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Me So Gourmet
July 10, 2005 2:54 AM   Subscribe

"If MSG is so bad for you, why doesn't everyone in Asia have a headache?" A brief history of and exploration some myths and facts surrounding MSG, glutamate (its natural expression) and umami - 'the fifth taste'. "We now know that glutamate is present in almost every food stuff, and that the protein is so vital to our functioning that our own bodies produce 40 grams of it a day. Probably the most significant discovery in explaining human interest in umami is that human milk contains large amounts of glutamate (at about 10 times the levels present in cow's milk). [...] Which means mothers' milk and a packet of cheese'n'onion crisps have rather more in common than you'd think."
posted by Blue Stone (227 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

 
I've always been puzzled by (pseudo-)oriental restaurants that advertise "NO MSG" as if it were a virtue.
posted by RavinDave at 3:08 AM on July 10, 2005 [1 favorite]


This article is just wrong. I'm terribly sensitive to MSG, probably brought about by aspartame poisoning. (at one time, I was so sick that I was being tested for MS... turned out it was aspartame. When I stopped the Diet Coke, I immediately started to get better... it has taken several YEARS for me to feel fairly normal again) I remain ridiculously sensitive to MSG. Small amounts of it give me blurred vision. Large amounts bring back lesser versions of the MS-like symptoms...mental fuzz, lack of coordination, inability to concentrate, random twitchiness, mild auditory hallucinations, and even heart palpitations if the dose is very high. A bowl of Top Ramen will make me desperately sick for days.

It probably isn't that dreadful for most people, but it is in EVERYTHING. That's not because it's naturally there, but because it's added to nearly every packaged food. FDA rules state that only 90% pure monosodium glutamate is officially MSG and must be labeled that way, so companies come up with all kinds of ways of producing it that result in an 89% or less concentration. Any -lyzed protein is MSG... you will very commonly, for instance, see "hydrolyzed soy protein" or corn protein. That's MSG. "Natural Flavors" is the catch-all that's usually used to hide it. "Modified Food Starch", "Yeast Extract" and "Yeast Nutrients" are all MSG. Others: "milk protein", "autolyzed yeast", "pea protein" (if they were just putting in peas, they'd say peas, not 'pea protein'). There are a LOT of other ways, as well. There are a number of good lists on the net.. do a combination search on two or three of the above and you're almost certain to find one.

You will very often see several of these in one package.. by listing it separately, they can hide the stuff down at the bottom of the list (you know, where they always say 'contains 2% or less of.....' like that matters. 2% cyanide would still kill you.) It's hard even in a HEALTH FOOD store to get food that's truly MSG-free.

It *is* a neurotoxin. It is probably low enough toxicity that most people don't notice it. But it is still killing brain cells.

I have been wondering for the last couple of years if the profound rise in autism in this country might not be related to the constant barrage of MSG in nearly every food. It can't be good for kids to be getting three slammings of even a mild neurotoxin every day. That's pretty much what happens, unless you cook from scratch. It is in EVERYTHING, and takes a great deal of effort to avoid.
posted by Malor at 3:46 AM on July 10, 2005 [1 favorite]


I like MSG. One alleged neurotoxin more or less won't kill me.

Anyhooo, off the top of my head I seem to remember that the thing about MSG is that while natural glutamate is (like almost all amino-acids on Earth with a biological origin) left-handed , the artificial glutamate in MSG contains equal parts left- and right-handed glutamate. Since humans have only left-handed molecules we can't digest half of the MSG, which can allegedly give side-effects.

Is this correct, or has the MSG already destroyed my brain?
posted by spazzm at 4:27 AM on July 10, 2005


I have been wondering for the last couple of years if the profound rise in autism in this country might not be related to the constant barrage of MSG in nearly every food.

LOL. Typcial unfounded nutty conspiracy theory. You sure it isn't the vaccines, or the radiation from your cell phone, or space aliens? Give me a fucking break. The FDA has thoroughly studied MSG and declared it to be safe.

Yeah, yeah, you'll probably tell me that the FDA is in league with a secret cabal of companies and space aliens in a vast evil conspiracy to make Americans stupid by poisoning them with MSG.
posted by aerify at 4:29 AM on July 10, 2005


This article is just wrong. I'm terribly sensitive to MSG, ...

Yes, one anecdote disproves a plethora of scientific studies.

Why don't you go start your own little anti-MSG cult?
posted by aerify at 4:30 AM on July 10, 2005


The conspiracy theorist here seems to believe in "aspartame poisoining" too, another wacky conspiracy theory. I'm not discounting the fact that he may be, in fact, sensitive to some chemical, or something else (although it's highly unlikely). But anecdotes do not make a science.

It's too bad that a perfectly healthy salt or sugar substitute has to be given a bad name because of crazy ignorant nuts. Reminds me of the furor over food irradition because, you know, all radiation is evil and will kill you.
posted by aerify at 4:36 AM on July 10, 2005


Thanks for the interesting article!
posted by nostrada at 4:41 AM on July 10, 2005


Interesting article. Thanks for the link Blue Stone.
My guess would be that many of the foods in which MSG is added (particularly the prepackaged variety) also contained a number of colouring enhancers and preservatives +/- other things such as shellfish or peanuts (mentioned by the article) which, in addition to psychosomatic disorders of course, could account for some or many of any real symptoms associated with eating where MSG is involved.

But MSG has been abandoned for serious study by the science community and all western governments have decreed it safe. Like everything no doubt moderation is called for.

It holds a unique place in the viral meme bibliography it seems.
posted by peacay at 4:44 AM on July 10, 2005


Malor, given your sensitivity to things that are consumed by the vast majority of the population with absolutely no side effects. Perhaps you have some other underlying problem that renders you more sensitive to things and you really shouldn't extrapolate from your special case to the general population.

Do a pub med search on Aspartame - it is one of the most heavily studied additives and shows little or no harmful effects.

I would never make claims about the harmful naure of Pollen even though my allergies can be quite disabling because I recognize that the problem is
posted by srboisvert at 4:48 AM on July 10, 2005


oops
naur = nature

and finish with:
within me.

damn pollen is interfering with my proofreading
posted by srboisvert at 4:50 AM on July 10, 2005


It is in EVERYTHING, and takes a great deal of effort to avoid.

Especially considering that your body manufacture large amount of that specific amino acid so you can actually build protein chains and, humm, I donno, be alive. Be sure to avoid beer, bread and well, eating anything other than rock, so the crazy neurotoxin lil communist buggers stay away. Is that scientology propaganda btw? It sure smell like it. Love the fact you mention autism too, neat freudian slip, 'splain alot.
posted by kush at 4:51 AM on July 10, 2005


Interesting article; I have been trying to convince people of this for years. I constantly hear people order chinese food sans MSG, but these same people will admit they used to love the signature salad at a now defunct local restaurant. It just so happens that one of my first jobs was at that restaurant and among my duties was prepping the salads. What was the secret ingredient? A heaping spoonful of MSG! Of course when I point this out people nod their heads and go on about how bad MSG is; irrational beliefs are almost impossible to dislodge.
posted by TedW at 4:56 AM on July 10, 2005


I think I feel an MSG headache coming on.
posted by caddis at 5:00 AM on July 10, 2005


This article sounds like rehash of Jeffrey Steingarten's essay on MSG, published in his book "It Must Have Been Something I Ate". In a similar vein, another essay in that book addresses fear of salt, and another deals with the US gov't's silly restriction on young raw-milk cheese.

I expect that there are some people who are highly sensitive to MSG or salt, but the vast majority of the population has no problem consuming reasonable levels of these chemicals. For most of the population, these chemicals aren't as bad as their current reputation suggests.
posted by sriracha at 5:56 AM on July 10, 2005


Jeffery Steingarten, the food writer for Vogue and one of Western Civilzation's greatest living minds, wrote an article with a remarkably similar title ("Why doesn't everybody in China have a headache?") and a lot of similar observations, plus some more, that was published in Vogue in March '99 and then in his book It Must've Been Something I Ate. The rest of the book is just as good; highly recommended if you're into food or have a sense of humor.

On preview - sriracha you beat me to it!
posted by alexwoods at 6:02 AM on July 10, 2005


Hey aerify -- think you could say "conspiracy theory", or use words like "nutty", "crazy" and its cognates a few more times? I have no dog in this race but it's pretty obvious that you've your own axe to grind, and if there's flawed data or reasoning here you're not exactly countering it with anything more rational. In fact you do your opponents a courtesy by making setting up an irrationaly abusive contrast, implying that the principal counterargument to their position is spittle-flecked demonization. If there's bad information going around your kind of response isn't going to combat it.
posted by George_Spiggott at 6:08 AM on July 10, 2005


Umami rocks! I figured it out as a kid when I fell in love with things like chicken noodle soup and hot & sour soup, and was so rewareded years later when I found out it wasn't just me, but entire civilisations that had caught on.
posted by furtive at 6:09 AM on July 10, 2005


To paraphrase Dave Foley: MSG, just like religion, is a form of mass psychosis.
posted by furtive at 6:25 AM on July 10, 2005


In the port city of Yokohama, south of Tokyo, there is a museum devoted entirely to noodle soup.

This is one of my most favorite places. I am missing it sorely.
The curry museum is good, too.
posted by bashos_frog at 6:36 AM on July 10, 2005


Glutamate is supposed to satisfy our taste for "umami" ("savory" or "deliciousness"), but Marmite "has more glutamate in it than any other manufactured product on the planet," and I wouldn't call Marmite delicious.
posted by kirkaracha at 6:38 AM on July 10, 2005


Here's a counter-example. Many Asians have a very low tolerance to alcohol - I guess they could say something similar - "westerners don't get red-faced and incredibly sleepy after one sip of beer, therefore no problem with beer".
posted by FieldingGoodney at 6:56 AM on July 10, 2005


But, but - there is no problem with beer.
posted by bashos_frog at 7:35 AM on July 10, 2005


George_Spiggott:
No amount of evidence and rationality can convince these people that substance X or mainstream medical practice Y is not killing them and everybody they hold dear. Whether it's MSG, magnetic fields, power lines, sugar substitutes, fluoride, it doesn't matter. We live in a very litigious culture and any threat to our health, read or imagined, will find some way to be made into a mass hysteria.

I don't believe that countering this sort of irrational fear with evidence helps. Their beliefs are a religion in and of themselves, and no number of scientific studies are going to change their emotions. These people are best ignored, or laughed at.
posted by aerify at 8:05 AM on July 10, 2005


The FDA has thoroughly studied MSG and declared it to be safe.

Well, that proves it. Or maybe it's time for your Vioxx, Fen-Phen and a cigarette, other drugs the FDA studied and declared perfectly safe at one time.

Yeah, yeah, you'll probably tell me that the FDA is in league with a secret cabal of companies...

How ridiculous! How absurd! What reputable source would claim politics (or profit) could sway the honorable scientists at the FDA? Well for one, the New England Journal of Medicine did just that in April 2004. Why those little NEJM anit-science freaks...
posted by McGuillicuddy at 8:10 AM on July 10, 2005


So McGuillicuddy, what are you saying about MSG? Or should we just read from your comment a refutation of the suggestion that the FDA is not influenced by politics?
posted by peacay at 8:21 AM on July 10, 2005


Oh for the love of Christ, these things are NOT contradictory, people!

Or are you going to argue that because the vast majority of people can consume them without trouble, say, Peanut Allergies are just a figment of peoples' imaginations?

Or that no one has ever REALLY had their bowels upset by Olestra products?

I'm very mildly sensitive to MSG myself. I'm OK eating just about everywhere except KFC, which gives me a headache without fail.

It is entirely possible for a product to be safe for the general population, but affect a statistical few adversely. And I agree with one major point here: the ways of sneaking MSG into food products are far too many and varied. That SHOULD be regulated, for the sake of those who are allergic \ sensitive.

Just like peanuts and most other food allergens.
posted by InnocentBystander at 8:30 AM on July 10, 2005


Aerify - your triple posted response did nothing to support your jack-booted allegiance to ...the FDA??

Do you work for an MSG company?

"We live in a very litigious culture and any threat to our health, read or imagined, will find some way to be made into a mass hysteria...These people are best ignored, or laughed at."

You are a dangerously, willfully ignorant person.

"On March 22, 2004 the agency issued a warning advisory about antidepressant drug risks only after it was learned that senior FDA officials had suppressed the release of an analysis by FDA's leading expert. That report, by Dr. Andrew Mosholder, validates the safety concerns and the unfavorable risk / benefit ratio of antidepressants for children."

And as for aspartame (and this should be obvious to anyone with a basic understanding of chemistry):
Here's a legitimate study
Another, more forceful study

There's plenty of evidence out there. When did big pharma come to your house and convince you that the FDA is protecting your rights?
Malor is right to be afraid, and if he has an adverse response to the chemicals food manufacturers put in his foods, he has a right to take his complaint to the FDA and the public and not be shunned by arrogant potato chip lobbyists like yourself.

and peacay - though I know responding to your posts is an invitation to unleash the troll in you - Aerify's comments are not about MSG, they're a broad defense of the FDA - specifically, by attacking individuals who question the safety of the products the government tells us are harmless.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 8:30 AM on July 10, 2005


Well, I must say I have noticed a very mild reaction to foods high in MSG in myself. Or, rather, my wife did. Whenever I eat high MSG foods, I tend to increase my fluid intake accordingly, so she tends to use me as a barometer, mostly for amusement purposes. Now, I have wondered if this is possibly due, however, due to my very low use of added sodium as a sop to congenital hypertension.

On the other hand, umani rocks!
posted by Samizdata at 8:32 AM on July 10, 2005


Thank you for that well-worded advice, George. Much better than I'd have done.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:33 AM on July 10, 2005


Erm, make that umami...
posted by Samizdata at 8:35 AM on July 10, 2005


Nicely said Baby_Balrog.

Interesting article BlueStone. Umami is such an excellent word to know. It's got me thinking about the hard-wiring of choosing savoury foods, since it's it's part of a human infant's attraction to milk, not just the sweetness but also the savouriness.

Although I've loved Ramen noodles for decades, like Malor I've felt uncomfortable after eating food with MSG, long before I knew what MSG was. Having lived in India for a decade I can say that different cultures have different food tolerances, like FieldingGoodney says about the Asian low tolerance for alcohol. Even while being mostly vegetarian in India I could still drink a considerable amount of whiskey neat and just get a buzz but my Indian friends (unless they were of the hard-drinking Indian Army kind) would literally fall over with a quarter of that amount. The intensity of South Indian seasoning is unbearable and leaves me feeling ill for example but is eaten daily and happily by hundreds of millions of people.

Food preferences are very varied and many people literally cannot stomach other culture's tastes. Although I have Scottish blood in me I don't think I could hack eating haggis:
Traditional Haggis
1 sheep's pluck (stomach bag)
2 lb.. dry oatmeal
1 lb. suet
1 lb. lamb's liver
2 1/2 cups stock
1 large chopped onion
1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper, Jamaica pepper and salt

Of course I do understand this isn't about food preferences but about MSG being technically unhealthy or not. My point is that one man's meat may literally be another man's poison.

This may be genetic preferences, food allergies, a number of reasons. There are plenty of people with celiac who can be killed by eating oatmeal or food with gluten. I don't
know many Europeans or Americans who can eat West African fufu or who could drink cow blood daily, like the Masai have done for millennia. I think it's valid some people may be sensitive/allergic to MSG and some not.
posted by nickyskye at 8:37 AM on July 10, 2005


I certainly would trust the FDA more so than these fringe groups. Remember, even the drugs that were pulled from the market had to pass a rigorous battery of tests to prove their safety and efficacy.

As for the anti-depressant warnings, I mean, wow. Antidepressants are overwhelmingly safe and effective and pretty much every major study done on them shows that they are underprescribed. The suicide risk is a VERY minor issue and when you consider the number of suicides committed by seriously depressed people, it seems that we are being way too cautious. Besides, how do you determine whether the suicide was caused by the depression or the antidepressant? There's a theory that says the antidepressant gives a sort of boost of energy that's not enough to counter the depression but enough to allow the person to go through with the suicidal act. It's strange to blame the cure for the disease.
posted by aerify at 8:38 AM on July 10, 2005


As for the aspartame, again, like MSG, countless studies have shown they are basically like any other additive flavoring - harmless. I'm not saying some people don't have allergies, or unexplained reactions - many many people have adverse reactions to all sorts of otherwise harmless substances. But to say that there's some sort of conspiracy by the food companies or the FDA to poison us... jesus, these people eat the same food we do. It's 90% conspiracy theory riding on 10% gut feeling.
posted by aerify at 8:40 AM on July 10, 2005


You are a dangerously, willfully ignorant person.

Er... there's a difference between being aware of actual, real health risks that can be scientifically and causally determined, and the rantings of the fringe groups that claim a widely-produced, widely-consumed product that millions of people eat everyday is "eating holes into my brain". Do you see the difference?
posted by aerify at 8:42 AM on July 10, 2005


Peacay - I'm saying that believing MSG is safe because the FDA didn't find otherwise is similar to believing that Iraq was involved in 9/11 because Dick Cheney said so. Why would the Vice-President lie about that again and again?

It is foolish to believe the FDA is not always lobbied hardest by those with a financial stake in the matter. It is not unlikely that the FDA management is/was considering a cost/benefit scenario in examining MSG, weighing health effects against the huge cost to processed food corporations should MSG be deemed a substance best avoided.

