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A restaurant experiment

Posted Jun 19 2009 5:41pm
Speaking of Asian cuisine, last week’s episode of Food Detectives found our intrepid food scientists conducting an experiment at a Chinese restaurant. In order to prove that MSG doesn’t cause allergic reactions, they surreptitiously added MSG to the meals of half the diners, while the other half of the plates went MSG-free.

When the research subjects learned that the food had been spiked with MSG, some confirmed they were experiencing headaches, nausea, and/or stomach aches. Only then was it revealed that not all the meals had been adulterated. It turned out that five of the diners whose food did not contain the additive had complained of symptoms.

This just goes to show that MSG sensitivity is nothing but a myth, according to the show’s host, Ted Allen. “Is the MSG responsible for her headache, or is it all in her head?” he asked rhetorically.

MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is a flavor enhancer that imparts the savory taste (sometimes called umami ) that is associated with meat, cheese, and other protein-rich foods. Originally MSG was extracted from seaweed, but these days it’s concocted in a laboratory. The additive has been designated safe by the FDA. However, there have been many, many anecdotal reports of bad reactions, including dizziness and nausea, headaches, heart palpitations, and a numbing, tingling sensation of the tongue and lips.

MSG isn’t just confined to Chinese restaurants; the chemical is hidden in many processed foods. On product labels, synonyms for MSG include autolyzed yeast, yeast extract, and hydrolyzed protein. For more information on reactions to MSG and how to spot ingredients that may contain it, visit

Whether or not MSG is safe, the question ought to be, why do we need it? Processed food is already riddled with additives -- what’s the point in throwing in another one just to pump up the flavor? Can't the flavor of food stand on its own?

The real outrage is the implication on the part of food manufacturers, restaurant chefs, and for that matter, Ted Allen and the Food Detectives, that what we don’t know won’t hurt us. It's unfortunate but true: we've arrived at the point where eating commercially prepared food is like rolling the dice.
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