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."