In the meantime, I'll flavor my organic meals with natural spices, and forego MSG when possible.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 8:43 AM on July 10, 2005


In the meantime, I'll flavor my organic meals with natural spices, and forego MSG when possible.

Heh. You do realize MSG is just as "natural" as those spices, right? Did you RTFA?

What does chiefly animate Japanese soups and broths is an amino acid called glutamate. In the best ramen shops it's made naturally from boiling dried kombu seaweed; it can also come from dried shrimp or bonito flakes, or from fermented soy. More cheaply and easily, you get it from a tin, where it is stabilised with ordinary salt and is thus monosodium glutamate.
posted by aerify at 8:48 AM on July 10, 2005


I'll flavor my organic meals with natural spices,

Right, as opposed to the inorganic rocks and dirt we other, less conscious people eat.
posted by aerify at 8:49 AM on July 10, 2005


I'm saying that believing MSG is safe because the FDA didn't find otherwise is similar to believing that Iraq was involved in 9/11 because Dick Cheney said so.

It's not just the FDA. Universities and independent laboratories also conduct these sorts of tests.
posted by aerify at 8:50 AM on July 10, 2005


I hate to keep posting again and again (I should just say everything in one post) but McGuillicuddy brings up another issue - everybody loves to talk about "natural flavoring" and "natural spices" as though natural things are unhealthy and "unnatural" foods are not. This is total crock. Often "artificial" flavorings synthesized in a lab are much safer than the same chemical created "naturally" because the natural extract will always contain impurities (sometimes harmless, sometimes toxic).

Why is it that people think science/chemistry/lab = bad/evil/unhealthy? Is this a pop cultural thing? We don't trust the men in white coats.

All I'm saying is that MSG and aspartame is as likely to kill you as salt or baking powder or flour or dust.
posted by aerify at 8:57 AM on July 10, 2005


I have friends at a lab that studied MSG uses and effects. What they found was that a little makes the food taste better, adding more after that doesn't have much effect. Cooks often season food by, for instance, adding more salt until its too salty and then backing off from there. If you try this with MSG you will end up using huge amounts with no benefit.

So I just add a tiny pinch.

Also I make a clear broth from Parmesean and add a bit where you might add MSG.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:57 AM on July 10, 2005


"countless studies have shown they are basically like any other additive flavoring - harmless."
Please cite your sources.

"the rantings of the fringe groups that claim a widely-produced, widely-consumed product that millions of people eat everyday is "eating holes into my brain".
Replace "brain" with "lungs" and you have:
*drumroll*
The American Cancer Society!

Nobody is saying the FDA is trying to poison us - that would be far too obvious. Some people are arguing that your health is not the top priority of this massive, frequently mistaken government organization.

But, then again, maybe there are WMDs in the Iraqi desert. I mean, why would the government lie to us?

On preview: You really need to condense your comments into one post. This four posts in a row bs won't fly.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 9:00 AM on July 10, 2005


Thanks for bringing up WMD - a completely irrevelant comparison. This isn't politics, this is science.

Dude, do a pubmed or lexis-nexis search on aspartame or MSG. Because of the public hysteria over it it's been studied to the ground. This is not about what the "government" or "FDA" is telling us. It's about what the large body of scientific work conducted by impartial researchers across the globe is saying is fact.
posted by aerify at 9:06 AM on July 10, 2005


"If MSG is so bad for you, why doesn't everyone in Asia have a headache?"

Maybe they do, and they're just not telling us... they're very crafty you know.
posted by clevershark at 9:07 AM on July 10, 2005


Petroleum is naturally occuring too but I won't be using gasoline to spice my cappuccino this morning. Cinnamon, nutmeg, and dried seaweed are natural spices, monosodium glutamate is neither naturally occurring nor a natural spice.

Some people are arguing that your health is not the top priority of this massive, frequently mistaken government organization.

Exactly.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 9:08 AM on July 10, 2005


Right, and certain "natural" spices are actually toxic in large doses, just like some artificial flavorings. What's your point? MSG is the EXACT SAME CHEMICAL that you can extract from dried seaweed. Is seaweed not natural to you? Did you even RTFA?

It doesn't matter what is natural and what's not. The point is it's just as safe as regular SALT or BAKING POWDER.
posted by aerify at 9:16 AM on July 10, 2005


OK then... so what is giving me these f#cking headaches after I eat cantonese food?
posted by missbossy at 9:19 AM on July 10, 2005


Let me say this again: glutamate is a NATURALLY OCCURING SUBSTANCE, our body fucking makes it, it's found in a bunch of protein-rich foods. Not only that, it's well-established OVER AND OVER in many studies (government AND independently funded) that it's perfectly safe.

This is exactly the sort of thing I was talking about earlier. No amount of reason will convince these people that these food additives are like any other food we eat every day. Your comparisons to cigarettes or gasoline (WTF?) make absolutely no sense.
posted by aerify at 9:20 AM on July 10, 2005


At the college cafeteria kitchen the MSG came in 55 gallon barrels. When I asked the chef why he needed so much he said: "because it makes the food taste like the food."
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:21 AM on July 10, 2005


OK then... so what is giving me these f#cking headaches after I eat cantonese food?

I don't know; go talk to your doctor. Maybe it's MSG, maybe it's stress, maybe it's something else.

Goddammit, anecdotes don't make a science. So some people think they feel worse after eating Chinese food? WTF? You do realize there's MSG in almost everything else you're eating, right? Unless there's some sort of scientific, controlled experiment, you can't draw conclusions like that.

But I guess that's not going to stop these crowd of MSG-hating lunatics from blaming the evil FDA for killing us all.
posted by aerify at 9:24 AM on July 10, 2005


It *is* a neurotoxin.

Chillis contain capsaicin ((E)-N-(4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzyl)-
8-methylnon-6-enamide), a proven, extraordinarily potent neurotoxin. In high doses it is used as a chemical weapon. Do you also avoid all spicy foods?
posted by meehawl at 9:24 AM on July 10, 2005


It really is remarkable how people only seem to be allergic to the MSG in Chinese food when it is in fact present in a wide range of prepared foods.
posted by clevershark at 9:25 AM on July 10, 2005


Yeah, you can never discount racism as a factor. "Goddamn yellow Chinese puttin' weird shit in our food!"
posted by aerify at 9:26 AM on July 10, 2005


I definitely have that MSG headache now.
posted by caddis at 9:27 AM on July 10, 2005


McLusky's Without MSG I Am Nothing {mp3}
posted by dobbs at 9:29 AM on July 10, 2005


aerify writes "Yeah, you can never discount racism as a factor."

Actually I think it's more because people have been told that MSG can cause headaches, and that Chinese food usually contains MSG. It's pretty stupid, but then you'd be surprised at the number of people who will tell you that a well-known urban legend happened to them or to someone they know. It may have more to do with an unconscious desire to belong to society at large than it does with having a reaction to MSG.

The other funny thing about this is that people will be adamant that this happens every time they go to a Chinese restaurant. Why do they keep going then?
posted by clevershark at 9:32 AM on July 10, 2005


Baby_Balrog writes "and peacay - though I know responding to your posts is an invitation to unleash the troll in you"
Well that's really unwarranted and pretty offensive. I don't believe I post much in that manner if at all. Yeah yeah, trawl my history...prove me wrong.

Aaaaaanyway....interesting is the depth of feeling out there on this subject not to mention that as far as I can tell there's pretty well a lack of scientific citing on MSG in this thread - and indeed in the article. For either side really.

I'm still of the opinion that many untoward reactions people may have experienced after eating foodstuffs are most likely related to flavours/enhancers/peanuts/shellfish/other notable allergens. That's just my opinion of course. I suppose it's logically supported by the notion that glu is an amino acid that we ingest in many foods, usually without reaction. But it's not just the FDA. The article mentioned a bunch of other western governments who had given MSG a clean bill of health (paraphrasing).

And prior to this thread commencing, if I had thought about MSG at all, it was probably in the context that yes, it's not necessarily that good a product and I've been a first hand witness to a fatal asthma attack, said to be due to Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.

So I guess I'm still open minded. But can we have some science, if people have some reasonable sources to contribute?
Oh and thanks Mcuillicuddy for answering my query - I was just clarifying.
posted by peacay at 9:32 AM on July 10, 2005


The real issue isn't about MSG or aspartame specifically. It has to do more with a misplaced fear due to a lack of understanding of what we're eating and why. We also seem to have a cultured distrust of consuming anything "artificial". Never mind that food additives have to be put through huge numbers of safety tests that "natural" foods don't, even though you're probably getting more toxins and impurities from the "natural" food compared with the additives (a very small portion of whatever we're eating).

In the end, it's really about ignorance and these alternative fringe groups (sometimes environmental) whipping up public frenzy over an issue people don't really understand.
posted by aerify at 9:38 AM on July 10, 2005


The wiki article has some basic facts and generally reflects the Observer article.
Anecdotally, in Asia I found many many restaurants that advertized "No MSG" either on the shop wall, menu or spoken by the waitstaff -- responding to western desires of course; going hand-in-hand with the now ubiquitous "eco-tourism" shtick.
posted by peacay at 9:41 AM on July 10, 2005


From Wikipedia: MSG is found naturally in seaweed and fermented soy products, and especially yeast extracts. Smaller quantities are also present in tomatoes, mushrooms, and Parmesan cheese.

If that doesn't satisfy Mr. Organic and Natural Spice Only, well, I don't know what will.
posted by aerify at 9:45 AM on July 10, 2005


"The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), in its own "backgrounder" statement on MSG, presents a troubling question: "Can MSG and possibly some other glutamates harm the nervous system?"[15] Ironically, FDA raises this question in the sentence immediately after they flatly assert that "[c]onsumption of glutamate in food, however, does not [damage nerve cells in the brain]."

I do think there is substantial fraud in phamaceutical companies and FDA approved but dangerously unsafe drugs, as there was in the cigarette companies saying nicotine is not addictive or that friable asbestos doesn't cause cancer. When a substance like aspartame is suspected to be toxic, it would seem wise to err on the side of caution and learn about what exactly the food additives are. Apparently each American eats up to 140 to 150 pounds of food additives every year. There are many people who have badly survived or died from substances that were touted by the FDA as safe, such as thimoseral in vaccines.
posted by nickyskye at 9:46 AM on July 10, 2005


meehawl: Touchè.
posted by grouse at 9:49 AM on July 10, 2005


Hold up. Are we calling glutamate a neurotoxin here?

It's the most common neurotransmitter you have. It's essential to brain function, not to mention other cellular functions everywhere else.

Your body is soaking in the stuff right now, and making more besides. You are using glutamate every time you cook up an argument about the evils of glutamate.

I'm not surprised if some people have bad reactions to MSG. People have bad reactions to all kinds of things. But calling it a neurotoxin is a little bit daffy.

Learn about glutamate.
posted by tss at 9:50 AM on July 10, 2005


Nickyskye:
Are you fucking kidding me? Let me say this again: monosodium glutamate is a NATURALLY OCCURRING SUBSTANCE FOUND IN SEAWEED.

Other reports gave similar findings. A 1991 report by the European Communities' (EC) Scientific Committee for Foods reaffirmed MSG's safety and classified its "acceptable daily intake" as "not specified," the most favorable designation for a food ingredient. In addition, the EC Committee said, "Infants, including prematures, have been shown to metabolize glutamate as efficiently as adults and therefore do not display any special susceptibility to elevated oral intakes of glutamate."

A 1992 report from the Council on Scientific Affairs of the American Medical Association stated that glutamate in any form has not been shown to be a "significant health hazard."

Also, the 1987 Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization have placed MSG in the safest category of food ingredients.

Scientific knowledge about how the body metabolizes glutamate developed rapidly during the 1980s. Studies showed that glutamate in the body plays an important role in normal functioning of the nervous system.


http://doityourself.com/diet/fdamsg.htm
posted by aerify at 9:54 AM on July 10, 2005


For nearly a century, monosodium glutamate has been used safely and effectively in the food supply. Because monosodium glutamate is used widely as a food ingredient, a great deal of research has been completed on its safety and efficacy. Hundreds of scientific studies have been conducted on glutamate with the focus on its use as a food ingredient. This extensive research, conducted and reviewed by scientists and regulatory agencies around the world, combined with its long history of use, clearly demonstrates that monosodium glutamate is safe.

In the United States, monosodium glutamate (MSG) is considered to be a common food ingredient, like salt, baking powder and pepper. It is included in the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA's) Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) list. This listing means that monosodium glutamate is safe for its intended use.

The U.S. Code of Federal Regulations state, "It is impracticable to list all substances that are generally recognized as safe for their intended use. However, by way of illustration, the Commissioner (of the FDA) regards such common food ingredients as salt, pepper, vinegar, baking powder and monosodium glutamate as safe for their intended use." Monosodium glutamate is also approved by governments world-wide, including those in Europe, Japan and other Asian countries, North and South America, Africa and Australia and New Zealand.


http://www.glutamate.org/media/approvals.htm

Hundreds of studies have shown that MSG is safe. The people saying otherwise tend to be the sort you see here: focusing exclusively on anecdotal evidence.
posted by aerify at 9:57 AM on July 10, 2005


But I guess that's not going to stop these crowd of MSG-hating lunatics from blaming the evil FDA for killing us all.

Despite aerify's zealous attack on anyone that would question his (lack of sited) evidence or the political machine at the FDA, I only posted because blind-faith in government agencies is ill-advised. The list of substances the FDA approved then disapproved when more evidence was taken under consideration is long and scary. Would anybody like a saccharine sweetened drink to swallow those estrogen pills? (Yes, I am aware saccharine is no longer considered a human carcinogen.)

We can extract arsenic and lead from seaweed too, so those must be a good safe flavor enhancers too, right? There are lots of natural substances that I'd prefer not being served under the guise of spices or flavor enhancers.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 9:58 AM on July 10, 2005


aerify, you seem pretty worked up. Maybe you should cut down on your MSG intake.
posted by Morrigan at 10:07 AM on July 10, 2005


To be fair, I better than skimmed the Harvard Law link from 1997 provided by nickyskye and it really does not take this debate further. It noted that there are 2 sides obviously to the argument and each has critics of each other's science. (although I thought some of the arguments posited about glutamate studies by the anti-MSG league were rather poor - for instance, saying that it was unsafe to extrapolate data from a study to the whole population, but that's why we have statistical analysis)
Anyway, fuck the FDA - their equivocation and history are somewhat irrelevant. What science are these other governements relying upon and are there available bona fide studies from this century showing?
posted by peacay at 10:13 AM on July 10, 2005


We can extract arsenic and lead from seaweed too, so those must be a good safe flavor enhancers too, right?

Heh. You just contradicted your own point that you don't like MSG partly because it's not "natural" (which it is). Like I said, whether it's natural or not is irrelevant to whether it's safe.

By the way, there is nothing wrong with saccharine or estrogen. Estrogen, like MSG, is also a chemical your body produces.
posted by aerify at 10:14 AM on July 10, 2005


Countless millions of billions of studies have proven it!! Endless seas of studies!!! If you spent the rest of your life counting, you wouldn't be able to count all the studies!!!! Seriously!!! It's like counting the friggin stars in the sky!! Or.. or grains of sand!!! That's how many studies there are!
posted by Edible Energy at 10:15 AM on July 10, 2005


I'll flavor my organic meals with natural spices,

Right, as opposed to the inorganic rocks and dirt we other, less conscious people eat.
posted by aerify at 8:49 AM PST on July 10 [!]


You know, salt is an inorganic rock, right?

MSG is the EXACT SAME CHEMICAL that you can extract from dried seaweed. Is seaweed not natural to you?

And ricin is the exact same chemical that you can extract from castor beans. Cocaine is the exact same chemical you can extract from cocoa leaves. Are they not natural?

I think you have a very stake in this pony show, aerify.
posted by Balisong at 10:16 AM on July 10, 2005


-er- high stake
posted by Balisong at 10:16 AM on July 10, 2005


Lack of cited evidence? Forgive me if I'm not able to dig around and find every study that proves that MSG is perfectly safe. Every industrialized nation approves of MSG as safe as salt or sugar, so it's not just your evil FDA at work here. But I guess in McGuillicuddy's world all nations are embroiled in some evil conspiracy to kill him by putting MSG in every food we eat.

blind-faith in government agencies is ill-advised

No shit. But that's far cry from the lunatic fringe that is the anti-MSG movement.
posted by aerify at 10:17 AM on July 10, 2005


Your body is soaking in the stuff right now

Indeed. The statements positing a relational concordance between peanut allergies and a spectrum of reactions to glutamate in the diet is at best a straw man argument. The fact that only a tiny proportion of the population suffers from such "peanut" allergies is thus an argument in favour of a tiny proportion of the population suffering from similar glutamate "allergies" is based on faulty science.

Allergies to foreign ingested proteins occur because your body has been trained ("hypersensitized") to produce IgE antibodies to the epitopes of specific foreign proteins.

This is a testable condition and can be verified, easily and inexpensively, by any number of skin, blood, or plasma tests. The specific allergan can be identified with great precision. The link between the causitive agent and the symptomatic response is irrefutable, categorically reproducable, and admits of no simpler hypothesis. By most criteria of provability, it is a done deal.

