Twenty years ago, in 1968, the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine published a letter from a physician named Ho Man Kwok, who reported "two hours of numbness, weakness and palpitations" after eating dishes containing monosodium glutamate (MSG) at Chinese restaurants. The New England Journal regularly publishes humorous items, and many readers thought Kwok's letter was a joke. One correspondent even claimed he saw through the ruse, asserting that Ho Man Kwok was actually code for "Human Crock."
But Kwok was quite real, and his symptoms were no crock. They were actually just the tip of the MSG iceberg, according to George R. Schwartz MD, whose book, "In Bad Taste: The MSG Syndrome," argues that more than 20% of Americans develop unpleasant--sometimes severe--reactions to the flavor-enhancer he calls the world's third most popular spice, after salt and pepper.
Once Kwok's report was taken seriously, newspapers around the country warned of "Chinese restaurant syndrome" from the MSG in Chinese food. Initial symptom lists included: headache, dizziness, nausea, diarrhea, depression, insomnia, heart palpitations and behavior problems in children. Not so, cried The Glutamate Assn., the trade organization representing the manufacturers of such familiar MSG seasonings as Accent, Spike and Lawry's Seasoned Salt. Despite the MSG industry's continuing protests that monosodium glutamate is an innocent victim of bad publicity, in the last 20 years the additive has been implicated in migraine headaches, asthma attacks, severe depression, premenstrual syndrome and reactions resembling epileptic seizures in children. A 1986 medical journal report urged physicians and emergency medical technicians to consider that anyone showing symptoms of heart attack might actually be suffering an MSG reaction.
According to Schwartz, the MSG problem goes far beyond Chinese restaurant fare. The additive was first isolated from seaweed in Japan in 1908. It quickly pervaded all Asian cuisines as aji-no-moto , "the origin of flavor." MSG came to the United States after World War II, and today it's as American as Stovetop Americana New England Style Stuffing Mix, which Schwartz says contains enough MSG to cause problems in people who are sensitive to the additive.
"In Bad Taste" lists more than 250 supermarket items that contain MSG, and Schwartz asserts that one would be hard-pressed to find a soup mix, TV dinner, airplane meal, prepared side dish, or Arby's, Wendy's, McDonald's, Burger King, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, or Jack-in-the-Box meal without it. Even Manischewitz Gefilte Fish contains monosodium glutamate. Unfortunately for those who would like to avoid MSG, foods labels do not necessarily list it. Instead they might list "hydrolyzed vegetable protein," which contains up to 20% MSG, and "natural flavors," which usually include MSG as well.
Although the Food and Drug Administration includes MSG on its list of additives "generally regarded as safe," Schwartz calls it "toxic" and "a poison"--strong terms considering that most Americans consume MSG every day. MSG won't kill you even if you're particularly sensitive, but Schwartz claims that 30% of the population develop adverse reactions after consuming five grams and that 90% react to 10 grams. (One teaspoon of Accent contains about six grams.)
Schwartz writes that he hopes to "educate, not scare," but it's difficult to read this book without becoming apprehensive. Fortunately, Schwartz offers guidelines for minimizing MSG exposure: Eat fresh foods, read labels carefully and avoid processed foods and anything that comes with a "flavor packet." He also includes MSG-free recipes to replace supermarket condiments that typically contain the additive: catsup, gravies, barbecue sauce and Worcestershire sauce.
Critics will undoubtedly accuse Schwartz of overstating MSG's danger, but anyone who suffers migraines, depression or any other conditions possibly triggered by the virtually ubiquitous flavor-enhancer might benefit from this eye-opening book. Cutting down on MSG certainly does no harm, and it just might do some good.