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New Propaganda About MSG
By Jack Samuels
Health Topics – MSG Updates
(This article appeared in Wise Traditions, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2008)
It has been our observation that whenever the safety of monosodium glutamate and the many other food ingredients that include the reactive component of monosodium glutamate (collectively referred to as “MSG”) is under pressure, the glutamate industry aggressively distributes press releases attesting to MSG’s safety. The press releases are typically slanted to give only one side of the MSG story—the industry side that praises MSG’s alleged benefits. On the other hand, press releases exposing the dangers of MSG from such groups as the Truth in Labeling Campaign never see the light of day. In swallowing the industry press releases, the media ignore the fact that for some people the ingestion of MSG is like taking poison.
Why then is the glutamate industry currently publishing articles contending that MSG is safe? We don’t know for certain, but we suspect that their product is under scrutiny now that pharmaceutical companies are actively introducing effective drugs for various diseases that, as I previously reported to you, are nothing more than glutamate blockers. How can glutamate blockers be fully effective drugs when the FDA is continually approving and supporting MSG-containing ingredients in the food arena of the FDA?
I asked some tough questions regarding MSG in a recent letter to the commissioner of the FDA, such as how can pharmaceutical companies spend more than 100 million dollars and take 10 years or more to gain approval of a pharmaceutical that contains minute amounts of its active chemical ingredient, when Senomyx, Inc. is able to market a laboratory-produced chemical that is used in minute amounts without FDA approval, merely because it will be used in food?
My letter to the commissioner of the FDA is public information. We know that the glutamate industry reviews letters submitted to the FDA. Is the glutamate industry concerned about the answers to my questions? Certainly the FDA is concerned since I have not yet received an answer to my letter.
Apologists for MSG
At the end of 2007, the glutamate industry appeared to be on one of their campaigns to convince the public that MSG is safe. Articles we know of included a small piece in Gourmet magazine and a January, 2008, article from a dietitian at Mayo Clinic.
The most deceptive and misleading, however, was the December 8-9, 2007 Weekend Journal section of The Wall Street Journal, which contained a large article entitled “A New Taste Sensation” regarding MSG. The article, by staff writer Katy McLaughlin, covered two columns of page W1 and the entire page W8. It also appeared on the Internet. If one were to read the Wall Street Journal article without knowledge of the toxicity of MSG, one would think that MSG is the best thing that has come to the food industry since the marketing of sliced bread. Admittedly, one would not object to such an article if the reporting was balanced, and the dangers of MSG were also presented. However, that was not the case. It is obvious that Ms. McLaughlin based her article on material from a glutamate organization or from a contact from one or more of these organizations.
McLaughlin’s article was oriented toward a discussion of the claimed fifth taste, umami. For years we knew of four basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. However, the glutamate industry has been actively promoting the existence of a fifth taste, umami.
Dr. Kikunae Ikeda first used the word "umami," which means savory or deliciousness in Japanese, to describe his discovery of monosodium glutamate in 1908. Through the years, monosodium glutamate has been promoted as a flavor enhancer that imparts essentially no taste of its own to a product. However, in recent years, Ajinomoto Co., Inc. (Ajinomoto), the world’s largest producer of the food ingredient “monosodium glutamate,” must have determined that if the taste of monosodium glutamate and the many processed food ingredients that included the reactive component of monosodium glutamate (“MSG”) was declared a fifth taste, it would help to legitimize their products.
For years, Ajinomoto has spent large sums of money to have umami legitimized as a fifth flavor. Finally, their efforts paid off in the year 2000, when two scientists at the University of Miami identified taste buds on the tongue that responded to the presence of glutamate in foods and, finally, the press gave wide coverage to their discovery.1 (The study was funded, in part, by Ajinomoto.) With the publicity that followed the University of Miami study, many—but not all—flavor scientists began to refer to umami as a fifth taste. People such as myself, who have a life-threatening sensitivity to MSG, question umami’s status as a fifth taste since we are not able to taste MSG. If we could, we would have little difficulty avoiding it.
In this writer’s interaction with countless MSG-sensitive people over more than 18 years, I have only communicated with three people who contended that they could tell when MSG was in a food preparation. However, their method of identification was a feeling of an electrical charge, a tingling on their tongue, rather than an actual taste.
In presenting the case that umami is “a new taste sensation,” McLaughlin interviewed well respected chefs who supported the value of “umami.” She included such names as Gary Danko of the restaurant by his name in San Francisco, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten of Jean-Georges in New York. It appears obvious to this writer that McLaughlin was directed to these chefs by the glutamate industry. Most chefs in gourmet restaurants that I have visited avoid MSG, in any form, like the plague, and attempt to use only fresh ingredients.
The Wall Street Journal article discloses that Ajinomoto reports current annual sales of monosodium glutamate in the U.S. at 95,000 metric tons (209,437,000 pounds). As shocking as that figure may be, it is important to realize that the figure does not include the “hidden” sources of MSG, that is, the sources of MSG other than the ingredient specifically called monosodium glutamate, such as hydrolyzed proteins and yeast extract. I am sure that the addition of these products more than doubles the total use of MSG in our country.