By contrast, posited immune responses to non-pathological levels of glutamate in the diet have never proven to be testable, repeatable, or based on any coherent hypothesis. Therefore, it is not science but faith.

If anyone manifested a Type 1 immune reaction to glutamate, then they would be dead within minutes.

If, instead, the argument for MSG Syndrome rests on a more subtle, slower, delayed response to glutamamte, then there would be a slower Type 2 immune response to glutamate occuring (or even any of the Types 3, 4, 5, etc). This would manifest in obvious, continued symptoms of increased severity resembling lupus, rheumatism, anemia, and so on. The prognosis would probably be terminal. This would be inevitable considering the continual, large-scale production of glutamate within the body coupled with its almost complete presence within the human diet.

For the people who are glutamate phobic, you still have not explained how it is that a human body could be negatively sensitized to glutamate ingested through the digestive tracts without being simultaneously sickened by the continual, ongoing, metabolic synthesis of glutamate within the body.
posted by meehawl at 10:17 AM on July 10, 2005 [1 favorite]


tss : "Hold up. Are we calling glutamate a neurotoxin here?

"It's the most common neuro
transmitter you have. It's essential to brain function, not to mention other cellular functions everywhere else."

Depends on context. Look up 'glutamate excitotoxicity' on PubMed. There's an amount range within which the organism maintains homeostasis. Fall outside those bounds and the cycles/loops deviate and very well may cause permanent damage.
posted by Gyan at 10:18 AM on July 10, 2005


I only brought up the "natural" argument because McGuillicuddy kept insisting that MSG wasn't natural, not that it has anything to do with its safety.

It's a salt. It's an amino acid your body produces in large doses.

I think you have a very high stake in this pony show, aerify.

No stake. I just enjoy flaming retards.
posted by aerify at 10:20 AM on July 10, 2005


Maybe I'm not credible because I'm being an enormous dick, but perhaps someone less excitable could explain nicely to these anti-MSG folk that they have nothing to fear except, uh, fear itself.

It's a little like the anti-"dihydrogen oxide" movement, only not a joke.
posted by aerify at 10:25 AM on July 10, 2005


Gyan: Good point, but so it is for everything. That's why calling glutamate a neurotoxin is so baffling to me. It's like calling water a poison, which, sure, it is in sufficient quantity.

*chugs another cup of common industrial solvent*
posted by tss at 10:30 AM on July 10, 2005


Thanks meehawl, that was an erudite analysis.
posted by peacay at 10:31 AM on July 10, 2005


Apparently each American eats up to 140 to 150 pounds of food additives every year.
posted by nickyskye at 9:46 AM PST on July 10


Um, way to quote a source that improperly quotes a source. Let's go all the way back to the original and see what immediately follows:

"Of that total, 98 percent is made up of such familiar ingredients as sugar, corn sweeteners, salt, citric acid, pepper, vegetable colors, mustard, yeast, and baking soda." from here.

It's pretty dishonest intellectually to make a claim like that and not mention that - by my wild but probably pretty good guess - a good 99% of that 98% is from sugar and high fructose corn syrup. I could probably talk for pages and pages about HFCS and why I hate it and why it's the worst food additive currently used, but I'll stay on topic.

Look, I realize that the FDA is, like most government institutions, at best mediocre and at worst terrible, but it's better than the alternative, which is to listen to every nutty mercury-causes-autism, MSG-causes-autism, anything-not-"natural"-causes-cancer wackjob out there. No thanks. When something is approved by the FDA, you get a pretty good guarantee it won't kill you outright or, like, turn your skin gray. With herbal practioners and naturopaths and the like - don't be so sure.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 10:31 AM on July 10, 2005


http://www.penny-arcade.com/images/2004/20040319l.jpg

I'm out for this thread. Hopefully someone will pick up my argument and run with it in a more convincing manner.
posted by aerify at 10:31 AM on July 10, 2005


aerify - you really need to take a deep breath and a break. I mean, you've insulted many of the other people in the thread, you've effectively called anyone who thinks they get a headache from MSG racist, and you're accusing other people of trolling?? I basically agree with your viewpoint but I don't think you're going to convince anyone this way.
posted by advil at 10:32 AM on July 10, 2005


on post - nevermind, should've waited.
posted by advil at 10:33 AM on July 10, 2005


aerifiy: you're so aware of the actual, real health risks that you MUST rely on experts at FDA (or some other experienced group of people) to know if something is safe or unsafe for consumption.

I bet that you carefully listen at their words and trust their decisions..curiously, any religious zealot too also carefully listens to the words proclaimed by some high priest of the moment..and actually believes the message they convey.

Malor may be ignorant, in the sense that he doesn't really know what the effect of MSG could be on his/her body and maybe also believes that MSG is an harmful poison ; at least he's certainly a goodfaith whistleblower attempting to warn people of what he thinks to be a danger.

aerify dude do you recognize that you're just using malor's message to attack him and not his position ?

I'm not discounting the fact that he may be, in fact, sensitive to some chemical, or something else (although it's highly unlikely). But anecdotes do not make a science.

A thousand anectodes any better ? You know, a lot of people reported sneezing and stomach ache and a sensation of feeling bad and weak....they recovered and they literally were in good health , so some doctor thought they're just fanatics because they didn't see any symptom.

If their anecdotes were to be superficially discarded as bullshit , today we probably wouldn't know about influenza virus.

Also some other scientist tought that, maybe, some of the people wasn't really reporting a true event..but they were just making it up..maybe to attract attention, maybe because they felt alone...and so by not discarding superficially reported facts as "baloonery" but by understanding that these people actually were telling "their truth" little by little the idea of analyzing human behavior was born. Welcome to psycology and psychiatry.

So you seem to think you're a scientist ..if you appreciate them, don't behave like a bad one..behaving is not being.

I don't believe that countering this sort of irrational fear with evidence helps. Their beliefs are a religion in and of themselves, and no number of scientific studies are going to change their emotions. These people are best ignored, or laughed at.

What ? You don't "believe" ? Rephrase to " I believe that countering this sort of irrational fears with evidence helps"..then slap yourself as you're being religious when you believe in something. I laugh at you and I'll just ignore you as you just didn't see the implicit contradiction in your statement.
posted by elpapacito at 10:34 AM on July 10, 2005


Can anyone parse elpapacito's comment for me?
posted by Optimus Chyme at 10:45 AM on July 10, 2005


I think I need to read Candide again. I'm puzzled and annoyed by the near-universal human habit of feeling beseiged by mysterious forces. Food suspicion is an example. There are other broad and common categories.

Part of why I error on the side of not being suspicious is because this is a clear human tendency and from study and observation I'm convinced most people error on the side of excessive suspicion. Even so, of course, there must be some mysterious forces beseiging me.

I certainly don't think this is the best of all possible universes. But mostly I prefer to be less suspicious rather than more because I simply don't want to live with much of my experience tinted with fear. And usually these oppressing forces are a group (or groups) of other human beings and, given that, I don't want to spend a lot of my time being angry with other people or even hating them.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:54 AM on July 10, 2005


elpapacito says it all.

There is no reason maior cannot be right in interpreting his experiences -- MSG is an industrially produced compound of a natural substance which we all eat every day. Adverse reactions to it are not to be expected by a naive prediction, but hardly impossible. Did this exact formulation occur naturally in everybody's pre-1900 diet?

And aerify, your compulsive, paranoid ranting about the agenda of some "anti-science cabal" or " the anti-MSG movement" is no less demented than the conspiracy theory aspersions you throw around so wildly.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:58 AM on July 10, 2005


No idea why, but large amounts of MSG give me asthma attacks.

This occurs with the MSG found in, say, Cheetos, on top of the MSG found in Asian food. I don't know if it's the amount, or the type, or if it breaks down when cooking, because I'm sure I eat more MSG during the day than I care to admit, but it only affects me in certain quantities/situations.

So, I'm one of those restaurant goers that loves those 'NO MSG' signs.

(However, I also don't believe that there's an MSG cabal out to poison us, I just have a really tweaky immune system that just rejects MSG, sulfites, and peanuts outright.)
posted by spinifex23 at 11:00 AM on July 10, 2005


Well said elpapacito.

Good point Gyan.

I agree with you Bali_Song.

From the Harvard Law School article about this, linked to in my last post.
"In the U.S. today, MSG is produced through a fermentation process using starch, sugar beets, sugar cane, or molasses."

If some people have adverse reactions to a manufactured food additive, which millions of people have complained about for decades, I think they have a right to know what they are eating and not have MSG included in the list of ingredients hidden under "natural flavoring".

From the same Harvard Law School paper cited above:
"the United States consumes approximately 28,000 tons of MSG per year"

Let's see, the population of the USA is 295,734,134.
28,000 times 2000, divided by 295,734,134 is about 1.89 pounds, per person per year. That seems to me worth being concerned about as a potential health risk.

In light of ill health related to eating junk food and the savouriness of junk food being manipulated artificially with MSG/other additives/artificial flavorings and the sheer quantity of MSG consumed in the USA, plus the amount of people saying they feel sick after eating food flavored with MSG, I have doubts about the risks of MSG being used, especially when it's hidden as an ingredient with less than transparent labeling.

From the same paper discussing the MSG controversy:
"When bound to other amino acids, glutamate is not biologically-active externally; therefore, glutamate in its "free" form is the only form that contributes to flavor enhancement.[4] MSG does not have a distinct flavor on its own. How it adds flavor to other foods is not fully understood, though scientists believe that when someone ingests MSG it reacts with glutamate receptors on the tongue to enhance meat-like taste.[5] "
posted by nickyskye at 11:06 AM on July 10, 2005


MeTa per SI
posted by mlis at 11:12 AM on July 10, 2005


aerify:

No stake. I just enjoy flaming retards.

You know, the hell of it is, I pretty much agree with most of what you have said in your comments.

As the father of a son who among other things, is mentally retarded, I feel the same way about people who casually throw around the word "retard" as I imagine people of african descent feel about people who use the N word.

Can we just have a nice discussion without breaking out the slurs?
posted by SteveTheRed at 11:13 AM on July 10, 2005


The last time I ate at KFC I felt lousy, got a headache and felt dizzy. I think the food was greasy, over salted and low in fibre. Blaming my reaction on one little ingrediant seems naive to say the least. Taking MSG out of fast food, is just one little step toward making the food edible.

The only way to test if you are allergic or sensitive to a product is to go to an allergist or dietician. MSG laden products are also high in sodium and many other additives. To look at a list of ingredients and see one common additive is not scientific to say the least.

I don't want to attack anyone personally, but if you are sickened by Diet Coke, or KFC, you may be reacting to a dozen factors, some of which are as simple as poor nutrition and lack of fibre. Constipation, dehydration and high blood pressure can trigger a host of unpleasant symptoms that could be misidentified as allergy.

My bit of anecdotal evidence-- people who don't consume junk food, who eat a variety of vegetables-- have better digestion and general health, find themselves more tolerant of food. Eating well won't cure a peanut allergy, but it will make you feel a whole lot better.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 11:31 AM on July 10, 2005


Good point SteveTheRed.
Disagreement can be civil.

From the FDA site:

"The agency also has an ongoing contract with the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology to reexamine the scientific data on possible adverse reactions to glutamate in general. MSG must be declared on the label of any food to which it is added."

But if MSG is allowed to be hidden as an ingredient under such misleading names as "natural flavoring" then it is not being declared.

Also from the FDA:
"Abnormal function of glutamate receptors has been linked with certain neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer's disease and Huntington's chorea. Injections of glutamate in laboratory animals have resulted in damage to nerve cells in the brain. Consumption of glutamate in food, however, does not cause this effect. While people normally consume dietary glutamate in large amounts and the body can make and metabolize glutamate efficiently, the results of animal studies conducted in the 1980s raised a significant question: Can MSG and possibly some other glutamates harm the nervous system?"

Also from the FDA:
"The FASEB report identifies two groups of people who may develop a condition the report refers to as "MSG symptom complex." One group is those who may be intolerant to MSG when eaten in a large quantity. The second is a group of people with severe, poorly controlled asthma. These people, in addition to being prone to MSG symptom complex, may suffer temporary worsening of asthmatic symptoms after consuming MSG. The MSG dosage that produced reactions in these people ranged from 0.5 grams to 2.5 grams."

Also from the FDA:
"Although FDA has not fully analyzed the FASEB report, the agency believes that the report provides the basis to require glutamate labeling. FDA will propose that foods containing significant amounts of free glutamate (not bound in protein along with other amino acids) declare glutamate on the label. This would allow consumers to distinguish between foods with insignificant free glutamate levels and those that might contribute to a reaction."
posted by nickyskye at 11:39 AM on July 10, 2005


Can we just have a nice discussion without breaking out the slurs?

Apparently not. This is MeFi, where considering other people's feelings threatens your carefully hoarded geek cred. But for what it's worth, I agree with you.
posted by languagehat at 11:39 AM on July 10, 2005


Has anyone heard from aerify on this matter? I'm dying to know what aerify thinks. If only aerify would post, I don't know, every five fucking seconds or so, that would really help me out.
posted by willpie at 11:49 AM on July 10, 2005


There's a theory that says the antidepressant gives a sort of boost of energy that's not enough to counter the depression but enough to allow the person to go through with the suicidal act.

I'll buy that theory. When I was in the darkest throes of depression, I couldn't muster up the emotion to care about actually doing what I was thinking. I can well imagine that some people, on starting their meds, find it within themselves to finally enact their dark thoughts.
An average 2lbs ingested annually? Ick. Just as eating too much fat, sugar, or drinking waaaay too much water in a day can make you very unhealthy, I've no reason to believe eating too much MSG can harm you.

However, I don't believe for a moment that small amounts of it are overly bad.

Quit eating the damn junkfood crap, and maybe you won't end up with a bad headache next time you overload your body with the shyte-in-a-bucket that KFC serves up.

Hell, for that matter, anyone who eats KFC deserves what they get. That isn't food, it's swill. Stupid frigging people.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:53 AM on July 10, 2005


c/no reason to believe/no reason to not believe/

But you probably figured it out for yourself.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:55 AM on July 10, 2005


It *is* a neurotoxin. It is probably low enough toxicity that most people don't notice it. But it is still killing brain cells.

Tell us some more of your cracky tales, why don't you. Glutamate is one of the 20 essential amino acids, and it happens to be the one that something like 90% of the neurons in your brain use as their primary transmitter.

Let me say this again.

It's your brain's PRIMARY CHEMICAL TRANSMITTER AT THE SYNAPSE. If it weren't there your brain WOULD NOT WORK.

Or maybe you were using some weird definition of 'neurotoxin' of which I was previously unaware?
posted by ikkyu2 at 12:05 PM on July 10, 2005


MeTa per SI

In the future, every FPP will have its Meta.
posted by clevershark at 12:07 PM on July 10, 2005


Abnormal function of glutamate receptors has been linked with certain neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer's disease and Huntington's chorea.

Sure, glutamate receptors. No surprises there. Abnormal function of your drain is linked to a flooded bathroom, but water is not entirely at fault.

Injections of glutamate in laboratory animals have resulted in damage to nerve cells in the brain.

Injections where? The bloodstream or directly into brain tissue? Glutamate doesn't cross the blood/brain barrier to any appreciable degree---if it did, you'd have a grand mal seizure right after finishing off your General Tso's Chicken. Overwhelming neurons directly with glutamate, just like overwhelming your body with water, is unsurprisingly harmful. Eating MSG doesn't appear to do this.

the results of animal studies conducted in the 1980s raised a significant question: Can MSG and possibly some other glutamates harm the nervous system?

Immediately followed by:
A 1995 report from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), an independent body of scientists, helps put these safety concerns into perspective and reaffirms the Food and Drug Administration's belief that MSG and related substances are safe food ingredients for most people when eaten at customary levels.
Even if it is the FDA website, I find this selective quoting of informal documents disingenuous.

None of the proffered symptoms in the FASEB report seem to be worthy of the "neurotoxin" scaremongering that seems to be going around here. Again, I'm not saying that some people don't feel off, or even suffer significant discomfort after eating MSG. It's just that the claim that it might be doing hidden harm to the billions of people who eat it each year, or that it might cause autism or any number of mysterious disorders, seems so totally outlandish in the face of all the study that's been done, and of course the fact that glutamate is such a fundamental substance in the human body.

On preview: thanks ikkyu2, see above. :-)
posted by tss at 12:13 PM on July 10, 2005


"Hell, for that matter, anyone who eats KFC deserves what they get. That isn't food, it's swill. Stupid frigging people."

Mmmm. I was just considering where I'm going for lunch. Three piece, all-white, Original Recipe is just the thing I was hungry for! With mac-and-cheese and wedge potatoes.

Gotta go.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 12:19 PM on July 10, 2005


ikkyu2-

I think "neurotoxin" normally refers to something that, when applied in some unrealistically large amount in an in vitro situation, exhibits neurotoxic effects. Just because something is a neurotoxin under these circumstances doesn't mean ingesting a normal (or elevated) amount of it will cause any ill effects to a living human.
posted by rxrfrx at 12:23 PM on July 10, 2005


"I think 'neurotoxin' normally refers to something that, when applied in some unrealistically large amount in an in vitro situation, exhibits neurotoxic effects."

