mass spec lab. Levels of all kinds of compounds in food are likely a) to be generally correlated to one another and b) to vary highly even within similar foods. If you're stuck just reading the ingredients, it's a minefield. But like Conspire, I would consider it safe money that MSG is not actually the culprit.
posted by en forme de poire at 2:37 AM on September 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


dougiedd, both Conspire and I especially have already addressed in detail each of the various common ways in which MSG is sometimes said to directly cause Chinese Food Syndrome as well as each of the few weird ones that have also shown up in this thread, if have questions about them or another one you'd like us to discuss I'm sure we'd both be happy to.

You are right though, whether MSG itself causes migraines or not is an academic question that is only really relevant in specific ways to people who just want to stop having migraines. Whether the association is due to food that is excessively delicious, some meaningfully correlated ingredient, some correlated macro-nutrient, underlying racism, or correlated food quality being an effective trigger, or even if the feeling of control that cutting it out can give someone is an effective protection, is entirely unrelated to whether advising people to avoid MSG can be expected to be effective at preventing migraines, assuming at least one of these theories or some other unmentioned one accurately models the correlation if it even exists. However that is not the only important aspect of these kinds of conversations.

The 'debate' here is also an excellent opportunity for education about both our current scientific understandings of general and organic chemistry, biological chemistry, neurology, immunology, industrial microbiology, and diagnostics as well as almost more importantly scientific process and communication. Most people report having felt Chinese Food Syndrome and have in interest in what the fuck is going on with that. Using it to demonstrate ways to properly frame research questions, read and analyze primary scientific literature, and discover and communicate defensible answers has value both for the deeper understanding of what exactly MSG is, but also for the deeper understanding and utility of scientific philosophy, that it can bring. The art of reducing questions about the natural world to their essence and then empirically answering them is really counter-intuitive and hard to gain but incredibly worth it.
posted by Blasdelb at 3:26 AM on September 4, 2013


Tell me, who paid for the vast majority of studies that have tried to answer the question as to whether MSG causes Chinese food syndrome? The answer to that question should help enlighten ones opinion of the 'science' at question here.
posted by dougiedd at 11:25 PM on September 4, 2013


Just because the most of the papers handed to the author of this piece by Ajinomoto were funded by Ajinomoto, does not mean that projects funded by Ajinomoto constitute the 'vast majority' of studies addressing whether MSG causes Chinese food syndrome. This is a question that the NIH was, for whatever reason, very interested in in the late 70s and early 80s; producing a substantial body of clinically focused research that, just looking through google scholar, dwarfs anything that Ajinomoto has done.
posted by Blasdelb at 3:02 AM on September 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


NIH is just part of the vast shadowy MSG conspiracy, Blasdelb.
posted by Nelson at 7:46 AM on September 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


huh, I recognize that company. I actually just made a friend who works for Ajinomoto as a flavor scientist. Would anyone want me to send some questions his way?
posted by rebent at 1:22 PM on September 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Would anyone want me to send some questions his way?

Could MSG be useful as an additive to public water supplies, in the way that fluoride is used now? Such a system could make life more flavorful. Could he suggest how much MSG would be required, and an optimal system for delivering it via civic water treatment facilities?
posted by charlie don't surf at 6:46 PM on September 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


First RCT i find on a google scholar search of MSG Headache is this one:
The monosodium glutamate symptom complex: Assessment in a double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized study 1
MD,FRCPC William H. Yanga, , MD,FRCPC Michel A. Drouina, MSc Margaret Herbertb, PhD Yang Maob, c, MDCM,FRCPC Jacob Karsha
a Department of Medicine, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
b Laboratory Center for Disease Control, Health Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
c Bureau of Chronic Disease Epidemiology, Health Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Background: Considerable debate swirls about the validity of symptoms described by many people after ingestion of monosodium glutamate (MSG), and the question has remained unresolved largely because of a paucity of well-designed challenge studies.

Methods: We conducted oral challenge studies in self-identified MSG-sensitive subjects to determine whether they had a statistically significant difference in the incidence of their specific symptoms after ingestion of MSG compared with placebo. First, 5 gm MSG or placebo was administered in random sequence in a double-blind fashion. Subjects who reacted only to a single test agent then underwent rechallenge in random sequence in a double-blind fashion with placebo and 1.25, 2.5, and 5 gm MSG. A positive response to challenge was defined as the reproduction of ≥2 of the specific symptoms in a subject ascertained on prechallenge interview.

Results: Sixty-one subjects entered the study. On initial challenge, 18 (29.5%) responded to neither MSG nor placebo, 6 (9.8%) to both, 15 (24.6%) to placebo, and 22 (36.1%) to MSG (p=0.324). Total and average severity of symptoms after ingestion of MSG (374 and 80) were greater than respective values after placebo ingestion (232 and 56; p=0.026 and 0.018, respectively). Rechallenge revealed an apparent threshold dose for reactivity of 2.5 gm MSG. Headache (p<0.023), muscle tightness (p<0.004), numbness/tingling (p<0.007), general weakness (p<0.040), and flushing (p<0.016) occurred more frequently after MSG than placebo ingestion.

