MSG: Mmm So Good

Scrutiny

On July 18, 1984, James Huberty walked into a McDonald's in San Ysidro, Calif. with an overcoat and several semi-automatic weapons. He proceeded to kill 21 people and wound 15 more. Later, he was cut down by police sharpshooters stationed outside the restaurant.

Two years later to the day, Huberty's widow walked into a California courtroom armed with a lawsuit and an explanation for her husband's crime. She claimed it was neither her husband nor the guns that were responsible for the mass murder. Instead, Huberty said that McDonald's and the food it serves triggered her husband's madness and, therefore, she was entitled to $5 million in damages.

In other words, people don't kill people, Mrs. Huberty said. Guns don't kill people. But MSG--the chemical flavor enhancer found in Big Macs and many other restaurant dishes--does.

Huberty's argument--which did not win over the court--might, at first, seem like an isolated case of nuttiness. But all over the country, in places like Concord, N.H., Kansas City, Mo., and Santa Fe, N.M., anti-MSG activists are making similar claims.

While scientists say there is no indisputable link between MSG and any particular medical problem, activists allege that the additive can cause any number of maladies--including headaches, lockjaw, stress, skin rashes, irregular heartbeats, asthma, diarrhea, infertility and multiple sclerosis.

Whatever their scientific validity, these complaints are giving people whose livelihoods depend on MSG, well, headaches. After a recent flurry of ominous news reports, the Food and Drug Administration is promising new regulations on the additive, and some observers wonder whether an MSG crackdown is in the offing.

In Harvard Square, where Chinese and other restaurants are as common as bicycles in the streets of Beijing, such a crackdown is viewed with fear. Restaurant owners say limiting MSG would seriously undermine the pleasurable experience of a Square meal. MSG intensifies the sensation sparked by the union of food and taste bud.

MSG is everywhere. In the General Gao's chicken at Chef Chow's and won ton soup at the Yenching restaurant. In the tuna fish, nacho cheese and any number of other products (it's frequently disguised as "flavoring") on the shelves at Christie's. It even shows up as an active ingredient in the Campbell's chicken noodle soup one buys only for sick roommates.

Harvard Square has people who will sell you LSD, coke, crack, weed, 'shrooms, speed or ice. But in the Square, the drug of choice is MSG.

Monosodium Glutamate is a version of glutamic acid, an amino acid present in most proteins. It has been a staple of cooking in Asia for 2,000 years, and was originally produced from seaweed. In China, it is called, depending on the region, mei-jing, wei-jing or ve-tsin.

However, the world's largest producer, Ajinomoto, Inc. of Japan (the name literally means, "MSG, Inc."), now relies on a process involving the fermentation of molasses to produce the additive.

Our ubiquitous friend gives a tasty kick to those most comfy of comfort foods, Cambell's chicken soup. According to the Institute of FoodTechnologists, the average American consumes abouthalf a gram of MSG every day.

There is no scientific evidence that MSG causesany medical problem whatsoever, and according tothe Health Studies Collegium, an independent firm,only 3.8 percent of the population considersitself MSG sensitive. But some medical expertssuspect the additive of being a mild neurotoxinwhich can destroy nerve tissue in the brain andelsewhere.

"It's my belief that MSG is definitely onetriggering factor for headaches," says MarjorieWinters, director of research and education at theMichigan Head Pain and Neurological Institute inAnn Arbor. "But it's hard to prove. It's not anallergic response. The evidence is all anecdotal."

Chinese restaurant owners say that the mediahave unfairly exaggerated the effects of MSG andhurt their businesses. The owners note that whilehundreds of foods, both foreign and domestic,contain MSG, symptoms linked to the additive arealways dubbed the "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome."

"For the most part, MSG is an American-madeproduct," says Perry V. Wong, who has owned andoperated the Young and Yee restaurant on ChurchSt. for the past 33 years. "Campbell's soup hasMSG in it."

It's been eight years since Harry Chen, themanager of Chef Chow's on Church St., left Beijingin large part, he says, "to make a buck." The MSGscare is just one of many ways a racist countryhas conspired-- unsuccessfully, he addspointedly--to undermine Chinese businesses.