Are you sure? Of course, nomenclature varies. But I recall someone claiming that CO2 was "toxic" and I strongly disliked that claim. I think I'd want to keep "toxic" positioned more to the "inherently deadly in any amount" side of the spectrum.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 12:29 PM on July 10, 2005


ikkyu2 the FDA said they "will propose that foods containing significant amounts of free glutamate (not bound in protein along with other amino acids) declare glutamate on the label. This would allow consumers to distinguish between foods with insignificant free glutamate levels and those that might contribute to a reaction".

It would seem that MSG is a "free glutamate", "not bound in protein along with other amino acids" and that is why the FDA deems it necessary to "distinguish between foods with insignificant free glutamate levels and those that might contribute to a reaction".

It sounds like not all glutamate is the same or reacts the same way in the body when it is in combination with proteins and other amino acids and that MSG, being a "free glutamate" creates adverse reactions in certain people, even death to some with severe asthma.

My point is that I think food labeling when it comes to MSG, needs to be more transparent and accurate, so the consumer can make an informed decision.

Knowing about umami as a type of taste receptor I also see the use of MSG, in junk food in particular, with a new savvy. Since seeking umami foods is apparently hard-wired from infancy, it would make sense why junk food laden with MSG is particularly addictive and would contribute to people -particularly children- eating more of it in excess and becoming more obese. For kids who are, for survival purposes geared toward umami foods, MSG spiked foods would have a much greater allure than plain old fruits and veggies and those kids, growing up would tend to prefer MSG flavored foods.

In Japan where dairy and red meat aren't eaten as much as fish, veggies and rice, MSG doesn't seem to have drawn the population there towards the types of unhealthy junk food so often eaten in the West, like KFC, MacDonald's, potato chips, Cheetos etc.

Because of culturally based food choices that are different, it seems like the use of MSG in the West may have a worse impact than it does in the East.
posted by nickyskye at 12:49 PM on July 10, 2005


Dude. Some people have allergies. Get over it. It doesn't mean that the allergen is universally toxic or that there's a conspiracy by government/corporations/sneaky Asians (sure, maybe no one HERE needs the race excuse to claim a conspiracy, but you're fooling yourself if you think that's not a factor in the larger world).

What exactly is the issue here? A lot of things have MSG, sure. But we ALREADY HAVE INGREDIENT LABELS. If you can't bother to read an ingredient label, that's your problem.

Some people seem to have aspartame allergies, too, but until I can get any two people to agree on exactly which disease it causes, I'll hold off on that judgment, too.
posted by dagnyscott at 1:00 PM on July 10, 2005


...about 1.89 pounds, per person per year. That seems to me worth being concerned about as a potential health risk.

And the average person produces 6.64 pounds per year in their own body.

Concerned about that?
posted by bashos_frog at 1:04 PM on July 10, 2005


basho's_frog (cool name), as I said above, it would seem that MSG is a "free glutamate", "not bound in protein along with other amino acids" and that is why the FDA deems it necessary to "distinguish between foods with insignificant free glutamate levels and those that might contribute to a reaction".
posted by nickyskye at 1:12 PM on July 10, 2005


Boy howdy! That KFC original recipe sure was good!
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:13 PM on July 10, 2005


Oh for Christ's sake, everything is a neurotoxin. And yes, glutamate is. Overproduction of glutamate by astrocytes and neurons, leads to excessive calcium influx into cells, swelling, fucks up your mitochondria (instigates apoptosis and necrosis of the neurons) and kills your cells.

See? calcium's a neurotoxin, too! Damn, I wish I hadn't taken my Ca2+ supplements this morning.

Think dose-response. There is a physiological range for everything we eat/our body produces etc. Too little calcium, we die, too much, we die.
posted by gaspode at 1:15 PM on July 10, 2005


After reading this thread, I understand how 'concerned citizens' nearly managed to get Dihydrogen Monoxide banned in Aliso Viejo.
posted by bashos_frog at 1:16 PM on July 10, 2005


gaspode, what's the LD50 for MSG? I'm thinking it has to be more than a Kg, at least...

Any volunteers for testing?
posted by bashos_frog at 1:17 PM on July 10, 2005


So, can this thread be summarized as: based largely (or entirely) on anecdotal evidence, some people MAY have sensitivities to MSG? Further, that these alleged sensitivities, if they are real, occur in some people and not in others, possibly due to genetics?

My sister-in-law will tell you that she is allergic to seafood. She has never been tested, but she did get sick after eating seafood once or twice over twenty years ago. But she eats tuna. She also doesn't like bananas because they are mushy, and chicken on the bone because she doesn't like to think about BONES, and chicken off the bone because it is too flaky, and myriad other foods for what are (to me) equally daffy reasons. She also has a sensitivity to MSG.

A lot of people who consider themselves to be MSG-sensitive remind me of my sister-in-law. Or am I making a leap based on anecdotal evidence?
posted by Chasuk at 1:17 PM on July 10, 2005


dagnyscott, according to the article cited in the original post:

"MSG plays a role - often in secret - in products on almost every shelf of the supermarket"

and

"MSG was buried by giving it new names. The industry came up with a fabulous range of euphemisms for monosodium glutamate - the most cheeky of all is 'natural flavourings'."
posted by nickyskye at 1:21 PM on July 10, 2005


nickyskye: This "free glutamate" is exactly the neurotransmitter ikkyu2 and I keep going on about. Even though glutamate winds up in other proteins too, it performs essential functions on its own, and you've got a lot of it inside you that way right now.
posted by tss at 1:27 PM on July 10, 2005


While again, I don't have a sacred cow to punch in this debate, I do find it interesting that in the mean, those who are suspicious of MSG seem to be making good faith efforts to produce their evidence, the "pro-MSG" bunch, for all their claims to scientific backing seem to be relying overmuch on straw men and personal abuse.

Judging matters of fact on the basis of the tactics of the disputants is admittedly weak, and less valuable than even secondary research but nevertheless I find it curiously telling.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:28 PM on July 10, 2005


tss, then why would the FDA propose that "foods containing significant amounts of free glutamate (not bound in protein along with other amino acids) declare glutamate on the label", which would "allow consumers to distinguish between foods with insignificant free glutamate levels and those that might contribute to a reaction"?
posted by nickyskye at 1:34 PM on July 10, 2005


ikkyu, I see from your profile that you're a neurologist. I saw a number of them, back when I was really sick... had you seen me at the time, you'd have probably guessed MS as well. Christ, I couldn't walk heel-and-toe. Blurred vision, pupils not the same size, eyes not tracking together, mild auditory hallucination, constant brain fog.....I was sick, sick, sick.

Now, I think aspartame is the true villain here; I think it is what did the damage. In the MSG-hater community, which I've brushed the edges of, the belief in cross-sensivity between the two substances is very common, and my own experience seems to bear that out. I am extraordinarily sensitive to it, and you'd be able to prove it in double-blind testing. There appears to be a genetic component as well... my mother is also MSG-sensitive (and in fact never realized why she was sick all the time, until I figured out my own problems.) She is far less sensitive than I am, and can eat many foods that I can't, but it does give her problems.

Glutamate and monosodium glutamate are not the same thing. If they were, they wouldn't have a separate name for MSG. You are arguing that because the body uses glutamate, that MSG must be safe. This is analogous to arguing that ingesting chlorine is safe, because the body uses sodium chloride.

Do we know exactly how monosodium glutamate is processed and where it goes? Does the sodium get split off? If so.. what does it bind to? Sodium is nasty and toxic, and elements don't just disappear. If the body processes MSG into 'safe' glutamate, where does the sodium go?

Think of me as the canary in the coal mine. There's a problem here. It may not affect everyone, but as a neurologist, you know that it requires a huge loss of neurons in a given area to cause consciously-noticeable symptoms. Slow damage over a number of years probably wouldn't show in any of the studies that are out now. And, honestly, it might never show at a conscious level in most people. But I'm here to tell you, it shows at least some of the time, at least in conjunction with aspartame.

To repeat and expand on the tossaway thought up yonder... there has been a huge increase in diagnosis of autism and hyperactivity disorders over the last twenty or thirty years. The thimerosal-based vaccines might be a cause. Better diagnosis might be another.

But the single largest social change I'm aware of in the US has been the switch by nearly everyone to processed foods. Very few people I know truly cook for themselves anymore. I'm not asserting that it's MSG that's causing autism, but I think it's an interesting correlation that is worth studying.

On preview: Chasuk, go read some of my other posts. I may be wrong about things, but I'm fairly rational and can generally back up my opinions. I realize that all I have to offer here is anecodotal evidence, but it was profound and life-changing for me. (MSG is DAMN hard to avoid.)

As far as other food sensitivities go... I'm very mildly allergic to cantaloupes. My mouth and throat will itch a bit after eating them. Other than that, I can eat just about anything, as long as it doesn't have MSG. I used to be quite adventurous in my eating, but now I tend to stick with stuff I know, just for safety's sake. It's a bit boring, but I'd rather be bored than ill.

If the message didn't come through here properly: I think MSG is only a little bit bad. Aspartame, on the other hand, is deeply, deeply evil, and you should go to ANY length to avoid it. Use Splenda or Stevia instead. (Stevia is probably safest, but it has a nasty licorice taste that many people, including me, dislike.) I think even saccharine isn't really all that bad. Just avoid aspartame, that stuff is pure nasty in a bottle.
posted by Malor at 1:40 PM on July 10, 2005


George_Spiggot: well, if you hang around, for example, the sci.physics.relativity newsgroup, you'll see people writing lengthy articles refuting relativity with lots of seemingly authoritative references, while, in contrast, the few people that bother to argue with the anti-relativity crowd don't make many references, if any. They are also sometimes rude and usually impatient.

I think that, especially with crank science topics, what you're describing may more often point to a lack of credbility than it does trustworthiness. The lady doth protest too loudly, and all that.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:42 PM on July 10, 2005


I think "neurotoxin" normally refers to something that, when applied in some unrealistically large amount in an in vitro situation, exhibits neurotoxic effects.

Certainly not. Substitute "small" for "unrealistically large" and "vivo" for "vitro" and I'll start to agree with you.

Mercury, for instance, is a neurotoxin. It's not normally present in neurons and when you eat it it gets across the BBB and causes problems in the brain, including madness and paralysis.

Glutamate has to be there for the brain to work, and plenty of it. It is actively transported and regulated and synthesized and all that jazz.

Malor, believe it or not, you are not the first person to be interested in the role of glutamate and related compounds in the body. Google the 'Urea Cycle' for reviews of some Nobel-Prize-winning research on the topic. The mitochondria, intestine, liver and kidneys, and blood-brain barrier are all players in this very interesting game of nitrogenous-compounds logistics.

With regard to headaches: oral MSG and oral aspartame can both cause headaches. Aspartame, in fact, is a pretty consistent trigger of my own migraines, so I avoid it. I don't know why this happens.

I don't know what causes autism, either, but I'd lay money that it's not orally ingested glutamate.
posted by ikkyu2 at 1:49 PM on July 10, 2005 [1 favorite]


Sodium is nasty and toxic, and elements don't just disappear.

Sodium ion - which falls off the MSG as soon as it hits water in your mouth or stomach - is present in your serum at a normal concentration of 140 mg/mL, and is by far the major determinant of serum osmolality. Sodium metal will not be formed in your body at any time for any reason.

Malor, I sympathize with your history, but I respectfully suggest you leave the physiology-theorizing alone before you hurt yourself.
posted by ikkyu2 at 1:52 PM on July 10, 2005 [1 favorite]


There we go again with Wiki on Glutamate

MSG = MonoSodium Glutamate ...which means MSG is a sodium-salt of glumatic-acid

In a nice example, tomatoes seem to contain significat quantities of glutamic acid...therefore when we add some table-salt (primarily sodium chloride) to it the taste of
tomatoes becomes very much enjoyable, as opposed to the tastes of tomatoes without salt (good but just not that good)

But we also read

It is conjectured that glutamate is involved in cognitive functions like learning and memory in the brain, though excessive amounts may cause neuronal damage associated in diseases like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, lathyrism, and Alzheimer's disease.

Now we don't read how the excessive amount is supposed to be delivered to the body (intramuscolar ? by eating ? by inspiration ?? :) maybe local medical-fites , chemical-fites can help understand the chemistry behind glutamic acid becoming avaiable to body after assimilation of the MSG.

SO is the goddammed MSG a _poison_ ? To some people it apparently may be, so it's worth further investigation...if anything to understand WHY.
posted by elpapacito at 1:55 PM on July 10, 2005


My answer to the common query "If it's not MSG, why *do* I get a headache at Chinese restaurants?"

Because bad Chinese food (and sometimes good) is saltier than hell, and they never give you enough water. That's a recipe for a headache in and of itself, nevermind if you're blood pressure is high-ish.
posted by bobot at 2:01 PM on July 10, 2005


nickyskye: If glutamate were a component of a different protein used as a food ingredient---say, gelatin---then the label for the food would say gelatin, not glutamate/glycine/proline/other amino acids. It's not necessarily the case, as I understand it, that the glutamate will be broken away from the rest of the protein to wander the bloodstream on its own.

(NB: I don't know if gelatin contains glutamate.)

Chemicals that the FDA is calling "free glutamates", on the other hand, are ones like MSG where the glutamate anion is easily isolated. Presumably, then, "free glutamates" are the only source of an "unnatural" amount of glutamate in your blood or wherever.

So, the FDA is really after reasonable labeling here. They're saying: don't call everything with glutamate in it something-glutamate-something because it doesn't matter. For "free glutamates"---well, glutamate is really the whole point of those ingredients; there's not much else to them. It's more useful to characterize MSG as a chemical containing glutamate than as a chemical containing sodium, since lots of things have sodium.

And, yes, the FDA is helping out people who have experienced reactions after eating "free glutamate", or for various reasons, have chosen to avoid it.

The FDA is not saying that glutamate is inherently harmful to eat or deserving of special attention by those who experience no problems with it. The FDA can't say that because there's absolutely no scientific evidence to back it up despite considerable effort, a point which has been brought up several times.

So there you have it: two reasons. Informative, useful ingredient labels, and sensitivity toward those who have experienced trouble eating MSG and things like it.

That's how I understand it.
(Note: not a chemist, biologist, or neuroscientist---a CS grad student.)
posted by tss at 2:05 PM on July 10, 2005


Does the sodium get split off? If so.. what does it bind to?
Sodium is nasty and toxic

Have you ever taken even a basic chemistry/biology course? Solvated sodium ("free sodium") is essential to maintain a healthy body. Without sodium dissolved throughout your body, none of your nerves would function. Too much sodium can cause hypertension, and regulating sodium intake through MSG should be looked at in the same light for sensitive individuals as with any other salt intake.

Aspartame, on the other hand, is deeply, deeply evil, and you should go to ANY length to avoid it. Use Splenda or Stevia instead.

Aspartame is a methylated ester of the dipeptides of the amino acids l-aspartic acid and l-phenylalanine. Basically, the only people who have something to fear from aspartame are those suffering from phenylketonuria, an easily and obviously diagnosed genetic disease.

Aspartame has been widely used by literally hundreds of millions of people in the US for a generation now. If there was any credence to the stories of harm, then the epidemiological evidence would be impossible to miss.

By comparison, if you want to get technical, Splenda is much more of an unknown. It has only been used in the US since 1998. Its chemical name is "sucralose", which sounds a lot more pleasant than its IUPAC name, 1,6-dichloro-1,6-dioxy-ß-D-fructo-furanosyl 4-chloro-4-deoxy-a-D-galactopyranoside.

This is analogous to arguing that ingesting chlorine is safe

Splenda is manufactured by basically replacing some of the carbohydrates in sucrose with chlorine atoms. It is an organochlorine, a family of chemicals that includes many carcinogens and pesticides, such as Dioxin, DDT, Dicofol, Heptachlor, Chlordane, Mirex, Pentachlorophenol, and all PCBs. That sweet smell you get from some pesticides? That's because they are related to sucralose. Many organochlorines smell (and taste) sickly sweet.

As for Stevia, did you know that it is banned in the EU, because studies there have indicated that it is a mutagen, and that it depresses male fertility. Studies are ongoing. Because it is a "natural" product, and not manufactured, its purity varies and it has many dozens of metabolites that have to be checked for toxicity. Research is ongoing. I would consider it "unproven" as safe for consumption.

posted by meehawl at 2:06 PM on July 10, 2005


I Love This F*cking Place.

And I love MSG. And now I know why I love tomatoes with tons of salt.
posted by blasdelf at 2:12 PM on July 10, 2005


So there you have it: two reasons. Informative, useful ingredient labels, and sensitivity toward those who have experienced trouble eating MSG

tss, exactly the points I was making all along.
posted by nickyskye at 2:13 PM on July 10, 2005


Ethereal Bligh : "I think I'd want to keep 'toxic' positioned more to the 'inherently deadly in any amount' side of the spectrum."

Then, only VX nerve gas qualifies. Maybe a couple of others.
posted by Gyan at 2:15 PM on July 10, 2005


The chinese resurant I go to keeps their supplys in the hallway that leads to the rear exit. One day I noticed a huge, 5 pound bag labled "MSG".
posted by delmoi at 2:17 PM on July 10, 2005


I'll add one more thing here... unfortunately, I'm confusing my arguments a bit between aspartame and MSG.

Aspartame is what made me so very ill, a few years back. It appears to have also made me cross-sensitive to MSG, in that MSG will now cause many of the same symptoms, to a much lesser degree.

