Chronicle of an MSG nightmare that deflates a regulatory myth

Posted by
July 25, 2013

By Bill Bonvie

“What is MSG? Is it bad for you?”

To find a supposedly authoritative “answer” to that question, one need look no further than a posting by nutritionist Katherine Zeratsky at  the official web site of the Mayo Clinic.  After first informing us that MSG is an abbreviation for monosodium glutamate, “a flavor enhancer commonly added to Chinese food, canned vegetables, soups and processed meats,” Zeratsky goes on to allge that  “(a)lthough the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has classified MSG as a food ingredient that’s “generally recognized as safe,” the use of MSG remains controversial. For this reason, when MSG is added to food, the FDA requires that it be listed on the label.”

She then lists a  number of “adverse reactions” to it found in “anecdotal reports” received over the years by the FDA, and adds:  “Researchers acknowledge, though, that a small percentage of people may have short-term reactions to MSG. Symptoms are usually mild and don’t require treatment. The only way to prevent a reaction is to avoid foods containing MSG.”

All of which typifies how both the medical establishment and the media have long described MSG to a largely trusting public, according to Adrienne Samuels, Ph.D., who heads an organization called Truth in Labeling.  And all of which, from her extensive experience, is a total misrepresentation of the truth about this dangerous and ubiquitous additive.

Now, in an attempt to expose the scope of such widely disseminated disinformation, Samuels has come out with a book entitled The Man Who Sued the FDA, which chronicles the shocking facts that she and her late husband Jack discovered while investigating the source of a drawn-out health crisis that Jack, an investment banker and former hospital administrator, suffered during the last three decades of his life (an ordeal that was only mitigated somewhat when he traveled — and ate — abroad).

To read Samuels’ fascinating account — which was partly written by Jack himself, right up to his death from a heart attack in 2011 — is to realize just how fraudulent such dismissive descriptions as that offered by the Mayo Clinic site and many other medical and media sources are, starting with the idea that MSG is only “monosodium glutamate.”

In actuality, the book notes, there are a whole slew of unlabeled flavor enhancers — that is, other forms of MSG — that also contain the same manufactured free glutamic acid as monosodium glutamate does, and that are being added to everyday foods without any indication of that on the label (as opposed to the “bound” form of glutamate present in many natural foods). The first time Jack was made aware of this, in fact, was after eating what he thought was a bland, spartan diet that included tuna fish for lunch, only to have the Alzheimer’s-like symptoms of his extreme sensitivity to MSG start to recur.  Canned tuna commonly contains hydrolyzed protein, one of these pernicious additives.

As for “a small percentage of people” having short-term reactions” that are “mild” and require no treatment, it turned out that many individuals suffer “adverse reactions” similar to those that plagued Jack — reactions which can range from the debilitating, such as migraines, to life-threatening, such as cardiac fibrillation.  Yet, no labeling of their presence in foods (or, for that matter, drugs) is required, despite a sustained campaign by TLC and others  to petition the FDA to require labeling. That included a suit filed in federal court by the organization and 29 independent citizens in 1995 in an attempt to force the issue, which was dismissed by the judge three years later after the FDA presented what Samuels claims were irrelevant files and refused to produce the material the plaintiffs had requested.

Manipulated research and phony placebos

The fact that the FDA has resisted all attempts to label MSG, while giving it the above noted  “generally recognized as safe” pass, is what has led Samuels to observe that while “20 years ago, we thought the FDA looked out for the interests of consumers … Today, we understand the FDA is nothing more than an extension of industry, promoting the welfare of big business while paying lip service to the protection of consumers.”

Likewise, the idea that “researchers have found no definitive evidence of a link between MSG and these symptoms” is a total misrepresentation, according to Samuels. In actuality, she charges, much of the research has been sponsored by the glutamate industry in the form of the International Glutamate Technical Committee (IGTC), which has found ways to manipulate outcomes — most notably by using placebos in supposed “double-blind studies” that actually contained either both hidden forms of MSG or aspartame, a synthetic sweetener that’s similar to MSG in its effects (both are considered “excitotoxins, which are capable of destroying certain brain cells, especially in children and older people whose blood-brain barriers have been compromised.)

As for so-called “anecdotal” reports of adverse reactions, the book cites instances in which such reports (including those from physicians) were obviously altered from their original form to reach a different conclusion.  In one telling instance, Jack was contacted by a skeptical FDA employee who mentioned to him that her daughter was in the hospital with what turned out to be symptoms that sounded very much like an MSG reaction. When, after following Jack’s advice, the symptoms disappeared, the worker admitted, “Mr. Samuels, you were right,” and actually showed him the report she was filing — which included statements from his physician — that indicated Jack’s strong sensitivity to MSG. Later on , however, when Jack paid an unannounced visit to the FDA official in charge of such reports (of which the FDA had received several thousand), he was told that the one on his particular case indicated the exact opposite.

Similar examples of the withholding of information can be found  throughout the book, ranging from negative research findings that have been ignored by both the FDA and the glutamate industry to instances in which it was quite obvious that media had been pressured to tread lightly where MSG was concerned or not cover the issue at all.

“The bottom line? Interwoven with the assertion that research says monosodium glutamate is ‘safe,’ has been the suppression of virtually all commentary or data that would say otherwise,” Samuels writes. “The FDA, the media and the medical community are essentially under glutamate industry control. The ‘virtually’ comes from the fact that the glutamate industry doesn’t yet have control of the Internet.”

Perhaps not — but the fact remains that industry propaganda has a strong online presence as well, the above-mentioned blurb from the website of the supposedly authoritative Mayo Clinic, which is the first thing that comes up when you Google “Safety of MSG,” being a typical example.

That’s why anyone who really wants to know the truth about MSG — or the true picture of the relationship between the food industry in this country and its regulators — needs to read this book, which can be purchased here.