"It's racism," Chen says. "That's what we can'tunderstand. It's very hard. The majority ofChinese people in the U.S. depend on Chineserestaurants for support, for money, for jobs."

Wong, the Young and Yee owner, agrees thatAmerican close-mindedness has unfairly hurtChinese restaurants.

"It goes back to the old Western mentality--yourun down the opposition any way you can and usethe public's lack of understanding to createfear," Wong says.

Chen says Chinese establishments are singledout for criticism of their MSG use over otherAsian restaurants for two reasons: the comparativesuccess of the Chinese and the tense politicalsituation between the U.S. and China.

"Japanese noodle soup has a ton of MSG," Chensays. "It's in Korean food. But only the Chineserestaurants get a bad name."

Chen says he accepts requests from customersfor no MSG, but hates to honor them. After all,taste is Chef Chow's franchise.

"We do what we can do," says Chen of the MSGissue. "But we have to keep the food tasty. If thefood's not tasty, we have no business."

"With some foods, if you ask for no MSG, you'vegot no taste," he continues. "In that case, youshould just go have a salad. I believe what Ibelieve--the tasty food is what keeps peoplecoming in here."

According to Chen, only "0.1 percent" ofcustomers actually complain about health problemsfrom the additive. And those people, Chenbelieves, just aren't tough enough for Chinesefood.

"I think it's getting to be less than 0.1percent," he says. "If people care about it, theyshouldn't go to Chinese restaurants."

Wong says that regulations on MSG wouldunfairly penalize Cantonese establishments likehis own, which must rely on MSG as a "pickerupper."

"This is a democracy," says Wong. "You shouldhave a competitive playing field."

Wong adds that MSG represents only a tinyproportion of the spices in his dishes. He leads avisitor into his kitchen, and points out agigantic bowl of broth, sitting next to smallerbowls with salt, garlic and the white crystals ofmonosodium glutamate. "This is broth," he says. "Agood restaurant must have broth. In this big bowl,I put only a pinch of MSG."

And MSG is no more villainous to the body thanpollen.

"Some people are sensitive to certainingredients," Wong says, growing emphatic. "Somepeople are allergic to MSG, for example," he adds.Then Wong picks a crab out of a bowl and, shovingit in this reporter's face, its talons danglingdangerously just millimeters from his nose, hesays defiantly, "Some people re allergic to crabs,too."

The manager of the Hong Kong restaurant did notanswer repeated requests for an interview. But asource in the kitchen there says the restauranthas been using MSG since it brought in a new cookfrom Marriott earlier this year.

For the chefs, adding MSG is seen as an unfairadvantage used only by the less competent gourmet,like throwing a spitball or spiking the punch.

T Lung, owner and manager of the YenchingRestaurant on Mass. Ave. for 19 years, says onlypoor chefs resort to using lots of MSG. And hischef, being a good chef, uses little more than apinch.

"Some Chinese restaurants use MSG a lot becausethey don't have confidence in the food," saysLung. "In some Chines restaurants, the chef isn'ttoo good. He doesn't believe in himself."

The Chinese restaurateurs say they aren't theonly ones who use MSG. It's in the soups andbroths at local Korean, Japanese, Thai, Indian andItalian restaurants. But only the Chineseestablishments in the Square own up to any MSGuse.

In fact, officials at the Bombay Club, theDelhi Darbar, Cafe of India, Skewers and Charlie'sKitchen all claim not to use MSG in their food.Jim Connolly, a regional spokesperson forMcDonald's, refused to comment.

"Of course, we do not use MSG," says themanager of the Bombay Cafe, Vinood Kapoor,affecting the air of a New York City maitre'd. "Wedo not use it because it is no good. We makeeverything here from scratch, all natural."

For some eateries, ignorance of MSG is bliss.

"MSG?" asks Balbir Singh, owner of Delhi Darbarand Cafe of India. "What's that?"

And when asked about what effect MSG hasB-10Harry Chen, manager of Chef Chow's