Conclusions: Oral challenge with MSG reproduced symptoms in alleged sensitive persons. The mechanism of the reaction remains unknown, but symptom characteristics do not support an IgE-mediated mechanism. According to Food and Drug Administration recommendations, the symptoms, originally called the Chinese restaurant syndrome, are better referred to as the MSG symptom complex. (J Allergy Clin Immunol 1997;99:757-62.)
posted by dougiedd at 1:26 AM on September 6, 2013


Here is the second one that comes up:

Effect of systemic monosodium glutamate (MSG) on headache and pericranial muscle sensitivity
L Baad-Hansen1,*, BE Cairns3, M Ernberg4, P Svensson1,2

We conducted a double-blinded, placebo-controlled, crossover study to investigate the occurrence of adverse effects such as headache as well as pain and mechanical sensitivity in pericranial muscles after oral administration of monosodium glutamate (MSG). In three sessions, 14 healthy men drank sugar-free soda that contained either MSG (75 or 150 mg/kg) or NaCl (24 mg/kg, placebo). Plasma glutamate level, pain, pressure pain thresholds and tolerance levels, blood pressure (BP), heart rate and reported adverse effects were assessed for 2 h. No muscle pain or robust changes in mechanical sensitivity were detected, but there was a significant increase in reports of headache and subjectively reported pericranial muscle tenderness after MSG. Systolic BP was elevated in the high MSG session compared with low MSG and placebo. These findings add new information to the concept of MSG headache and craniofacial pain sensitivity.
posted by dougiedd at 1:28 AM on September 6, 2013


charlie don't surf: "Would anyone want me to send some questions his way?

Could MSG be useful as an additive to public water supplies, in the way that fluoride is used now? Such a system could make life more flavorful. Could he suggest how much MSG would be required, and an optimal system for delivering it via civic water treatment facilities?
"


uh, I'm not going to ask him that
posted by rebent at 9:29 PM on September 7, 2013


Well, if we add the MSG via Sazon Goya it's easy to figure out.

For every 4 people your recipe serves, just add one packet of Sazon Goya. Two packets for a dish for 8.
posted by Drinky Die at 9:38 PM on September 7, 2013


dougiedd, in a field this well-traveled you really want to be looking at things like review articles that cite those individual studies. The wealth of studies have not supported a link between MSG and headache, either administered solo or in food. People have also suggested histamine and tyramine intolerance as alternative explanations but frankly there's not a lot of evidence there either.

Ultimately, no matter what the underlying molecular mechanism, the treatment is going to be totally empirical - ID the food that sets you off and then don't eat it. I don't eat at Panera, for instance, though I have no idea why it affects my GI tract so badly and it doesn't seem to affect any of my friends. So it doesn't matter if your personal symptoms fit into some kind of "syndrome."

The most rigorous way to figure it out would be to keep a food diary, or in cases where the symptoms are really bad, to switch to a very restricted diet and then add things back gradually. But it turns out that even then, pointing to a particular constituent of a food as the culprit is very hard because of course, most foods don't exactly come with a detailed list of what molecules they contain and in what amounts. Plus, the different food constituents are hugely correlated. And definitive proof (which again, you don't need in order to feel better, of course) would involve doing repeated double blind trials. So it's always going to be sort of a messy area scientifically, at least until we all have an Orbitrap next to the fridge.
posted by en forme de poire at 1:44 PM on September 8, 2013


"The wealth of studies have not supported a link between MSG and headache".
A simple review will show that that a wealth of studies have been carried out by researchers with financial ties to the food industry.
posted by dougiedd at 6:14 PM on September 8, 2013


A simple review will show that that a wealth of studies have been carried out by researchers that have purchased and eaten food.
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:15 PM on September 8, 2013 [3 favorites]


"A simple review will show that that a wealth of studies have been carried out by researchers with financial ties to the food industry."

This is simply not the case.
posted by Blasdelb at 4:49 AM on September 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


You can't just cherry-pick the clinical trials that give the results you like. That's why you look at review articles when you're trying to get a sense of the field. This is about the most balanced summary I've been able to find and it concludes:
Taken together, these studies suggest that there may be a small number of people at risk for developing symptoms consistent with the ‘Monosodium glutamate symptom complex’ when consuming large amounts of MSG on an empty stomach without accompanying food. Importantly, the overall incidence of ‘Monosodium glutamate symptom complex’ appears to be low, even in self-identified MSG-sensitive patients.
"Large amounts of MSG on an empty stomach without accompanying food" is not how most people consume MSG. Certainly it doesn't apply to putative trace amounts in e.g., starches or whole foods.
posted by en forme de poire at 12:55 PM on September 9, 2013


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