Although McLaughlin’s article is filled with misleading information that would lead the reader to believe that monosodium glutamate and other sources of MSG are wonderful and safe, she also included two totally incorrect claims of the glutamate industry in her article. She stated, based on an interview with a representative of one of the glutamate industry’s newer organizations, Ajinomoto Food Ingredients, located in Chicago, that “. . . the glutamate in food is the same as the glutamate in MSG. . .”
Not so, assuming that the Ajinomoto representative is referring to unadulterated, unprocessed, unfermented food when referring to food. Glutamic acid found in unadulterated, unprocessed, unfermented food that contains protein is only L-glutamic acid, while the glutamic acid found in our processed food supply always contains contaminants (including D-glutamic acid), some of which likely may contribute to the majority, if not all, of the adverse reactions that MSG-sensitive people experience. (See www.truthinlabeling.org/manufac.html for further detail.)
McLaughlin also stated that “. . . many studies have found that MSG doesn’t cause ill effects.” However, the fact is that peer-reviewed published epidemiological studies have concluded that more than 25 percent of the population experiences adverse reactions to MSG.
It is only badly flawed glutamate-industry-sponsored studies that pretend to have found no more adverse reactions due to MSG than due to placebos (studies in which they used aspartame—which is about 40 percent aspartic acid—or an MSG-containing ingredient in the placebos).2 Neuroscientists have found, in animal studies, that aspartic acid and glutamic acid load on the same receptors in the brain, cause identical brain lesions and neuroendocrine disorders, and act in an additive fashion.3 Based on
reports to the Truth in Labeling Campaign and a review of reports to the FDA regarding MSG and aspartame, we know that MSG-sensitive people react similarly to aspartame, and aspartame-sensitive people react similarly to MSG, providing that they ingest amounts that exceed their individual tolerances for these two food additives.
In McLaughlin’s article, it should also be noted that she explained how monosodium glutamate was produced, but conveniently failed to mention the fact that the process includes the use of bioengineered bacteria, and that at least up to 2001, the process used enzymes derived from pigs.4 The fact that Arabs, Jews and vegetarians do not consume pork did not appear to bother Ajinomoto until this fact was disclosed in Indonesia.
Make no mistake, fifth taste or not, MSG causes brain lesions and subsequent endocrine disorders,3 and adverse reactions that can vary from a simple skin rash or flushing to debilitating and life-threatening conditions such as migraine headaches,5,6 obesity,7 diabetes,8 asthma,9 heart irregularities, 10,11 seizures,12,13 and mood disorders.14
More Sales Promotions
It apparently was not enough for The Wall Street Journal to help promote MSG. Evidently, Ajinomoto asked the publication to also help promote one of their new products. The product I refer to is made by Senomyx and is a chemical developed to mimic the same flavor enhancement as MSG, apparently using the same neurological pathways in the body as does MSG.
In about the middle of 2007, Ajinomoto expanded an agreement they had with Senomyx, Inc. to market the Senomyx MSG replacement product in the United States and Canada. Formerly, Ajinomoto was authorized to market the Senomyx MSG-enhancer in Japan and Asia.
As previously reported, Senomyx’s product has excited many major companies in the processed food industry because it is so powerful that the amount needed in food is small enough to not require approval by any governmental agency. Furthermore, when used in processed food, it will be described on the label as “artificial flavor” or “artificial flavoring,” label descriptors that are considered, through an act of Congress, to be proprietary and therefore not subject to disclosure. Consequently, the presence of Senomyx will never be disclosed on a product label—unless an individual company decides to do so—thereby achieving the “clean label” food processors have long desired for MSG-containing foods.
My wife, Adrienne Samuels, PhD, wrote to Katy McLaughlin, of The Wall Street Journal, as well as to the editor of the newspaper, and the editor of the Weekend Section to express her concerns regarding the article. The only response she received was from Katy McLaughlin.
In Ms. McLaughlin’s reply to Adrienne, she indicated that her article was appropriate because she fully identified where her information came from. For example, she stated, “Some of the biggest promoters of the idea that there are umami-rich alternatives to MSG in many foods we eat are MSG makers themselves.” She went on to say that “all research that was funded in part by Ajinomoto or other ingredient companies was identified. I feel the story was very clear in explaining where information came from.”
Although Adrienne asked that The Wall Street Journal write a follow-up article in which they would disclose the dangers of MSG, she received no response to this request. So much for balanced reporting.
The only semblance of balance in The Wall Street Journal article was the statement that McLaughlin contacted Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) to ask his opinion on the MSG issue. CSPI has gained the reputation of being a strong advocate for consumer health and is highly respected by most members of Congress—respect obviously fueled, at least in part, by regular “lobbying” visits by CSPI’s legal affairs director, Bruce Silverglade.
