Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Defending MSG (And Thoughts About Health Scares More Broadly)

Mark Bittman's Twitter feed points us to this fantastic 2005 Guardian article by Alex Renton defending MSG. It makes an awful lot of sense. As it asks in the title, "If MSG is so bad for you, why doesn't everyone in Asia have a headache?" Damn good question. It's because there's nothing bad about MSG. It's a health hoax. It's not as damaging as the vaccine-autism myth. But it comes from the same genesis.

Essentially, most of us are morons about both our bodies and science. That includes me more or less, as I look down at the wrapper from those Reese's peanut butter cups I ate today. We make poor choices about what we put into our body all the time. More understandably, we don't understand the inner workings of our bodies or scientific processes well. They are hard to figure out. I don't blame people for this.

More disturbingly is when people think they can understand their bodies through reading stuff on the internet or in newspapers. It's when sensationalist articles get publicized purporting the latest breakthrough on colds (Note: Buy zinc futures now!!!!!) or whatever else that our attention is caught and we start freaking out. On top of this is the consumerist mentality that we can choose from a variety of information and doctors for our bodies. That we don't trust experts in America makes this all the worse--why listen to the doctor when Jenny McCarthy tells us otherwise!

So it's amuses me to hear people talk about how horrible MSG is. It's a pseudo-scientific cult, nothing more or nothing less. As the Renton notes:

My friend Nic came round. He told me about a Japanese restaurant he'd been to that gave him headaches and a 'weird tingling in the cheeks' - until he told them to stop with the MSG. Then he was fine, he said. I nodded and I served him two tomato and chive salads; both were made using the very same ingredients but I told him one plate of tomatoes was 'organic', the other 'factory-farmed'. The organic tomatoes were far better, we agreed. These, of course, were the tomatoes doused with mono sodium glutamate.

Then we ate mascarpone, parma ham and tomato pizza. Nic felt fine. So did I. I had ingested, I reckoned, a good six grams of MSG over the day, and probably the same again in free glutamate from the food - the equivalent of eating two 250g jars of Marmite.

Having eaten more than my share of Asian food, I've never felt a headache. And if it wasn't for the psychosomatic symptoms that people think they should get after eating Chinese food, no one else would either.