“Too much MSG will make you bald!”
“If you take MSG, you’ll turn stupid.”
“MSG can make you sick.”
How many of us have heard these phrases growing up? MSG has been villainised for a long time as destructive and harmful to the body. Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a food additive that has long had a dangerous reputation in Asian cuisine. Even as Malaysians, we grew up learning to avoid MSG and in some Biology textbooks, the damage caused by MSG is named “Chinese Food Syndrome”, due to its common use in Chinese food.
The seasoning we call MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is a glutamic acid sodium salt which means that a glutamic acid ion has been attached by a sodium ion. (Glutamic acid is the amino acid and the most abundant neurotransmitter in our bodies. It helps with protein production, detoxification processes, immunity and heart function, and is essential for healthy brain development.)
MSG as we know it was developed by a professor of chemistry at Tokyo Imperial University in Japan named Kikunae Ikeda in 1908 as a flavour enhancer. Ikeda discovered that kelp enhanced his soup taste and realised it was the source on glutamic acid. He named the flavor as umami — which we now consider to be the fifth taste — and started mass-producing it for food use.
Anchovy paste, nutritional yeast or dried shiitake mushrooms are natural sources of glutamate. And guess what? Human bodies can not differentiate between naturally occurring glutamate and commercially produced MSG; both are metabolized in the same manner.
MSG’s bad reputation
MSG did not even have a bad reputation until 1968, when a doctor named Robert Ho Man Kwok wrote a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) explaining the symptoms he supposedly experienced at Chinese restaurants after many meals. Kwok said he felt numbness, fatigue and heart palpitations and hypothesized they could be the result of sodium or some other ingredient in the food he ate. He also said his symptoms may have been attributed to monosodium glutamate, which he claimed was used in his meals.
The NEJM published the letter from Kwok with the title “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” which ignited widespread fear of this seasoning. Yet 50 years later MSG intake is still commonly believed to lead to vomiting, nausea and headache. Many allegations go a step further, accusing MSG of being “toxic” and of “over-exciting” our brain cells, causing damage to the brain. But there is no evidence to indicate that MSG “over-excites” any cell type in any way.
In fact, the research used to “prove” this assertion was performed in 1969 on monkeys who were injected into their brains with high doses of MSG. Because MSG will not cross the blood-brain barrier, there is no chance in real life that this could happen.
Is MSG bad for you?
A study published in the Journal of Nutrition in 2000 sought to refute Kwok’s claims regarding MSG, finding that his symptoms may have been triggered by a reaction to histamines found in soy sauce, black bean paste, shrimp and tofu This is possible, especially because no controlled studies have ever been able to reproduce any of the issues of which MSG is frequently accused, including sweating, nausea, lightheadedness or headaches.
The findings indicate that large doses of MSG given without food can cause more symptoms in individuals who believe they respond adversely to MSG than a placebo does. The response frequency was small, however, and the recorded responses were inconsistent, and were not reproducible. The reactions were not observed with food when MSG was given.Source: https://academic.oup.com/jn/article/130/4/1058S/4686672
In short, MSG in food was safe to eat!
The crazy truth about Kwok’s letter
Here’s where it gets really interesting.
Apparently, the initial letter published in NEJM was a hoax, written by a young Dr. Howard Steel.
Steel was a young orthopedic surgeon at Shriner’s Hospital in 1968, and was a lecturer at Philadelphia’s Temple University. Another doctor, Bill Hanson, used to taunt Steel over his specialization, claiming that orthopedic surgeons were too stupid to be published in a respected journal like the NEJM. He personally bet $10 on Steel that he could not be published.
Throughout the time, Steel and Hanson used to go once a week to a Chinese restaurant called Jack Louie, drinking too much alcohol and overeating — afterwards always felt sick. After one of those episodes, Steel was inspired. He was going to write a fake letter to the NEJM, but make it so simple that it would be instantly understood to be fake.
If anybody wanted further evidence that the letter was a joke, he also made up a fake medical institution, the National Biomedical Research Foundation of Silver Spring, Md. Finally, he signed it as “Robert Ho Man Kwok”, a play on words for a human crock, a word to describe something fake or phoney.
Once his letter was published by the NEJM, Steel watched as the MSG debacle erupted with a combination of humour and outrage, with hundreds of letters to the editor referring to the original. He persisted in calling the publication office, leaving call after call, trying to retract the letter to no avail.
At the time, there was some entrenched racism against Chinese people in the United States, and these prejudices further elevated the fear of “Chinese food” and “MSG”. Even though glutamate was found in parmesan cheese and non-Asian dishes, the narrative at the time was so focused on targeting Chinese food that it did eventually cause some damage to the reputation of Asian cuisine.
Steel maintained that his letter was not supposed to be discriminatory, and — insisted that the uproar he helped start never caused any real harm. “Anyway everyone is eating Chinese food,” he said. At the very least, he is correct in that argument. Steel eventually passed away in 2018, but the mystery does not end there.
The Real Dr Ho Man Kwok?
At the time, there was a real Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok, who died in 2014. Before Steel’s ‘confession’, many had attributed the letter to this doctor. When word broke out that the letter was potentially a hoax, Kwok’s children came out to the press years later to say that it was indeed their father who had written the letter and was very proud of having done so.
How incredibly puzzling!
With both Dr Ho and Dr Steel having passed away, there’s no real evidence on who wrote the letter and who told the truth. However, what is the truth is that MSG itself has not shown any indication of causing unnatural harm. It is truly a puzzling mystery about how MSG got its bad reputation.