MSG alone may be perfectly safe, in other words. I suspect it probably isn't, and I suspect it's probably doing some damage to everyone who eats it, but that's a guess. I have no hard data to back it up. The brain can indeed self-repair, so perhaps MSG alone might never do enough damage to make any effective difference.

At this point, all I can tell you *for sure* is that it makes me very ill, after having been through hell from aspartame.

As I said up there, I think I may be a canary in the coal mine, which is why I've posted here. I also wanted to educate people that they are probably getting a heck of a dose of the stuff every day. If you feel ill a lot and don't know why, and the doctors aren't very helpful, then look up the (vast!) list of ways they hide MSG, and shop carefully for a month or so, sticking with basic foods and things you are absolutely certain don't have added MSG. Also, be SURE to eliminate aspartame... that's far more likely to be causing you trouble than MSG alone.

If you don't see any difference after a month, well, you won't have done yourself any harm. If you improve, try going back to your old foods one at a time, experimenting to see what you can eat.

If you find that packaged foods in general make you ill, then you may be MSG-sensitive. The best test I know is to go 'clean' again for a week or so, and then try a bowl of Top Ramen. The flavor packets are essentially straight MSG. If you don't get sick from the first, try another bowl the next day... my MSG-sensitivity seems to vary with how much I've recently had. If you don't get sick from two bowls in two days, you probably aren't significantly MSG-sensitive.

You might, of course, also find you have an allergy to some other specific food, or could find out that your illness isn't closely diet-related at all. But knowing what's NOT the problem is often how you determine what IS, so if you have something ongoing that you can't pin down, this is time well spent.

And for God's sake, just stay off the aspartame once you're clean.
posted by Malor at 2:18 PM on July 10, 2005


The argument that because a substance is a naturally occuring neurotransmitter and therefore must be safe at all times in all situations in all concentrations is incredibly dumb and beneath the intelligence of those that are making it. Go inhale from a canister of nitric oxide
(or from a car's tailpipe) and then come back and tell me how safe it is, 'cause it's, you know, a neurotransmitter! Oh, wait, you won't be back; you'll be dead. Take a nice healthy shot of epinephrine too; it's safe; it's a neurotransmitter!

Please.
posted by TimeFactor at 2:29 PM on July 10, 2005


I drank diet Pepsi in fairly large amounts (bet. 2 and 4 liters a day) for about 10 years, and have suffered no ill effects. I switched to mineral water a few months ago and haven't noticed a huge difference.

I guess that makes me the other "canary in the coal mine". Sometimes it's the stuff in the coal mine that kills the canary. Other times it's the stuff that's already inside the canary and which the canary doesn't know about.
posted by clevershark at 2:31 PM on July 10, 2005


Ikkyu2 and tss, you guys are my freaking heroes. In my absence you two have posted exactly what I would have, plus some extra info that I was not aware of. Thanks for injecting a whole lot of pure reason into this thread.

It's been said, but let's just look at the chemicals here:
Monosodium Glutamate, breaks down into sodium ion and glutamate - two of the most essential chemicals in your body, all hyperbole aside. If your body has trouble breaking down MSG, or dealing with its breakdown products in the digestive system and bloodstream, you may experience problems such as those described by MSG's opponents. Therefore, foods should be list MSG on their ingredients list, along with every other thing that someone may have a reaction to or be unable to process. Have you seen the little thing on some pop cans that says, "Phenylketonurics: contains phenylalanine"? Phenylketonurics have this kind of problem with phenylalanine, another basic amino acid. It's the same type of thing, and again with aspartame, and while I don't think labels should be a mass of warnings, they should clearly and thoroughly list their ingredients so customers are informed. If you have a reaction, know your body and avoid that kind of food. Other people can do the same. No need to eliminate it from the market, no need with ANY of these chemicals, in my opinion.

As far as I am concerned, that is the final word.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 2:34 PM on July 10, 2005


...that, and it looks like I should read more during preview.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 2:40 PM on July 10, 2005


I agree with gesamtkunstwerk -- there's a lot of factors that might cause an adverse reaction. For instance, I'm terribly allergic to shellfish, and I really have to watch the ingredient list when I go to the Asian grocery; they put oysters and other deadly-to-me things in all sorts of places you wouldn't expect, fish cake, chili oil, even added to some noodles! Chili oil especially is an ingredient liberally and widely used in Asian cooking... the article did mention shellfish/peanuts quickly, but I think it's a really important point. Ingredients you wouldn't expect in a sauce or a flavoring that's mainly something else... we're not really so conscious of what is in our food even when it is all natural!
posted by e^2 at 2:41 PM on July 10, 2005


MSG alone may be perfectly safe, in other words. I suspect it probably isn't, and I suspect it's probably doing some damage to everyone who eats it, but that's a guess. I have no hard data to back it up.

Faith-based nutrition.

Paedogeddon:
Genetically, paedophiles have more genes in common with crabs than they do with you and me. Now that is scientific fact. There's no real "evidence" for it but it is scientific fact.
posted by meehawl at 2:48 PM on July 10, 2005


I'm terribly allergic to shellfish, and I really have to watch the ingredient list when I go to the Asian grocery

Count your blessings—you could be living in Taiwan, like my girlfriend (who has the same allergy) and I were back in the '70s. She'd tell waiters "Shrimp can kill me, understand? I can't eat shrimp! Now, does this have shrimp?" "No, no, no shrimp!" The dish would come and she'd inspect it minutely and sure enough, there the little bastards would be. "Waiter! This has shrimp!" "Only for flavor!" It was hell.
posted by languagehat at 2:48 PM on July 10, 2005


Ethereal Bligh: I'm puzzled and annoyed by the near-universal human habit of feeling beseiged by mysterious forces .... But mostly I prefer to be less suspicious rather than more because I simply don't want to live with much of my experience tinted with fear.

Thanks EB. As usual, you have presented my thoughts far more eloquently than I would have myself.
posted by Popular Ethics at 2:57 PM on July 10, 2005


Blue_Stone, a final thought from me. Your original post got me thinking about umami, which I'd never heard of before today. Like most people I love delicious and savoury food but never thought about it much (except the mystery of lychees and muscat grapes, which taste like a meadow full of flowers in one's mouth).

However, I'd been curious for a while about the addictive nature of junk food and now I have a word, umami, which to use researching the subject. There are a few interesting sites I found on the topic, such as The Society for Research on Umami Taste. Apparently, "scientists have identified the receptor we use to taste amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. 'The receptor, T1R1+3, seems to be involved with umami, the savory taste of meats and other foods that are rich in amino acids called glutamates.' "

There are other sites exploring the science of taste and smell with a focus on umami.

Just wanted to say thanks for your original post.
posted by nickyskye at 3:11 PM on July 10, 2005


Wow, this was a very informative discussion. The best 'o metafilter for sure.
posted by delmoi at 3:17 PM on July 10, 2005


I'm curious if the anti-MSG and anti-aspartame folks have done double-blind tests to check their suspicions. Folks say they "know" that MSG/aspartame makes them ill -- how do they know that?

I spent years "knowing" that scallops made me violently ill until someone conducted a semi-blind test on me (someone prepared various food items with/without scallop products, and gave them to a server who didn't know which was which, with only one product per meal. I myself had no idea when the test was being done), and it turned out I could consume quite a lot with no ill effects.

So much for "knowing" what made me ill. Scallops still make me a little queasy, but I recognize now that it's purely psychological.
posted by aramaic at 3:35 PM on July 10, 2005


Indeed -- once the trolls got their say in and fucked off, what remained were sincere, often very well informed and intellectually honest efforts to present a case. It doesn't often go this well after such a rough start. I'm not sure either side "proved" anything, because I don't think it was shown that people who believe they react adversely to MSG or aspartame must of necessity be wrong. Even if an assertion is wildly counterintuitive and what is known about it seems superficially to fly in the face of established fact, in the absence of a direct investigation of the phenomenon itself it cannot be considered false. Have any controlled studies been done of people claiming MSG or aspartame sensitivities to establish or disprove the link based on evidence rather than broad assumptions rooted in general biochemistry?
posted by George_Spiggott at 3:36 PM on July 10, 2005


Wow, this was a very informative discussion. The best 'o metafilter for sure.

Watching laymen argue on the Internet about science that they don't nearly understand is always an entertaining time.
posted by rxrfrx at 3:37 PM on July 10, 2005


Ooo, do we talk about the evils of soy and canola next?
posted by TwelveTwo at 3:47 PM on July 10, 2005


So much for "knowing" what made me ill. Scallops still make me a little queasy

Here's my story. A couple of years ago I developed a classic allergic response: fever, hives and welts over ~60% of my body, and decreased appetite. It took two days to flare up completely, and another 3 days or so to subside.

About three months later I had another attack.

The only commonality I could discern was that in both cases I had eaten asian food a day or two earlier: once Thai, and once Szechuan. And both times I had ordered seafood dishes with the seafood removed.

So the logical explanation was that I had developed a shellfish allergy. Its "sudden" manifestation could have been related to the fact that I have not knowingly eaten shellfish in around 15 years. So maybe something had developed?

Once this presumption took hold it gripped me within psychological chains. I *knew* it was unlikely that I could have developed symptoms several days after eating them, but I could honestly think of no other remotely plausible explanation. After a couple of days I knew I could not live with this kind of weird post-traumatic stress-like psychological aversion to asian food. It was unsettling, non-rational, and pretty annoying. Why live in doubt?

I went to a physician and got referred to an allergy testing lab, where they drew some blood. I asked for a wide-spectrum test:

Clam: <0 .05 iu/ml=> Negative
Crab: <0 .05 iu/ml=> Negative
Shrimp: <0 .05 iu/ml=> Negative
Scallop: <0 .05 iu/ml=> Negative
Oyster: <0 .05 iu/ml=> Negative
Lobster: <0 .05 iu/ml=> Negative

So now I can nosh down on Thai food without any qualms. The hives? Possibly stress, possibly some other environmental toxin, possibly the phase of the moon. A very slight chance that it resulted from unknown or exotic combination of ingredients in both restaurants. Given that I eat asian food a couple of times a week, and the episode has not repeated, I discount that possibility.

So that's the deal. If you think you have an allergy to a specific substance, go get tested for it. Do a double-blind. Get peace of mind. As Ethereal Bligh says, don't live in fear and half-baked assumptions about your body's responses.
posted by meehawl at 4:00 PM on July 10, 2005


Watching laymen argue on the Internet about science that they don't nearly understand is always an entertaining time.

Well, Mr new graduate with a BS/MS in biochemistry, why not contribute something less snarky and more substantial? Since you have appointed yourself the only scientist here, it seems only fair that you deliver some pearls of wisdom.
posted by meehawl at 4:21 PM on July 10, 2005


Watching laymen argue on the Internet about science that they don't nearly understand is always an entertaining time.

I'd say annoying.

I <3 MSG
posted by PurplePorpoise at 5:23 PM on July 10, 2005


You're welcome, nickyskye (et al.). I'm off to make a vegemite and tomato sauce sandwich. Mm-mm-mmm.
posted by Blue Stone at 5:25 PM on July 10, 2005


spazzm, re your interesting (to me at least) question about "handedness" of glutamate in MSG, a study found D-glutamate (right-handed, "unnatural", glutamate) in all foods tested, but less, proportionally, in food to which MSG had been added.

Apparently D-glutamate occurs naturally, particularly as a product of bacterial fermentation, but occurs at relatively lower levels in the proteins from which "artificial" MSG is produced (and I'm sure it's a lot cheaper to produce MSG by lysing existing proteins than it'd be to "make it from scratch", which might, depending on the method used, yield both D- and L- stereoisomers
posted by TimeFactor at 5:36 PM on July 10, 2005


I'm not saying that anyone here is being a hypochondriac, but human health is very complex. Doctors will always test you for the most dangerous things first (like MS), and for your own good, they often omit ambiguities. Even a highly skilled neurologist needs time to properly diagnose a patient.

I can't recommend seeing a qualified allergist highly enough. I was surprised at the things I had allergies to (including many things I was in denial about-- like dogs) and things I didn't realize I could be allergic to (like oatmeal). I had always assumed that I was allergic to cats, but it was actually dust. Now that my home is clean I can enjoy cats.

Again, I'm not negating anyone's complex sensitivity. I'm just saying that anecdotal diagnosis can mask real issues.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 6:07 PM on July 10, 2005


Take a nice healthy shot of epinephrine too; it's safe; it's a neurotransmitter!

Please give us some credit, TimeFactor. We're trying to dispute the notion that MSG/glutamate is a neurotoxin. For most useful definitions of "neurotoxin," this can't be the case, since your brain relies on it heavily.

tss, exactly the points I was making all along.

I don't think those were the points you were making all along. My impression from your posts was that you were skeptical of the general safety of MSG. This is why your quotes from FDA websites involved broad statements about why MSG and similar chemicals were "safe food ingredients." The very same websites often pointed to considerable evidence that they were---from within and outside of the FDA. Your "declare glutamate on the label" quote in particular seemed to be proffered as evidence of uncertainty on the part of the FDA as to the safety of MSG. I was trying to argue that it shouldn't be interpreted that way at all.

I may have misunderstood you.
posted by tss at 6:30 PM on July 10, 2005


...about 1.89 pounds, per person per year. That seems to me worth being concerned about as a potential health risk.
And the average person produces 6.64 pounds per year in their own body. Concerned about that?


If that number is PFA, the average American is consuming an extra 30% glutamate above and beyond what the body needs.

How is excess glutamate removed from the body?
posted by five fresh fish at 6:41 PM on July 10, 2005


If that number is not PFA.

I is teh stupids toady.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:43 PM on July 10, 2005


I am allergic to MSG, and so are alot of other people.
posted by pwally at 6:45 PM on July 10, 2005


I should qualify my statement above by saying, yes, there are sometimes ways to usefully call glutamate a neurotoxin, since it can cause apoptosis in high concentrations, and there are suspected to be certain pathological circumstances where those concentrations can be reached in vivo (e.g. epilepsy). Or so I gather from Wikipedia and a neurophys. course I took three years ago.

But this doesn't seem to be happening with MSG.
posted by tss at 6:52 PM on July 10, 2005


Looks like I'm a little late to this party, but what the heck.

Presented without comment as to validity of the medical theory, since I am far from qualified to do so, here is what I have been told about the MSG, the aspartic acid component of aspartame, and FDA approval. It's interesting, anyway, at least to me, and Donald Rumsfeld of all people is a key player in it:

The theory is that MSG, as well as aspartic acid, are neurotoxins precisely *because* they are normally neurotransmitters. They affect your brain, and when absorbed into your system in abnormally large amounts, they can affect it in damaging ways. The basic theory is that an overabundance overstimulates your brain cells and excites them to death, a process called "excitotoxicity".

This term was coined by Dr. James Olney, also the theory's principal proponent. He performed a study showing that a single dose of MSG, when given orally to rats or monkeys, raised blood glutamate levels to the point of causing brain damage in the hypothalamus, a part of the brain is not well protected by the blood-brain barrier and therefore possibly more vulnerable to environmental toxins. In other studies, he also demonstrated that MSG caused certain nerve cells in the brain to die.

Olney also performed a study showing that baby animals were more susceptible to "excitotoxic" damage than adults were. Using this study, he convinced the makers of baby food to voluntarily remove MSG from their products.

Olney similarly studied the aspartic acid found in aspartame, which he had reason to believe would have a similar effect. He performed studies showing that aspartic acid caused damage to the brains of infant mice. The G.D. Searle company, which made aspartame and was applying for FDA approval, also found potentially neurotixic effects in a 1967 study conducted by Harold Waisman, in which, of seven monkeys fed aspartame mixed with milk, one monkey died and five of the remaining had grand mal seizures. These findings were repeated in a similar study.

Nonetheless, Searle had many other studies demonstrating aspartame's safety, and in July 1974, the FDA granted preliminary aspartame approval for restricted use. But the validity of Searle’s aspartame data was immediately challenged, and in 1977, for the first time in history, the FDA requested a criminal investigation of a manufacturer.

While the grand jury was investigating Searle’s activities, the law firm that represented Searle began contract negotiations with Samuel Skinner, the US attorney leading the investigation. In July 1977, Skinner left the U.S. attorney’s office and took a position with Searle. Skinner’s resignation stalled the grand jury investigation for long enough for the statute of limitations to run out. This cause the grand jury to effectively abandon their investigation.

In the late 70’s, the FDA released the Bressler Report, which revealed serious errors in the aspartame safety studies. In 1980, a Public Board Of Investigation ruled that aspartame not be approved until further testing was completed, in large part because of the potential risk of brain damage.

But in 1981, Donald Rumsfeld, then CEO of Searle, reportedly made a commitment to getting aspartame approved within a year. Rumsfeld allegedly stated that he would use his political influence within Washington, rather than additional scientific studies, to gain approval. Donald Rumsfeld was part of Ronald Reagan’s transition team, which appointed Dr. Arthur Hull Hayes Jr. to be the new FDA commissioner. In one of Dr. Hull Hayes Jr. first official acts as acting FDA commissioner he approved aspartame for use in dry products. Two years later Dr. Hull Hayes resigned under a cloud of suspicion and conflict of interest issues. He immediately took a job with G.D. Searle’s public relations firm as a senior scientific consultant.

Aspartame is now responsible for about 80% of consumer complaints made to the FDA about food additive side effects.
posted by kyrademon at 6:54 PM on July 10, 2005


How is excess glutamate removed from the body?

