Safety, obesity concerns over MSG food additive

MEDICAL MATTERS

Staying Healthy

April 28, 2006|By JUDY FOREMAN

Is the food additive MSG safe to eat? Is it a cause of the obesity epidemic?

Although your worries surface periodically on the Internet, the answers seem to be: "Yes, it's safe," and "No, it's not causing obesity."

The Food and Drug Administration has declared MSG, or monosodium glutamate, safe for most people when it is consumed in standard doses, though some people do have short-term reactions such as numbness, burning, tingling, facial pressure or tightness, chest pain, headache or nausea.

A typical serving of glutamate-treated food contains less than 0.5 grams of MSG. A large serving, which is more likely to provoke a reaction, would be 3 grams or more. MSG is more likely to provoke a reaction if consumed on an empty stomach. People with severe, poorly controlled asthma may also be more likely to have a reaction to MSG.

As for the obesity question, that's a bit murky. There is evidence (search on "MSG obese" on pubmed.gov) that researchers can induce obesity by giving animals MSG.

"But to blame the obesity epidemic on MSG? That's stretching it," said Amy Campbell, a dietitian at the Joslin Diabetes Center. "I'm not saying there isn't a potential link, but given that this research has been going on since the '70s, if there truly were a connection, we'd know by now."

Dr. George Pauli, associate director for science and policy in the FDA's office of food additive safety, wrote in an e-mail: "I can see no link with obesity unless making food taste better leads to eating more."

Campbell summarized this way: "There is a gap in what we know about MSG and its effects. So it's not a bad idea to go easy on it. But don't make yourself crazy trying to avoid it. We have other, more important, things to worry about - like trans fats and saturated fat in the diet."

Does pulling hair out of a mole turn the mole cancerous?

Many aestheticians hesitate to rip hair from moles, but the fear that doing so would turn a mole cancerous is unfounded.

"You can do anything you want to a mole, pretty much," said Dr. Bernard Cohen, interim chair of dermatology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. "If you want to pluck, shave, wax or use electrolysis on a mole, there's no evidence that this will cause a melanoma, or any other kind of skin cancer."

The only caution about moles, he said, is that it's not a good idea to irradiate them, which means be sure to put sunscreens on moles as well as the rest of your skin.

Perhaps the cancer fear stems from the fact that every once in a while, "a mole may turn malignant by itself, and then you might blame what was done to it," said Dr. Amal Kurban, a professor of dermatology at the Boston University School of Medicine. But basically, he said, "It's very simple - removing hair from a mole usually doesn't disrupt the cells."

Plucking hair from a mole can lead to inflammation and perhaps infection, but that's all.

Send your questions to foreman@baltsun.com.

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