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Doctors’ Final Word: MSG Doesn’t Sicken Eaters; So What Does?

March 23, 1994

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Some doctors say they’ve debunked the theory that the flavor enhancer MSG makes people sick, but they can’t find another culprit because their patients don’t believe them.

″They’re never going to get the proper treatment if they hang their hat on MSG,″ said Dr. Daryl Altman of Allergy Information Services in Lynbrook, N.Y.

MSG, or monosodium glutamate, has been used in Oriental cooking for nearly 2,000 years but also is commonly found in everything from tomato sauce to snack chips. It is a version of glutamic acid, one of 20 amino acids naturally present in nearly all protein.

In 1968, a doctor who experienced temporary numbness and weakness after eating Chinese food labeled the symptoms Chinese restaurant syndrome and speculated that MSG, cooking wine or excess salt could be to blame.

Early studies said MSG was the culprit, but in 1980 scientists began reversing that opinion. Now the largest study of the issue says MSG is innocent.

An Australian chemist, Dr. Len Tarasoff of the University of Western Sydney, randomly fed 71 people various doses of MSG and a placebo for five days. He told participants he was studying ingredients in a new soft drink, and fed them either capsules or a grapefruit-like drink before a standardized breakfast.

Fifteen percent reported some symptoms after ingesting the MSG - but so did 14 percent after taking the placebo, said his report in the British journal Food and Chemical Toxicology.

″It’s a very good study and does suggest MSG given in the course of an ordinary meal doesn’t cause a reaction,″ said Dr. Dean Metcalfe of the National Institutes of Health.

But an unknown number of Americans still blame MSG for symptoms ranging from headaches and flushing to numbness and dizziness.

″Doctors didn’t know why I got dizzy headaches,″ said Anna Davis of Washington after insisting that a Chinese restaurant put none of the flavor enhancer in her order. ″I stopped eating MSG and now I don’t. End of story.″

A group of patients asked the Food and Drug Administration to require more stringent labeling of MSG in foods. An FDA advisory committee considering their complaints was supposed to decide the issue this month, but has postponed its report until May. Among other things, it is looking at the new Australian study.

Researchers, meanwhile, are having trouble finding out what else could be causing these people’s complaints.

″It’s frustrating,″ said Dr. Steve Taylor, head of food science at the University of Nebraska. ″You can’t make them come into the clinic and get tested ... so they’re not getting help for a real problem.″

Altman fears some people who blame MSG for chronic symptoms could have physical problems, from stress to lupus, that are going untreated. But such patients routinely drop out of her studies when she says she’ll test them to rule out MSG.

She tested 26 people who said they were MSG-sensitive and discovered a high rate of allergy to mushrooms, soybeans, green pepper and seafood.

Taylor says hydrolized vegetable protein, a common ingredient in processed foods, should be examined. It’s made from soybeans and wheat, two common allergens.

Metcalfe believes the problem is a combination of things, from allergens to overindulging in spicy food to histamines. Histamines are molecules that in very high concentrations cause food poisoning in fish, but they’re naturally present in dozens of foods - particularly Oriental foods, wines and cheeses.

″These kinds of things need to be looked at,″ he said. ″There’s always some initial clue to the discovery of a problem, and it often comes from anecdotal observations.″