How we’ve let ourselves become anxious about MSG

The Wire
June 7, 2015

In 1968, the New England Journal of Medicine published a letter from Robert Ho Man Kwok, a doctor in Maryland. Kwok wrote that he experienced symptoms like an allergic reaction every time he ate at a local Chinese restaurant, but that he didn’t know what the cause was.

After him, many readers of the journals started to send in letters complaining of similar reactions when they ate Chinese food. The correspondence generated enough interest that, soon after, a neuroscientist named John W. Olney – later known for his study of brain lesions – published a paper in Science that claimed a salt called monosodium glutamate (MSG) in the Chinese food could’ve been the cause of the allergic reactions. The date of Olney’s paper’s publication, May 9, 1969, could for all practical purposes be considered the start of the MSG scare that prevails to this day.

One of the first things the scare had going for itself was Olney’s experiment itself. His paper’s abstract concludes that MSG’s effects interfered with the proper functioning of the endocrine system. However, two things immediately stand out from his study. First, Olney injected MSG into lab mice subcutaneously, i.e. under the skin. If his findings have to be applicable to humans, then, we’ve to inject the salt under our skin, too – and that’s something we never do. Second, he injected the mice with 5-7 mg per gram of body-weight – for a person weighing 75 kg, that translates to 375-525 grams (Olney followed this experiment up with subcutaneous injections of 2.7 g/kg of body-weight of MSG to infant rhesus monkeys). According to the US FDA, however, humans consume something like 14 grams of MSG a day.

It’s toast

In fact, 13 out of the 14 grams we consume is in the form of naturally occurring glutamate, which in turn is equivalent to glutamic acid, an amino acid that’s part of proteins. Whenever we consume food that contains proteins, we’re effectively also consuming glutamic acid – and so glutamate. When glutamic acid forms a salt with sodium, we get MSG. In an aqueous solution, MSG breaks down into glutamic acid and sodium. And these intricate chemical details make up important information in the context of the Maggi scandal.

According to Mid-Day, Nestle has stated that it doesn’t add MSG at the time of manufacturing its flagship noodles product: “We do not add MSG to our Maggi Noodles sold in India and this is stated on the packet of the product concerned.” The previous paragraph and the first episode of the TV show Mad Men illustrate how this could be misleading.

In the show, when the bosses at Lucky Strike are stumped for an advertising strategy that will get their brand of cigarettes ahead of the hoi polloi, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) has the answer. He suggests Lucky Strike be branded along with the words “It’s toasted”. When others in the meeting argue that pretty much all cigarettes are toasted, Draper retorts that consumers won’t care because all they’ll know is that Lucky Strike has been toasted for sure. And if those words are important enough to ride the billboards, then Lucky Strike will become the pioneering brand of cigarettes to have done that in public memory.

Assimilating the MSG anxiety

By that measure, saying Nestle doesn’t add MSG to Maggi Noodles isn’t tantamount to the packets not containing MSG – irrespective of whether or not MSG is harmful. The Nestle statement continues to add, “However, we use hydrolysed groundnut protein, onion powder and wheat flour to make Maggi Noodles sold in India, which all contain glutamate.” The disingenuousness that worked in Lucky Strikes’ favour will, in Nestle’s case, go against it because what’s likely to remain in public memory here is not that glutamic acid is naturally occurring in foods but that Nestle denied adding MSG to its product. And when the lab tests return positive for MSG – which is likely – good luck, Maggi.

It’s to forestall such situations that the US FDA doesn’t allow packages of foods containing MSG from natural sources to claim “No added MSG” like Nestle has with Maggi Noodles in India. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India, the FDA’s counterpart in the country, in fact defered to the US FDA’s rule that products naturally containing MSG don’t get to add “No added MSG” on the packaging in an Order issued on June 5, 2015. It goes on to say that Nestle’s statement is thus in violation of the Food Safety and Standards (Packaging and Labeling) Regulations, 2011. It remains unclear how the FSSAI made this leap, ignoring the fact that it only implies Nestle violated the US FDA’s rules, not the FSSAI’s. However, the FSSAI by itself doesn’t pronounce that “No added MSG” can’t be printed if the products contain naturally-occurring MSG. The Regulations, as well as a newsletter dating from April 18, 2012, in fact require the explicit mention of MSG’s presence only for products used by infants below 12 months.

So much for the presentation. Now, is MSG harmful? Not when you consider lab-produced glutamic acid and naturally occurring glutamic acid are chemically indistinguishable. When the compound from either source enters our guts, it’s digested in an indistinguishable way. Finally, here’s the clincher: despite what alarmist news reports will tell you, glutamic acid – and MSG, for that matter – is found naturally in mushrooms, peas, potatoes, soy sauce, tomatoes and walnuts. Yes, people can have legitimate allergic reactions to MSG, but no, its presence in Maggi Noodles doesn’t deserve to be uttered in the same breath as the presence of lead, a heavy metal with far worse consequences.

Intents and responsibilities

And how harmful is MSG at all? Katherine Woessner, an immunologist with the Scripps Clinic Medical Group, toldScience Friday in 2014 that “there’s a great misunderstanding” when it comes to assessing the risks of consuming MSG. The conclusions of multiple studies over the years, especially a double-blind study in 2000 involving 130 test subjects, have swung from ‘no link between MSG and allergic reactions’ to ‘link between MSG and minor allergic reactions’. This isn’t to say that there is no link whatsoever, but that if there is a link, it has manifested among humans in the form of short-lived and verily curable symptoms (unless, of course, it’s being injected under the skin many grams at once).

Moreover, those who do focus on MSG labour with tunnel vision, forgetting agriculture as we practice it consumes a lot of chemicals, many of them potent teratogens, for they help maintain the scale at which we produce and consume food. Even shortcomings in the way the apprehension against MSG has bloomed can find roots in how, for example, the FSSAI doesn’t specify when packaged foods can or can’t say “No added MSG”; or how the food inspectors in Uttar Pradesh who found problems with Maggi Noodles in February 2014 didn’t notify the FSSAI until more than 12 months later; or, to indulge in a stretch, why the US FDA continues to require manufacturers to mention the presence or absence of MSG (on products meant for adults) even though it has reason to believe it is a minor allergen.

Featured image credit: stawarz/Flickr