Excess nitrogen is excreted as ammonia (urea) in the urine. You need to consume a very serious amount of amino acids to suffer from excess protein effects.

It amazes me that many people object so viscerally to consuming the salt of a ubiquitous amino acid, yet blithely consume alcohol, a known carcinogen that produces large quantites of the extremely toxic acetaldehyde within their bodies. There's no accounting for taste.
posted by meehawl at 7:00 PM on July 10, 2005 [1 favorite]


Okay, I kept my mouth shut this far (well, I was sleeping), but did anyone hear two people here blame thimerosal for autism? Oh dear.

Aspartame
MSG
posted by aerify at 7:55 PM on July 10, 2005


hi tss, I came back to respond to your post.
1st post I said: "My point is that one man's meat may literally be another man's poison." and "I think it's valid some people may be sensitive/allergic to MSG and some not."
3rd post: "If some people have adverse reactions to a manufactured food additive, which millions of people have complained about for decades, I think they have a right to know what they are eating and not have MSG included in the list of ingredients hidden under 'natural flavoring'. "
4th post: "My point is that I think food labeling when it comes to MSG, needs to be more transparent and accurate, so the consumer can make an informed decision."
5th post: "if MSG is allowed to be hidden as an ingredient under such misleading names as "natural flavoring" then it is not being declared"
7th post: "MSG was buried by giving it new names. The industry came up with a fabulous range of euphemisms for monosodium glutamate - the most cheeky of all is 'natural flavourings'."

I referred to the controversy about MSG's safety as cited by the FDA itself. The more research I did on the subject of glutamate and glutamines as food additives, the less safe it seemed.

But my main points were basically that what's okay for one person may not be okay for another and for that reason there needs to be more honest labeling of MSG, because, among other things, the FDA itself seems to suspect MSG of not being safe.

My main interest in the original post is the term umami. Now that I think about it, I'm interested in whether the use of MSG as an umami inducing aspect is ethical in the massive junk food industry which contributes to there being 60 million obese Americans.

wow kyrademon, that's an amazing, eye-opening story.
posted by nickyskye at 8:14 PM on July 10, 2005


meehawl: The sentiment behind my rude remark was that posting a detailed response here would be a waste of time. Especially without threading, a level-headed remark on the subject gets lost in a lot of screeching about the meaning of "this 'free glutamate' thing, which is defined by the FDA" or the safety of salt dissolved in water. We can discuss the politics of the matter, or conspiracy theories about a coverup of the dangers of aspartame or something like that, but if you want to get down to the facts... that seems hard to do before participants learn some basic physiology (and the related vocabulary). One or two people stating the basic facts about the presence and function of glutamate in the body won't be performing an authoritative, informative function if people believe that the scarier junk science is somehow equivalent becuase it sounds more fantastic.
posted by rxrfrx at 8:33 PM on July 10, 2005


Should I resume flaming?
posted by aerify at 8:34 PM on July 10, 2005


no
posted by kuatto at 8:44 PM on July 10, 2005


I said: "There are many people who have badly survived or died from substances that were touted by the FDA as safe, such as thimoseral in vaccines."

"The Committee believed that the effort to remove thimerosal from vaccines was 'a prudent measure in support of the public health goal to reduce mercury exposure of infants and children as much as possible." Furthermore, in this regard, the Committee urged that "full consideration be given to removing thimerosal from any biological product to which infants, children, and pregnant women are exposed.' "
posted by nickyskye at 8:49 PM on July 10, 2005


Malor: To repeat and expand on the tossaway thought up yonder... there has been a huge increase in diagnosis of autism and hyperactivity disorders over the last twenty or thirty years. The thimerosal-based vaccines might be a cause.

It's exactly this sort of unfounded statement that gets my panties in a bunch.

Shitcock!
posted by aerify at 8:54 PM on July 10, 2005


nickyskye:

No one has "badly survived" or "died" from thimesoral.
posted by aerify at 8:55 PM on July 10, 2005


I was just at the supermarket, and getting a can of red beans to make red beans and rice, I noticed two organic brands. One contained red beans, water and salt, the other, more expensive brand contained the same plus kombu seaweed. I have never reacted to MSG and don't expect to, but I never would have known what that seaweed was all about had it not been for this thread. I bought the cheaper one. Which I would have done anyway.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:17 PM on July 10, 2005


Metafilter: come to blows over a flavor enhancer.
posted by NickDouglas at 9:23 PM on July 10, 2005


aerify, first you said "two people here blame thimerosal for autism". You are wrong, there was one person. I mentioned thimerosal as something the FDA approved of that has done harm, but did not mention not autism. I gave as an example how FDA can approve of something, such as Phen Fen, which HAS killed people or done serious harm. The FDA first approved thimerosal and now "The FDA is encouraging the reduction or removal of thimerosal from all existing vaccines." there has been substantial research in many countries about the adverse effects/badly surviving of additional mercury in the form of thimerosal being administered in vaccines.

*yawn*

Hi George_Spiggott, way cool you now know about kombu. It's been fun learning about the umami thing. Off to join BlueStone in having a nice ripe tomato.

Goodnight.
posted by nickyskye at 9:59 PM on July 10, 2005


Uh, interesting thimerosal link up there aerify. I have to say that, after a quick browse of the site, the guy running quackwatch.org is nuts. He's either a bulldog for some of the more close-minded in the AMA, or takes personal offense when people suggest that something other than western medicine can have a beneficial effect.

The guy lists pneumothorax (punctured lung) as a potential risk of acupuncture. You'd have to hit a needle the size of a nail with a hammer to puncture a lung.
posted by SweetJesus at 10:00 PM on July 10, 2005


The guy running that site may not be the nicest guy out there but he is definitely much more on the side of truth than the alternative health industry ever will be. He has the entire medical profession and a wealth of science studies to back his points, while most of the alternative health practioners rely on faith and anecdotes.

Acupuncture may "work", but certainly not for the reasons its proponents claim it does - the Eastern mystical BS of yin and yang and that crap.
posted by aerify at 10:26 PM on July 10, 2005


Look, I realize that the FDA is, like most government institutions, at best mediocre and at worst terrible, but it's better than the alternative, which is to listen to every nutty mercury-causes-autism, MSG-causes-autism, anything-not-"natural"-causes-cancer wackjob out there. No thanks. When something is approved by the FDA, you get a pretty good guarantee it won't kill you outright or, like, turn your skin gray.

Touché.
posted by aerify at 10:40 PM on July 10, 2005


Right... Well, you're wrong. It's not bullshit, and it's not yin and yang. As the son of an acupuncturist, I wanna slap people who put all their faith in what the FDA and western medicine has to say. The same applies to the reverse, those who demonize western medicine and rely strictly on herbs (or those crazy people who drink their own urine).

You, and the silly doctor you linked to, are examples of the first school. Malor is from the second. You both put far too much faith in "authority", and refuse to deviate from your (crazy) theories in the face of tremendous evidence, both empirically and self-evidently. Chinese medicine has been practiced for over 2000 years, and there is a wealth of knowledge to support it. To suggest, fuck, assert otherwise merely shows your own ignorance. It's too late to search out convincing evidence now, but if you doubt me, I'll post them tomorrow.

The guy running that site may not be the nicest guy out there but he is definitely much more on the side of truth than the alternative health industry ever will be

Right, as opposed to Merck and Pfizer, who aren't beholden to stock-holders, and in fact hold everyone's best interests at heart. Your naivete is showing, might want to cover it up.

To the more level headed in the thread, it's been very interesting.
posted by SweetJesus at 10:55 PM on July 10, 2005


Wrong tense on empirical and self-evident... It's too late.
posted by SweetJesus at 10:57 PM on July 10, 2005


Overproduction of glutamate by astrocytes and neurons, leads to excessive calcium influx into cells, swelling, fucks up your mitochondria (instigates apoptosis and necrosis of the neurons) and kills your cells.

If you could prove that this occurs spontaneously - without drastic measures, i.e. injection of milligram+ quantities of pure glutamate solution directly into a cerebral ventricle - you'd settle a long-standing (at least 40 years) debate in my own field, that of epilepsy and seizures. After review of a lot of literature I tend to side with the scientists who think that it doesn't happen, even in prolonged status epilepticus.

Restating the same question, glutamate excitotoxity (or kainic acid excitotoxity, which is more or less the same thing) may be a useful animal model of certain modes of neuronal damage and death; but many of us who work in the field simply do not think so, and think that instead it is a process that isn't involved in human disease. As I say, this is a fairly hot debate at the moment, and I'd be equally delighted to be proven wrong or right, having no stake in it.

That some people have unpleasant reactions to orally ingested glutamate is unquestioned - I certainly hope I didn't give the impression that I disagreed with that. These aren't properly called allergies, in that they don't meet the immunologic criteria for types I, II, III or IV hypersensitivity reactions; they're just reactions. If I had to guess I would guess that they are at least in part due to the glutamate interacting with some of the 2 billion neurons that serve the gut, including especially those in the mesenteric and myenteric plexes.

Finally, I am well aware that if 16 tons of solid glutamate were dropped on my head from a height, all of my neurons would perish shortly thereafter. That still doesn't make glutamate a neurotoxin in my book, and you can debate where to draw the line on your own time.

Other interesting glutamate facts and trivia:

-There's no way I can see that altering your dietary intake of glutamate would alter your CSF level of glutamate. Not only is every cell in your body capable of doing multiple metabolic fooleries with glutamate; but its transport is highly regulated, especially at the BBB; AND all those glutamatergic neurons we talked about earlier are capable of doing 'uptake' and pretty much removing excess glutamate from the transmitter sandbox. (This is one of the reasons I think that spontaneous glutamate excitotoxicity fails to occur.)

-Cells lining the absorptive layer of the intestine use glutamine for energy. They can make glutamine out of glutamate and other amino acids. So orally ingested glutamate starts getting metabolized right quick.

-There's no disease analogous to PKU for glutamate. That's probably because a similar mutation would simply be fatal.

-'Hydrolyzed vegetable protein' on labels is a cheap labeler's trick of getting MSG into foods without having to label them as such; glutamate is one of the essential 20 amino acids that make up proteins, and the vegetable protein that these folks pick to hydrolyze has a great deal of glutamate (I don't know what it is offhand, maybe soy protein.)

-Protein hydrolysis happens in your gut, by enzymes like trypsin and chymotrypsin, creating glutamate and the other 19 essential AA's; this is one of the ways that we gain energy from consuming protein.

I know a lot more about glutamate but I am starting to bore even myself.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:46 PM on July 10, 2005 [1 favorite]


It's not bullshit, and it's not yin and yang. As the son of an acupuncturist,

At least you agree it's not yin and yang. I'm saying that even if acupuncture is found to be effective, it will be done so through careful scientific studies and empirical evidence through the (gasp!) Western understanding of physiology and biochemistry, not some Eastern mystical bullcrap.

I don't care how many thousands of years Chinese have practiced their medicine, that doesn't make it effective. Many cultures have held delusions for thousands of years.

there is a wealth of knowledge to support it

Not in the form of scientific studies, there isn't. But you're certainly free to practice your own form of voodoo magic in your backyard.
posted by aerify at 12:01 AM on July 11, 2005


refuse to deviate from your (crazy) theories in the face of tremendous evidence, both empirically and self-evidently

The only evidence in favor of acupuncture, I'd like to point out, take a strictly Western viewpoint of physiology and do not embrace the pseudo-scientific notions that characterize Eastern mysticism. There is absolutely no evidence that acupuncture works for the reasons that the Chinese believed it did, unless you're the kind of New Age holistic healing quack who believes eclipses are caused by the dragon swallowing the sun or whatever.
posted by aerify at 12:05 AM on July 11, 2005


The NCAHF issued a position paper on acupuncture that asserts, "Research during the past twenty years has failed to demonstrate that acupuncture is effective against any disease" and that "the perceived effects of acupuncture are probably due to a combination of expectation, suggestion, counter-irritation, operant conditioning, and other psychological mechanisms." In short, most of the perceived beneficial effects of acupuncture are probably due to mood change, the placebo effect, and the regressive fallacy.
posted by aerify at 12:07 AM on July 11, 2005


I just want to chime in with those who have criticized aerify's wholly unjustfiable venom in many of their comments. And that's despite largely agreeing with much of what aerify has said. No matter how sound the reasoning, abuse will undercut an argument everytime.

I will not eat MSG by the handful in the future...but then again, I never did. I would order Chinese food now but I don't overly like it. Noodles instead..
posted by peacay at 12:22 AM on July 11, 2005


ikkyu2: consistently swell, thanks for that last one.

Would it hurt, aerify, to use the preview button, or maybe get a coke or something, and just slow the fuck down?
posted by hototogisu at 12:31 AM on July 11, 2005


Can't; I'm high on MSG.
posted by aerify at 12:33 AM on July 11, 2005


You can't be high on MSG--no one gets high on MSG.
posted by hototogisu at 12:38 AM on July 11, 2005


You know... I thought I'd had enough of this post, but for some reason I could go for some more already.
posted by pracowity at 3:08 AM on July 11, 2005


The UK's Co-Operative chain of stores has continued its aim of providing healthier store food by banning MSG in its own-brand products, as well as additional food colourings not already unilaterally blocked.
posted by NinjaPirate at 3:59 AM on July 11, 2005


Pondering the umami thing and talking with a friend last night about this thread it came to me that umami is a sort of meta-salt taste, which includes the basic salt sense in the tongue and adds a more comprehensive taste of amino acids, which is often referred to as a taste of meatiness but can be detected in tomatoes, milk, yeast etc.

But then there was the mystery of lychees and muscat grapes to think about, which has the sweetness taste but an additional, more complex layer of taste, that is neither salty, bitter or sour. This meta-sweet taste is a sort of savouriness of sweetness and I now think of it as bouquet, used in describing wine, because the depth of this taste sense is of flowers.

Fruit would be an example of food with bouquet taste, especially berries but also apples, apricots, peaches, coconuts, a number of teas, chocolate, cookies, Bouillabaisse, foods cooked with saffron or Meditterranean herbs, gin, a number of Thai soups, almonds, truffles, unsalted butter, garlic, pepper, many spices like cinnamon, even certain smoked meats, which have both umami and 'bouquet'.

It seems to me the term 'bouquet' is used in wine tasting more as an olfactory sense, rather than a gustatory one because, of course, one usually smells flowers, and unless one is a rabbit or a culinary wizard, doesn't generally eat them (although there are edible flowers). However, in the case of muscat grapes in particular, they don't smell flowery but biting into one the taste of many flowers is vivid.

Just wondering if there is anybody out there with more knowledge about the science of taste, if there is an official name for this 'bouquet' taste sense?
posted by nickyskye at 5:54 AM on July 11, 2005


Thanks for the education, tss!
posted by flabdablet at 6:11 AM on July 11, 2005


pracowity, you're funny. And come to think of it, what is that thing about Chinese food that one is full and then gets hungry so soon after? Is that an MSG side-effect or something else?
posted by nickyskye at 6:28 AM on July 11, 2005


A tangential thought based on the original post: Kidunae Ikeda came up with the idea of defining the deliciousness of salty taste as umami (meaning savoury in Japanese), I'd like to suggest the deliciousness of sweet taste be named bouquet. Perhaps in future when pastries or jams are made for example they may include a combination of essential oils of flowers, Bouquet, in the ingredients to spike the taste?
posted by nickyskye at 8:10 AM on July 11, 2005


Umami
You better shut UP talking about my mommy!

Anyway...Avacado, lightly salted? Mmmmm. I strongly associate this with the taste of beefsteak. Umami?

Salted butter only, please. I love it, I can't stop eating it. But unsalted is like, huh?

For a treat, sprinkle a little MSG on some hot popcorn. Mmm!

Aerify: An intelligent asshole is still an asshole. Far more fun to be around someone less smart and more polite. If you're in to science, why must you argue like its religion? Is something shaking your faith?
posted by Goofyy at 8:53 AM on July 11, 2005


I think I feel an MSG headache coming on.

Caddis, I think you called it.
posted by TedW at 9:00 AM on July 11, 2005


Goofyy, No way, MSG on popcorn? Good point about lightly salted avocado! Oh yum, serious umami and udaddi. Maybe there'll be an inner city culinary version, yomami? Maybe THAT'S the flava of KFC?
posted by nickyskye at 9:22 AM on July 11, 2005


Aerify is indeed abusive, but by god the outright thickheadedness of some people in this thread could push even the most patient man to killkillKILL!

The MSG naysayers have uniformly presented uninformed opinions, anecdotes, misinformation and hysteria. Not a single one has presented scientific evidence nor physiological theory in support of their argument.

Where aerify, ikkyu, and a few others have provided excellent documentation and demonstrated a comprehensive understanding of brain and body chemistry and physiologic processes, the naysayers have nought.

The abuse is, of course, not appropriate... but, sweet jesus, what does it take to get some people to actually think about what they believe?
posted by five fresh fish at 10:03 AM on July 11, 2005


That some people have unpleasant reactions to orally ingested glutamate is unquestioned
and
'Hydrolyzed vegetable protein' on labels is a cheap labeler's trick of getting MSG into foods without having to label them as such
ikkyu2, thank you for your clearly stated thoughts on this.
posted by nickyskye at 10:51 AM on July 11, 2005


Five fresh fish -

While I am not qualified to judge it's accuracy, and actually have no opinion on whether or not it's true, I did reference both a physiological theory as to why MSG might cause brain damage and several studies that seem to support it.

