For most of us, MSG isn't harmful


November 12, 1991|By Colleen Pierre, R.D.

"60 Minutes" is at it again.

Now that the furor over Alar on apples has subsided, and the dental amalgum debacle has declined, it is time for new terror at the table.

So sound the alarm. There is monosodium glutamate in your food.

Big deal.

Food safety alarmists cause chaos by violating scientific process.

Following a step-by-step procedure establishes the cause-and-effect relationship between eating a certain food, in this case MSG, then developing certain symptoms, such as "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome" (tightness in the face or upper body, warmth or tingling, and feeling of pressure).

The usual process begins with observation.

In 1968, a physician observed that, within 15 minutes of eating his first course in a Chinese restaurant, he often experienced general weakness, throbbing and numbness that spread from his neck to both arms and his back. Others reported similar or additional symptoms.

The second step is to develop a proposition explaining the situation.

It was proposed that MSG, commonly used in Asian and Latin-American food, might be the culprit. It was also suggested that 25 percent of the population was at risk.

For many people, the process stopped here. Observations were treated as conclusions. So now "everybody knows" that MSG causes adverse reactions for most people.

But that turns out not to be true.

The third step is to test the proposition to be sure it is correct.

In fact, many tests have been done. A few are summarized here from "The Scientific Status Summaries of the Institute of Food Technologists' Expert Panel on Food Safety & Nutrition":

* Long-term feeding studies on animals produce neither death nor cancer. Three-generation studies of mice fed 0 percent, 1 percent, or 4 percent MSG showed no difference with respect to body weight gain, feed intake, reproductive ability, sterility or appearance of malformed young.

* Primates (monkeys) showed no evidence of central nervous system damage following MSG force-feeding, injections under the skin, or when large amounts were included in regular feed.

* Well-designed questionnaires indicate that only 1 percent to 2 percent of the population reacts negatively to MSG, about the same as the national average for reaction to numerous ethnic dishes.

* Double-blind studies on self-proclaimed "responders" say it isn't so. Subjects were sometimes given MSG and sometimes a placebo, but neither the subjects nor the administers knew which was which. In one study, four of six subjects showed no response to either the MSG nor the placebo, and two responded to both.

* Infants have been shown to metabolize glutamate as efficiently as adults.

The fourth step is to draw a conclusion.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives of the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization and the World Health Organization, and the Scientific Committee for Food of the European Community have concluded that it is safe to use MSG in foods, but that some people might experience a mild sensitivity to MSG.

In an effort to protect those of you who do react to MSG, in the new label regulations FDA Commissioner David Kessler announced last week, one requires disclosure of all sources of MSG in foods.

Stay tuned.

Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian, is the nutrition consultant to the Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center in Baltimore and director of Eating Together in Baltimore

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