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March 25, 2013

The MSG Allergy Myth

Chances are, if you've ever had MSG come up in a discussion, it was about how bad it is for your health. It really gets a bad rap, especially in the U.S. This reputation is completely undeserved, however. Next time, take a moment to question whoever thinks MSG is bad for you; can they even name any specific reasons for why it's unhealthy? Most likely, the answer is no.

MSG's bad reputation is all a result of false myths and pseudoscience being spread to the point where it has become fact for most people. The truth is, Monosodium Glutamate is a naturally occuring, flavor-enhancing salt that has no proven ill-effects whatsoever. Even the supposed allergy to MSG that so many people claim to suffer from is a result of misinformation and hypochondria.

A 2009 review of decades-worth of MSG-allergy research found that there was no evidence to support any of the beliefs surrounding MSG-related reactions. It did mention that a specific reaction could be related to excessive amounts of MSG ingestion on an empty stomach, but this is neither surprising nor conclusive. Everything has the potential for harm when taken in excess, and none of their findings could appropriately connect MSG to any symptoms when "consumed as part of a typical western diet".

Note that this was in 2009. Even at that point, there were dozens of studies that had already debunked the MSG myth. It was considered silly to even question such an outdated bit of pseudoscience. Still, the question remains: what exactly is going on with the people who claim to suffer from an allergy to MSG? Ultimately, it all comes down to the placebo-effect. Symptoms are actually brought on from the imagination alone. If you find that hard to believe, consider this: "If MSG is so bad for you, why doesn't everyone in Asia have a headache?"

Ramen, a Japanese noodle dish that almost always contains MSG

Alex Renton, author of the article above, brings up an amazingly valid question. If so many Americans are suffering from MSG allergies, shouldn't Asia be rampant with MSG-related illnesses? After all, MSG is basically a staple in almost all of East Asian cuisine. It is an ingredient that occurs just as frequently as salt and sugar. Millions of healthy Chinese, Japanese, and Korean citizens consume MSG on an almost daily basis, and yet, the concept of an MSG allergy is almost non-existent.

And that's the key: the concept is non-existent in their minds. They don't have an adequate, culturally ingrained placebo. Americans, on the other hand, have such a firmly established placebo that it is practically truth. Education has simply been inadequate in dispelling such misinformation. Just to put the final nail on the coffin, Renton conducted a test where he fed a friend (who claimed to be allergic to MSG) a meal containing plenty of MSG. The result: his friend enjoyed the meal, and no symptoms were felt whatsoever. The kicker is that he didn't know there was MSG in it. This experiment is likely to duplicate with any test subject.

As is the case with a lot of the things I write about, the MSG allergy myth is something that is so obviously false, yet so strongly believed. I made this article particularly because I can't stand watching people fussing about something that doesn't even exist. Perhaps in a few more years, the situation will get better and proper knowledge will spread. For now, just take solace in the fact that MSG won't do anything to you as long as you keep it in moderate doses. If a customer ever tries to tell you that they're allergic to MSG, just smile, nod, and proceed to do nothing about it. At all.


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