Just sayin'.
posted by kyrademon at 11:39 AM on July 11, 2005


Fruit would be an example of food with bouquet taste

First of all, fruits vents lots of ester vapours, which are inhaled and picked up by the cillia hairs in the nose, absorbed, and conveyed to the brain as smell, producing the sense of "bouquet" more than other less-volatile foodstuffs. Bananas vent isoamyl acetate, for example, while oranges vent octyl acetate. Considering that cherries vent benzyl butyrate, apples vent methyl butyrate, and oranges vent ethyl butyrate, it shows how much more sensitive our noses are over our tongue that we perceive butyric acid as the characteristic smell of babies, body odour, vomit, rancid butter, and parmesan cheese - completely dissimilar to fruits with only a tiny change in chemical structure.

Another issue is that many fruits contain glycoproteins, a molecular combination capable of binding to both the proteinaceous receptors (umami) and the fungiform papillea (sweet). And of course, a delicate blend of acidic/sour chemicals as well.

Many berries contain anthocyanins and flavonoids, which taste very slightly bitter. However, their presence generally prevents a more rapid development of sourness and "off" smells and tastes. In fact, flavonoids are beginning to be added to pasteurized or preserved meat and dairy products to reduce a sensation of "processed" that often accompanies them when compared with a fresher version.

Some unusually delicious fruit blends contain miraculin (Asp-Ser-Ala-Pro-Asn-Pro-Val-Leu-Asp-Ile-Asp-Gly-Glu-Lys- Leu-Arg-Thr-Gly-Thr-Asn), a glcyoprotein that forms a temporary chemical bond to the fungiform papillae (ie, sweet nerve cells) on the front of the tongue. Here's a technical analysis.

This has the result of converting the sensation of acidity into a kind of sweetness, in that acidic molecules can now bind to the fungiform papillea. In effect, the individual's sense of "sweet" has been juiced for a period of time.

Being able to temporarily modify the performance of the taste receptors using sequential, self-modifying food blends is a new frontier in food additives. Brings to mind that magic candy in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that changed its taste every few seconds...
posted by meehawl at 11:51 AM on July 11, 2005


I did reference both a physiological theory as to why MSG might cause brain damage and several studies that seem to support it.

No. you listed hearsay and anecdotal evidence from the 1960s and 1970s. If I am to take it seriously, I'd need to see at least a PubMed/MedLine reference, or any kind of direct link where I could go to make up my own mind.

For instance, Relief of fibromyalgia symptoms following discontinuation of dietary excitotoxins seems interesting, but it is based on a sample size of exactly four and is the key paper endlessly cited by anti-glutamate advocates. Considering that fibromyalgia has no consensus etiology yet (or, indeed, convenient diagnosis), this paper is a bit of a shot in the dark.

For instance, Glutamic acid, twenty years later (Journal of Nutrition. 2000;130:901S-909S), presents a round-upof the available literature and sees no consistent patterns of neurotoxic events except for pathological, non-nonphysiologic doses of glutamic acid/MSG.
posted by meehawl at 12:07 PM on July 11, 2005


meehawl, omg, thank you so much! wow! What a treat to read. How do you know so much about the chemistry of fruits and tastes/smells? How kind of you to take my query seriously and put real effort into a marvelously informative response. I'm delighted and happily surprised. Thank you for not laughing at my bouquet idea and for making sense [oops, pun accidental] of the chemistry of it.

Being able to temporarily modify the performance of the taste receptors using sequential, self-modifying food blends is a new frontier in food additives.

Because of the food industry, I would imagine there is a science exploring this, but I didn't have the words to give Googling the subject a handle. What does "sequential, self-modifying food blends" mean? Is there any site I can read up on this? I found a bit on "food blends" at the Oxford University Journals site.

It would seem that Professor Kidunae Ikeda was way ahead of his time almost a century ago when he cooked up MSG. I've always been interested in the neuro-psychology of perfumes and aromas/tastes as I am in music as well, looking to glean snippets of scientific data when it comes across the horizon. This thread was a rich mine of excellent info.

ah, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, wonderful book. Knew the author when I was a little rascal. Delightful memory thinking of the magic candy that changes its taste every few minutes.

I see you're a fellow New Yorker. Cheers on this toasty afternoon.

Thank you again meehawl.
posted by nickyskye at 12:55 PM on July 11, 2005


aerify: I suppose you're afraid of chiropractic care as well? I wonder. The medical establishment faught aganst chiropractic care for quite a while.

The point isn't that Accupuncture cures diseases or maybe only relives pain through psychosomatic action, but that the person you linked to was afraid of accupuncture the same way Anti-MSG freaks are afraid of MSG. Accupuncture dosn't really hurt anyone
posted by delmoi at 1:02 PM on July 11, 2005


image of umami
posted by nickyskye at 3:08 PM on July 11, 2005


In the event anyone is interested in exploring the subject of taste, here are a few links found by Googling "performance of the taste receptors":
The Sense of Taste
A taste of the future
Anosmia and Taste
posted by nickyskye at 3:17 PM on July 11, 2005


Oh, for goodness sake, meehawl. I'm not that great with the internet, so I didn't directly link, but I gave you the names of principal researchers, the approximate dates of the studies, the nature of the animal subjects being tested, and the theories that resulted. That's hardly hearsay and it's not even remotely anecdotal. I'm sorry I didn't directly link, and I realize it's classier to do so, but sheesh, it's not like I didn't give you enough information for you to look it up if you wanted.
posted by kyrademon at 3:21 PM on July 11, 2005


(More calmly ... I was just objecting to the notion that no one talking about the possible dangers of MSG had posited *any* physiological model or referenced *any* studies. I'd presented a physiological model based on studies that I referenced, although I didn't directly link to them - although I can try to dig up the bibliographical info for them, if you like, to make it easier for you to find them. I'm not a medical expert, didn't claim to be, didn't judge validity, and really have no stake in proving things one way or another, but please don't act like my saying "hear's what I've heard" meant "here's what some guy on the street told me" when I was clearly referencing actual, well-known clinical trials with plenty of information to make them easy to find.)
posted by kyrademon at 3:33 PM on July 11, 2005


delmoi, chiro is still a controversial practice and some of the claims and practices verge on criminal. Ever hear about cranial-sacral manipulation? A damnable dangerous bit of scam, that. Some of the outright lies told to parents desperate for a "cure" for their child's handicap are abhorrent, and I know there have been a few cases where the bastard offering the "therapy" has caused permanent damage, up to and including death.

There may be legitimate uses for chiropractic, but until the practicioners eliminate all the quackery from it, it remains on my bogus list.

It's Quackwatch and all the caution that site entails when reading it, but check this as a f'rinstance: neck manipulation and strokes.
posted by five fresh fish at 4:47 PM on July 11, 2005


krya, if it makes you feel any better, I'll revise my statement to read one person made an attempt to posit a physiological explanation and/or tried to reference legitimate studies.
posted by five fresh fish at 4:48 PM on July 11, 2005


Eh, no biggee, fff. Quite frankly, I agree with you that by far the bulk of actual scientific information presented in this thread is on the side of MSG's safety. Just wanted to point out that, hey, at least I tried to present another viewpoint that had some real backing to it.

I wouldn't have said anymore except meehawl's comment made my a little pissy. *shrug* Frankly I don't care enough about the subject to bother posting a link, which I guess was the problem there in the first place. :)
posted by kyrademon at 4:58 PM on July 11, 2005


I didn't give you enough information for you to look it up if you wanted

You're a tough crowd.

You studies were not referenced by name, and only very approximately by date, and that makes things difficult.

I did link to a review of literature that clearly demonstrates that glutamate is neurotoxic when administered in pathological, non-physiologic amounts. Pretty much everything in high enough doses can be construed as "neurotoxic". Note also that it is very difficult for plasma to cross over into the brain from the circulatory system, and that's why any studies of "neurotoxicity" should always be looked at closely: are they based on the ingestation route, do they rely on intraveneous routes, and even worse, do they rely on an IV route directly into the brain?

Finally, as regards the Searle shenanigans. I don't think that the shady monopolistic skullduggery of a manufacturer should be used to judge the efficacy or safety of a product that has been tested for over a generation now. That is best left to the literature.

What does not amaze me is Donald Rumsfeld's ability to screw up something so simple as a sugar replacement through his ineffable touch and/or appointee. Seriously, everything that man touches seems to turn to crap. If he worked in the real world he'd be unemployable.
posted by meehawl at 5:43 PM on July 11, 2005


The medical establishment faught aganst chiropractic care for quite a while.

When a chiro can conclusively demonstrate the existence of a subluxation in a testable, repeatable fashion that is visible by consensus to anybody except just chiros, then I'll take it seriously.
posted by meehawl at 5:52 PM on July 11, 2005


meehawl - I actually agree that the studies you link to are probably more recent and in greater number than the ones I brought up. I'm not actually trying to defend or attack Olney's work at all. I just wanted to bring it up, and the later point out that it was, in fact, based on some legitimate studies. That's it. Really. That's why I'm not bothering to link to them. I'm not actually arguing with you.

As for the rest of the post, about the FDA, I wanted to post that to add that perspective and information to the ongoing debate about the reliability of FDA approval, which of course doesn't really say anything one way or another about the safety of the chemicals in question. Bear in mind that, personally, I am glad the FDA exists and think it's better than anything else we've got, while at the same time I'm disturbed by the amount of corporate influence on its decisions, even more now than in the days of aspartame approval thanks to structural changes made in the Reagan administration and after, including vastly speeded up approval times (from three years down to one year or six months), and the "user fees" which essentially been that the corporations being regulated are in large part funding the FDA now.

That's all. No conspiracy theories. No wild claims. Just wanted to point a couple of legitimate things out on the other side of the debate.
posted by kyrademon at 6:07 PM on July 11, 2005


I'm not actually arguing with you.

I'd never describe this as arguing. Well, maybe some of the more hysterical comments. I think of it more as a review of the evidence.

And although I live in New York, I'm from Dublin, where Thalidomide was passed with scant and improper testing for human consumption. One of my neighbours was afflicted so I remember at an early age having the concept of "chirality" explained to me in great detail. I grew up very conscious of the potential dangers of loosely releasing new chemicals into the environment. It's a credit to the FDA's then-long-term testing regimen, wait-and-see approach, and the tenacity of Frances Oldham Kelsey that hundreds of thousands of fœti were saved from mutation and people were not faced with the difficult decision of whether to abort or to bring to term a severely disabled individual.

I do appreciate people's motives for wishing to maintain "control" over their bodies and what they ingest and support full labelling, especially of GM- and clonal-derived constituents, so that people can make informed decisions.

But it does sadden me that so many people's perceptions of what is "safe" and "unsafe" is so hazy, and based not on reason, or logic, or evidence, but on anecdotes, endlessly regurgitated internet myths, half-truths, and misinformation, and vague psychosomatic hunches.
posted by meehawl at 7:34 PM on July 11, 2005


Don't take this the wrong way at all meehawl, but it's somewhat ironic that WG McBride, the Doctor who published originally about the ill effects of thalidomide was ultimately deregistered in NSW for falsifying scientific data. I can't at present find a decent link and I won't say it's my recall that allegations tainted his early 60's work - I just don't remember now. But the dastardly side effects from pregnant women taking thalidomide is beyond uncertainty of course.
posted by peacay at 9:37 PM on July 11, 2005


meehawl, when I lived in India and wanted to cook rice, it was routine to painstakingly sort through the grains looking for small white stones and white worms that were used by the seller to deliberately adulterate the rice and make it more profitable for them to sell. If one didn't do this one was likely to crunch into rocks and break teeth (I could joke about the larvae because they were at least a protein but didn't want to lose teeth). In the bazaar in most cities in India there is an area of the market specifically for items used to adulterate various foods. Candles would sputter because the paraffin had been injected with water to make it heavier (candles were sold by the weight). As a 21 year old American there it was a huge eye-opener about not trusting the people selling food or basic commodities and needing to practically look out for my own safety. When I was there I almost died from under-cooked fish because I trusted the chef of the restaurant to cook it thoroughly and have since lived with the repercussions of that bout of hepatitis.

Returning to America ten years later I was immediately grateful for FDA protections but noticed that quite a number of items in the store use what they do not have as an ingredient as a selling point, such as "formaldehyde free nail polish", "PABA free sunscreen", which made me suspect of what chemicals were being used in the thousands of drugstore or processed food items. The amount of chemicals to know about, especially if one is not a chemist, is quite overwhelming. That compounded with the many horror stories I heard from people who had been to doctors and had botched surgeries or been misinformed (I also was told by one doctor I had a tumor and on seeking a second opinion found out that was incorrect), so trust eroded about who was telling the truth and who was just trying to make a buck off unwary consumers, just like in India. Whether it was hearing about asbestos scams, the tobacco industy deceits, gross negligence in disposing of commercial toxic waste, fen phen nightmares, the numerous news stories about manipulation of political lobbying...it adds up to not much trust in food additives, lol.

The fact that MSG is deliberately hidden in so many foods by it being camouflaged as hydrolyzed vegetable protein or natural flavoring immediately brings up suspicion. If it's perfectly safe then why is it being deliberately disguised by the food manufactuers? The reality is that it may be safe for alot of people but it can also be sickening to those who are hypersensitive to it or lethal to those in whom it induces asthma. I think consumers have a right to know what they are eating and to have ingredients honestly labeled.

A problem for people who are not able for educational reasons, lack of time or lack of access to a computer to read scientific papers, that cumulative doubt accrues about what exactly is included in the ingredients. These people end up in turning to what seems to be the most truthful, their feelings and sense of body, friends' experiences and anecdotes. Not knowing what, out of the slew of information out there, to believe, because of the possible commercial agendas of the suppliers of that information, buying something in the drugstore or supermarket is caveat emptor. With a tomato one can at least see a bruise or a flaw and often can smell the pesticide, with a bottle of talc it's another story to know if it's carcinogenic or what the hell Dibutyl phthalate is and is it okay to have in moisturizer. It would be handy going down the aisle to have Google right there to one-by-one go through every chemical listed in the chewing gum, the glass cleaner, the Cheetos, the McDonald's, the canned soup but it isn't. There is only so much time in the day, so one puts up with not knowing but harboring suspicion all the while and hoping for the best.

As I said before, I'm one of those people who feels uncomfortable after eating food with a lot of MSG in it. I can do small doses, like a packet of ramen, some soy sauce but in larger doses I feel ill, so I trust my senses and while wondering what the technical details are, avoid large amounts of MSG. At least now, after reading this thread I can understand more about what glutamate is. All the data above still doesn't explain to me why I feel badly. I know that I may not be allergic, just sensitive to it, which I knew all along.

You cited that paper in which removing MSG from the diet of people with fibromyalgia was beneficial. It leaves me to think that the full story about the health risks of MSG hasn't been discovered yet.

I think science is a combination of exploring personal experiences with careful, methodical analysis. Most people aren't trained in scientific analysis and end up relying more on their personal experiences. That's what scientists are for, to add their expertise to the dialogue. :)
posted by nickyskye at 9:39 PM on July 11, 2005


The fact that MSG is deliberately hidden in so many foods by it being camouflaged as hydrolyzed vegetable protein or natural flavoring immediately brings up suspicion.

Americans have feared MSG for decades because of Olney's widely publicized studies (referenced by kyrademon) in which its direct injection into rats caused brain lesions. There's quite a difference between digesting something and injecting it. Furthermore, his results have never been duplicated, and not for lack of trying. Nevertheless, "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome" became common and people learned that they should watch out for MSG. I suppose that companies learned it was less hassle to conceal it, thus reinforcing the anti-MSG crowd's suspicion.

I can relate to your experience in India as I've seen some frightening food adulteration in China. It really makes me appreciate the relative efficacy of America's regulatory system. That said, it's vitally important that the FDA distance itself from industry.

The sample size for the fibromyalgia study was four people and further study seems difficult.

If you're really curious about whether you have some sort of intolerance to MSG, test it. Conduct some double blind tests in which the same food is prepared with and without MSG. Make sure not to cook dishes including tomatoes, tofu, cheese, mushrooms, meat, or fish, as these foods contain MSG. I know nothing of your particular case, but you may be interested to know that there have been a couple of studies of the effects of MSG on people who believe they are MSG-intolerant.

The point here is that this isn't something that you have to throw your hands up about and say, "we may never know!". You can test your own intolerance if you so desire, but "the weight of scientific evidence has shown that MSG as consumed in food does not impair brain function or pose risk to public health."
posted by Treeline at 12:24 AM on July 12, 2005


If it's perfectly safe then why is it being deliberately disguised by the food manufacturers?

Because so many people have an irrational prejudice against it. Manufacturers know MSG is no more harmful than all the other crap people are happily throwing down their throats (mainly fat, salt, and sugar by the ton), and they know it improves the flavor, but they also know that putting MSG on the label will scare away people for no reason. So they leave it in but they try like hell not to call it MSG, just as sugar is called sucrose or whatever. It's dishonesty versus ignorance.

