Apr 24, 2006

Hooray for MSG!

Alex Renton praises the "naturally occurring" food additive, a primary ingredient of his beloved marmite, and attempts to dispel the myths surrounding the substance.
So how bad for you is MSG? Fear of MSG began with a 1968 New England Journal of Medicine paper identifying "Chinese restaurant syndrome." Studies followed showing that mice injected with vast amounts of MSG developed brain lesions. A panic was born. MSG has since been "linked to"—that fatal pop science phrase—anything from asthma to Alzheimer's.

But none of the scores of studies carried out on humans has ever shown conclusively that it does any harm at all, even in unrealistic doses. Rather the opposite: by reducing the need for salt in food, it may do some good. Every government body that pronounces on these things has long ago put MSG on its list of safe food additives; the industry responded by finding a nicer name for it. But nearly 40 years on, the myth persists: polls of parents in the west find that over 70 per cent still believe MSG is harmful and would not let their children consume it (good luck to them). Asians, of course, are immune to such concerns: in Thailand and China a little bottle of MSG appears beside the salt, sugar and the crushed chilli on restaurant tables.
I applaud the effort, but I'm afraid MSG hysteria will remain with us, along with an irrational fear of genetically modified foods and the belief that sugar causes hyperactivity in children.

Try telling the parent of a small child that sugar has no discernible difference in behavior. Nine out of 10 won't believe you. They won't believe you if you hand them a sheaf of studies on the subject.

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