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MSG: not all it's cooked up to be.

MSG: Not all it's cooked up to be?

It all started in 1968, with a letter to the NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL OF MEDICINE by a physician describing a strange set of symptoms he suffered after dining at a Chinese restaurant. The symptoms were numbness, weakness and palpitations; the suggested culprits were salt, cooking wine or monosodium glutamate (MSG). The report generated concurring anecdotes, experimental MSG administration fingered the flavorant and "Chinese restaurant syndrome' was born.

But recent reports in two medical journals suggest that MSG might not be the culprit, and that the syndrome is less common than its purported sufferers believe. In the current issue of FOOD AND CHEMICAL TOXICOLOGY (Vol. 24, No. 4), Richard A. Kenney of George Washington University in Washington, D.D., reports on his study of six people who said they were sensitive to Chinese restaurant food.

All six were given soft drinks with MSG and, at another time, the same drinks without MSG. Sodium was added to the MSG-free solution so that the two drinks contained an equal amount of sodium; the flavor of the soft drink masked the presence of the additive. Four of the six had no response to either drink; the other two suffered tingling of hands and warmth behind the ears with both drinks. The study, says Kenney, shows that if Chinese restaurant syndrome does indeed exist, it takes more than MSG to trigger it. However, the study doesn't completely exonerate the additive. The chance that MSG acts in concert with something else in Chinese food is still a possibility, he says.

In a separate study, Jonathan K. Wilkin of the Veterans Administration Medical Center and the Medical College of Virginia, both in Richmond, looked specifically at one of the symptoms of Chinese restaurant syndrome--face flushing. Using a Doppler velocimeter, which measures blood flow through the skin by bouncing light waves off red blood cells, he found no flushing in the faces of six men given progressive MSG doses building up to four to six times the amount in a typical bowl of wonton soup. Prior to the study, half the men had reported symptoms of Chinese restaurant syndrome.

"The bottom line,' says Wilkin, "is that MSG does not lead to flushing. It's entirely possible other spices, for example capsaicin [found in hot peppers], do.'

Wilkin's study, part of an investigation into illness-associated flushing, was supported by the Veterans Administration. The International Glutamate Technical Committee, an industry group based in Atlanta, paid the travel and hotel expenses of the six subjects of Kenney's experiments.
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Publication:Science News
Date:Sep 6, 1986
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