If you are truly worried about what you eat, you shouldn't be eating in restaurants (fast or slow) at all. And you shouldn't be standing in the supermarket scanning the ingredients of some packaged crap to determine whether all of the hundred additives are good for you. It should never be the case that you are wondering whether something has MSG, because you should never be considering whether to buy packaged crap. Instead, you should be buying the raw materials at the market and cooking at home.
posted by pracowity at 1:43 AM on July 12, 2005


If it's perfectly safe then why is it being deliberately disguised by the food manufactuers?
For the same reason that nuclear magnetic resonance imaging dropped the "nuke" and is now known by the more consumer-friendly "MRI".

Or to take a less harmless example, it's why the words "x-ray" appear nowhere in the title of "CT Scan". Or as it's being sold to people: "full body scan". Seriously, many of the people that have qualms about ingesting the salt of an amino acid synthesised daily in their bodies seem to have no problems lining up to get unnecessarily repeatedly dosed with around 12 milligrays of ionizing radiation... about what you'd absorb from the Hiroshima bomb if you were standing about 2 Km away.
A single full-body CT examination in a 45-year-old adult would result in an estimated lifetime attributable cancer mortality risk of around 0.08%, with the 95% credibility limits being a factor of 3.2 in either direction. A 45-year-old adult who plans to undergo annual full-body CT examinations up to age 75 (30 examinations) would accrue an overall estimated lifetime attributable risk of cancer mortality of about 1.9%, with the 95% credibility limits being a factor of 2 in either direction.
To be taken seriously, the MSG/aspartame phobic people need to present significant population sizes and present outcomes with decent error parameters and estimates of risk and outcomes. Without this, all it is just anecdotes and fud, dressed up in pseudoscientific drag.

There's enough fud being spread by Big Pharma, why do people take it on themselves to work so hard to add to the noise?
posted by meehawl at 4:27 AM on July 12, 2005


meehawl, drat, my doctor ordered a CAT scan this week. I'd rather not take one but I was diagnosed a couple of weeks ago with cancer. Oh well, guess I'll simply be radioactive after that and probably even more if radiation therapy is advised later.

why do people take it on themselves to work so hard to add to the noise

I would imagine they do for the very reason you gave above, that they are lied to about things such as x-rays being called CAT scans or mislabeling of MSG on ingredient labels. There is a history of fraud in many major businesses, such as "fud being spread by Big Pharma" and so a "Buyer beware" approach creates an adversarial atmosphere when it comes to trusting food manufacturers.

I do think that accuracy of reports, honesty and solid scientific data would be nice, very nice. That just doesn't seem to be the way things work at the present.

That said, it's vitally important that the FDA distance itself from industry.

Treeline, I agree with you. Interesting you encountered the food adulteration thing in China too. Were rocks added to rice there too?

I have actually tested my sensitivity to MSG, just in the way you suggested and found I do react to it, as I've tested myself for reactions to sulfites on dried fruits or in young wine. My body reacts with discomfort, (asthma in the case of sulfites) so it's a choice to eat as little added MSG or sulfites as possible, although I love the taste of MSG. It's a choice, as it is for most people, to choose what they prefer to eat.

It's dishonesty versus ignorance.

pracowity with that logic the food industry could decide there's no reason to have an ingredient list of any kind and have labels that say, "Buy this, it's good for you, we're smarter than you, so shut up and cough up the bucks already." The deceit of hiding MSG under misleading names such as "hydrolyzed vegetable protein" or "natural flavoring" adds to the general population having suspicions about MSG. Deceit doesn't take suspicion away and in the end I think the deceit makes MSG appear more dangerous than it may be. The consumer has a right to make their own decisions, for whatever reasons, it's the consumers' money, their bodies. The ingredient labels need to be transparently honest.

you shouldn't be eating in restaurants (fast or slow) at all
and
you should never be considering whether to buy packaged crap

Those statements seem hysterical to me and examples of black and white thinking. As it happens I do mostly cook at home these days but it's not always possible for work reasons. I think it's possible to eat healthily in restaurants or eat packaged food on occasion, making reasoned choices by being informed about the ingredients and favor those establishments or food companies who are honest (as one can know about) about their ingredients.
posted by nickyskye at 5:27 AM on July 12, 2005


the food industry could decide there's no reason to have an ingredient list of any kind

No, they are required to list ingredients. The problem is, you are not required to understand what those lists mean. Maybe schools should be required to teach kids how to shop and eat.

But when the substance in question has been shown by international researchers to be harmless to people, maybe the regulators aren't too, too worried about whether a few people don't understand that it is there in small quantities.

Those statements seem hysterical to me

Nah. I'm cool as a freshly picked cucumber. I'm saying that other people (not me) who are very worried about such things should cook and eat at home.

If you're worried about what's in your food and you do not trust the regulators -- who have, after all, approved the labeling language you do not trust -- you should shop for things that are whole and fresh: raw fruits, raw vegetables, things that need no printed explanation, things you can take home and wash and eat with some confidence that they are not too nasty.

As for restaurants (especially fast-food restaurants) and what might be in their food: people who are truly worried about every little thing they eat should not eat what a gang of underpaid folk in a back room slapped together when no one was looking. I don't need to go into detail on that, but a little MSG should be the least of your worries.
posted by pracowity at 6:56 AM on July 12, 2005


The problem is, you are not required to understand what those lists mean. Maybe schools should be required to teach kids how to shop and eat.

pracowity, good points.

I'm saying that other people (not me) who are very worried about such things should cook and eat at home.

Again, I'd like to advocate honesty, rather than deception or trickery, in labeling food ingredients or additives. I think that is a rational option.

I'm not especially worried about MSG, some people are tolerant of it, others not, there is controversy about its safety. As far as I'm concerned, the old adage still holds true: one man's meat is another man's poison. What interests me the most in the original post is the term umami and the use of MSG to achieve that.
posted by nickyskye at 8:48 AM on July 12, 2005


The problem with honesty, nickyskye, is that no food manufacturer would survive long enough to benefit by it.

Put "Contains MSG!" on food packages, and the uninformed and foolishly panicky public will quit buying the product. Company goes bankrupt and the one that takes its place knows damn well it better not be honest.

I don't think honesty is going to work in this case.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:49 AM on July 12, 2005


fivefreshfish, if the law said be dishonest and prosper there would be no legal rights for consumers. There are companies who sell food now saying "No MSG added" and people are buying it. Those companies are prospering. There are restaurants that offer "No MSG added" and people are going and those restaurants are prospering. In my neighborhood, the one Chinese restaurant that offers "no MSG added" on its menu makes the most bucks.

It seems there is money to be made in the "this product doesn't have" marketing strategy and that includes products that say "no MSG added". There was fear once that everybody would lose out when "No smoking" signs were put up in restaurants and now people are used to it and may go out even more because of it, I know I do. Sometimes a "no" works and creates profits.

I don't think deceit and trickery is ethical business practice and there are fortunately laws protecting consumer rights. Since there are already 60 million obese people statistically in America, it certainly seems that there are plenty of people eating in unhealthy ways. Both the ignorant and those who would err on the side of caution or benefit from that caution have a right to know what the ingredients are. I'm not budging from my belief in the right of the consumer to know what the food additives are in honest labeling and what the consumer does with that information, eat the product or reject it, is their choice.
posted by nickyskye at 10:22 AM on July 12, 2005


Of course those companies that say "no msg added" are doing well: the uninformed hysteria of the mass public ensures it.

What you are suggesting is that companies also say "MSG Added!" on their packaging. Which, due to that self-same uninformed and hysterical mass public, will ensure that the company quickly goes bankrupt.

And a question to our informed scientists: does hydrolyzed veggie protein and the like contain monosodium glutamate, or just plain ol' protein-attached glutamate?

If the latter, then little wonder the products don't state that they have MSG: they don't.
posted by five fresh fish at 12:33 PM on July 12, 2005


Of course those companies that say "no msg added" are doing well

May they live long and prosper in their truth-telling. :)

fff, I see you have a lot of compassion, patience and consideration for the companies that use MSG and label it deceptively. I commend you on your kindness for these businesses in not wanting them to go bankrupt by truthful declaration of their ingredients on labels but can't help thinking your concerns for these enterprises may be misguided and misplaced.

Ignorant or not, consumers have a right to make choices about how they spend their money, informed or uninformed by honest labeling. I think it is important, legally and ethically, to label sugar, peanuts, shellfish products and any number of other ingredients, which may be dangerous to some or simply not desired by others and should not be trickily hidden with deceptive labeling.

And a question to our informed scientists: does hydrolyzed veggie protein and the like contain monosodium glutamate, or just plain ol' protein-attached glutamate?

Sounds like a good question fff. I hope meehawl has an answer.

According to neurologist, ikkyu2, "'Hydrolyzed vegetable protein' on labels is a cheap labeler's trick of getting MSG into foods without having to label them as such; glutamate is one of the essential 20 amino acids that make up proteins, and the vegetable protein that these folks pick to hydrolyze has a great deal of glutamate (I don't know what it is offhand, maybe soy protein.)"
posted by nickyskye at 1:17 PM on July 12, 2005


my doctor ordered a CAT scan this week. I'd rather not take one but I was diagnosed a couple of weeks ago with cancer.

I'm so sorry. I was directing my ire at the notion of non-medeically necessary scans being sold to people on a "what if" basis, mainly for entertainment purposes and a false sense of security.

does hydrolyzed veggie protein and the like contain monosodium glutamate, or just plain ol' protein-attached glutamate

There is no such thing as "protein-attached glutamate". Glutamate is a building block for many proteins, as are many other amino acids, where they are chained together into long strings and then folded in on themselves in specific, exquisite patterns.

During hydrolysis, molecules of water are added to the protein chains, cleaving them into simpler components. Many of these fragments will end up being glutamate, which will have the effect of enhancing any "meaty" flavour in the food. That is the purpose of the hydrolysis.

The FDA regulation 21CFR102.22 controlas what can and cannot be labelled as hydrolized vegetable protein, and how to label its origin. It's rather tedious, but the key point is that the simple "vegetable" moniker is imprecise for this purpose and a food of origin should be listed.

In "The Industry" such ingredients are called "Protein Hydrolysates" and you'll find more useful, less hysterically anti-MSG info by googling this specific term.

One key advantage of the hydrolysis of complex proteins, especially for babies and, ironically, asthma sufferers, is that it enables manufacturers to include high-grade amino acids in a simple form than proteins, where the proteins could prove allergenic and provoke anaphylaxis and other unpleasant reactions.

As to whether hydrolyzed proteins contain "MSG", that very much depends on how much salt may have been originally present in the source food, how much sodium was removed during processing, and much sodium may have been added during processing. A certain percentage of sodium in aqueous solution will tend to displace one of the hydrogens on one of the carboxylic functional groups of glutamic acid to create monosodium glutamate. This is because sodium is quite reactive, especially when solvated by water. Couple this with the acidic nature of glutamaic acid, that tends to donate a hydrogen relatively easily, and the production of "MSG" is a given.

The intent of creating "pure" MSG is to create as much free glutamate as possible, unbound to other, more clingy proteins or chemicals, and so produce more umami "punch" per mL.

"'Hydrolyzed vegetable protein' on labels is a cheap labeler's trick of getting MSG into foods without having to label them as such

So is including boiled dried kombu seaweed, dried shrimp or bonito flakes, or fermented soy, but people don't seem to worry as much when these things are used.

I have actually tested my sensitivity to MSG, just in the way you suggested and found I do react to it.

Really? You're done a double blind test on this, preferably using a similarly blind third party to administer the foods and to evaluate your reactions?


The key thing with MSG is that it is often combined with other quite exotic ingredients, such as spices, chillis, stimulants, etc. So people mistake their physiological reactions to these other substances as a reaction to glutamate.

Sometimes the things people *will* eat, and suffer from, in the interests of a gastronomic experience amuse me. For instance, take wasabi, the gustatory equivalent of a punch in the face. The attack of wasabi comes from its particular blend of isothiocyanates, a cyanate where sulfur ("thio") is substituting for oxygen. Which is a good thing, because isocyanates are known to produce urethane that will provoke asthma attacks in humans through either inhalation or simple dermal contact.

Anyway, wasabi's isothiocyanates are close relatives of other isothiocyanates used in industry for their stringent & toxic effects. They are very good as wood preservatives (especially against fungus rot) and are also good wormers and pesticides. There is even some preliminary evidence that some of the mustard oils (including wasabi) can be carcinogenic in high doses, especially with male bladders (in rats!). Do I take this seriously as a risk to humans? No, not without further evidence.

And so people complain about the salt of glutamate, while wolfing down wasabi and, as I alluded to earlier, known "neurotoxic" foods such as chillis. And then washing it down with some carcinogenic wine. And then congratulate themselves on avoiding any of that "dangerous" salty glutamate. Amazing.
posted by meehawl at 4:18 PM on July 12, 2005


I don't disagree with anything meehawl said in the above post; indeed, "hydrolysis" is just the word to describe the chemical process of taking proteins apart into their component amino acids.

It's usually accomplished by enzymes and has many other industrial and metabolic purposes besides the production of glutamate; the making of special foods for the nutritionally deranged is certainly among the more humane and important of these.

Also, thanks; now I know why wasabi occasionally triggers a bit of bronchospasam.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:33 PM on July 12, 2005


And so that answers why the ingredients list doesn't list "MSG" as an ingredient: it isn't. It's just one of very many organic compounds produced in the process of hydrolyzing proteins.

It seems it would be most truthful to put "essential amino acids" in its place.

Correct?
posted by five fresh fish at 9:51 AM on July 13, 2005


It seems it would be most truthful to put "essential amino acids" in its place.

Aside from the fact that glutamate is not an "essential" amino acid (because it is also synthesized within uman bodies), have you considered a career in food marketing?
posted by meehawl at 5:47 AM on July 14, 2005


Nah. I dislike too many processed foods, and eat far too healthily for that sort of work.

I had no idea "essential" meant "body doesn't make it."
posted by five fresh fish at 9:44 AM on July 14, 2005


And so that answers why the ingredients list doesn't list "MSG" as an ingredient: it isn't.

Amazing. I thought MSG existed and that scientists did tests on it, wrote papers about it and according to a number of sources, including the original article, it is hidden in foods deceptively. Apparently "it isn't". Poof, gone. I feel like Tweetie Bird. I tawt I taw a Puddy Tat. Guess my senses can't be trusted and I must have imagined my reactions over the last 30 years to MSG. Funny, I ate spices in India, Africa, the Caribbean, Central America, Europe, the Middle East and never had that reaction. Huh, maybe I imagined somebody called fivefreshfish too? lol! Poof, fff "isn't".

Really? You're done a double blind test on this, preferably using a similarly blind third party to administer the foods and to evaluate your reactions?

(Perspiration prickling out in droplets on my forehead as I squint into the interrogation light glaring into my eyes and feel the pneumographs of lie detector straps digging into my chest)...No, I confess weehawl, my double blind was a shoddy fraud of a test, not remotely up to your blind third party standards (not that any test I could even dream of could come up to your expert and meticulous standards).

Mischievous twinkle aside, thank you for your kind words about my having cancer. It's been a shock and took me a couple of weeks looking at death squarely. Now I feel more calm. MetaFilter has been a wonderful distraction while I face major surgery this next week or so.

My own complaint about MSG has never been how unhealthy it is, only how lousy I felt after eating foods cooked with a substantial amount in it. I actually like the taste of MSG laced foods but can't tolerate it well.

A company manufacturing wasabi says, " a recent study shows Wasabi consumption can prevent tooth cavities. The Japanese also acknowledge its antibacterial qualities, which is why they serve it with raw fish. " (fff probably works there) I like the way wasabi makes me tear up with the sting, lol.

It was interesting to learn:
"Uses of substances derived from amino acids
Monosodium glutamate is a food additive to enhance flavor.
L-DOPA (L-dihydroxyphenylalanine) is a drug used to treat Parkinsonism.
5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan) has been used to treat neurological problems associated with PKU (phenylketonuria), as well as depression (as an alternative to L-Tryptophan). "

As well as: "Aside from the twenty standard amino acids, there is a vast number of nonstandard amino acids not used in the body's regular manufacturing of proteins."

the making of special foods for the nutritionally deranged is certainly among the more humane and important of these.

Ikkyu2 is there a group of people who are "nutritionally deranged"?
posted by nickyskye at 9:01 PM on July 15, 2005


My point is that perhaps it isn't monosodium glutamate in the hydrolyzed veggie protein. It could be something-else glutamate. That would explain the lack of MSG labelling.

Hell if I know whether that's true. I'm not a chemist. The well-informed people here will, I think, immediately point out my error.

Wasabi good. Mmmm. Sashimi good. Mmmmm. Fish parasites... not so good.

I'm always a little doubtful whether sashimi is something I should allow myself to eat. I eat it anyway, but the day I find I'm crawling with parasites, I'm gonna regret it...
posted by five fresh fish at 9:31 AM on July 16, 2005


LOL fff, yup sashimi is scary. But I worked briefly for an Italian restaurant a few years ago, and the chef often pulled gigantic, looong white worms out of the monkfish. One particularly feisty worm (likely Anisakis simplex) still wriggled after being sauteed, which impressed the chef no end, lol. I was frankly appalled and have never been able to order monkfish again.
posted by nickyskye at 9:52 PM on July 16, 2005


Ikkyu2 is there a group of people who are "nutritionally deranged"?

Sure, off the top of my head, people missing long lengths of intestine, or people whose pancreas aren't panc-ing.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:56 AM on July 24, 2005


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