Jacobson stated, “I don’t see normal amounts of MSG as posing a risk to the vast majority of people.” Jacobson must clearly know that MSG is a problem for a large percentage of the population, but he obviously must be careful of what he says of MSG toxicity since he has taken a strong position promoting the use of lowfat and fat-free foods, foods that, in most cases, would not be palatable without the addition of some MSG. Furthermore, Jacobson has a reputation among activists on individual food issues to downplay issues on which CSPI is not the leader.
Many years ago, the Truth in Labeling Campaign approached CSPI, led by its executive director, Michael Jacobson, to ask for their help and support in making people aware of the toxicity of MSG and to require full disclosure of MSG on food labels. We approached this nonprofit agency because the agency is well known in Congress, and well known by many health-conscious people.
At that time, the people at CSPI claimed to be well aware of the dangers of MSG, and gave us the impression that they would be supportive of our work. However, as time passed, Michael Jacobson and his staff began to work to defeat our cause. In one case, a respected independent journalist was going to cover testimony at a Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) meeting organized to hear testimony on the subject of the safety of MSG in food. He told us he was going to prepare an extensive article on MSG for publication in one or more respected magazines and/or newspapers. However, on the day before the meeting, the journalist called CSPI’s Michael Jacobson for his thoughts about MSG, and Jacobson told the journalist that MSG was a non-issue and that he would be wasting his time by attending the meeting. He apparently stated it strongly since the reporter called me that evening to cancel his coverage of the MSG issue. (After all that, we found that the first speaker at the FASEB meeting, who spoke of the hazards of MSG, was a CSPI staff member.)
On another occasion when we believed that the FDA was moving toward action on the MSG issue, a staff member of CSPI wrote to advise the FDA that more research on the subject needed to be done before any action should be taken on the issue. Their letter totally ignored the fact that there are large numbers of peer-reviewed studies that have concluded that MSG is dangerous while, at the same time, studies supporting the safety of MSG are industry-funded and flawed to the point of being worthless.
It is of interest to note that all during this time, CSPI was championing the use of lowfat and fat-free foods, foods that, with relatively few exceptions, need some form of MSG to make them palatable. Also, CSPI newsletters regularly promote foods that contain “hidden” forms of MSG with no mention of its presence.
Perhaps Jacobson will better understand the scope and severity of the MSG issue if every MSG-sensitive person who subscribes to his newsletter immediately cancels his or her subscription.
Natural versus Manufactured Umami
Ajinomoto Co., Inc., the company that is promoting the idea that “umami” is the fifth taste, has known for years that it is L-glutamic acid that causes a perception of enhanced flavor. Consequently, in developing patents for the production of their product, monosodium glutamate, they have dismissed approaches that contain an excess of contaminants because contaminants would not contribute to flavor enhancement. The monosodium glutamate that they currently produce is advertised as having less than 1 percent contaminants.
In the 18 years during which the Truth in Labeling Campaign has extensively studied the subject of monosodium glutamate and the many hidden forms of the reactive component of monosodium glutamate, we have concluded that there is likely more than one biochemical mechanism that causes adverse reactions in MSG-sensitive people. However, we believe that the most common reason for adverse reactions may be an intolerance for one or more of the contaminants that invariably are produced when glutamic acid is freed from protein through adulteration, processing and/or fermentation.
If a food ingredient is untreated, unprocessed and unfermented, even if it contains free glutamic acid, it will only contain L-glutamic acid because higher organisms contain only L-glutamic acid. There will be no contaminants. Consequently, MSG-sensitive people can typically eat tomatoes off of the vine even though they contain free glutamic acid (umami), providing that they are not overripe, and cheeses such as Reggiano Parmesan that are made from raw milk rather than pasteurized milk or milk that has been cultured, and that are made from rennet rather than enzymes. Give the same person a domestic cheese made from pasteurized milk, cultured milk, and/or enzymes and an adverse reaction will often follow. (Possibly, any processed free glutamic acid (MSG) from fermentation of Reggiano Parmesan cheese is below the tolerance level of most MSG-sensitive people.)
Senomyx is a young biotechnology company based in San Diego that creates chemicals for the food and beverage industry to trick the taste buds into sensing a flavor, such as sweet or salty, when it is not really there. Quite different from developing artificial flavors that aim to mimic real flavors—a technology usually cursed with miserable failures—Senomyx’s research focuses solely on discovering chemicals that turn receptors that monitor taste on and off in the mouth. Using information from the human genome sequence, Senomyx has identified hundreds of taste receptors and currently owns 113 patents on their discoveries. Senomyx collaborates with seven of the world’s largest food companies to further their research and to fund development of their technology. Ajinomoto Co., Inc., Kraft Foods, Cadbury Schweppes, Campbell Soup Company, The Coca-Cola Company, Firmenich SA, Nestlé SA, and Solae all collaborate with Senomyx, but decline to specify where its additives may be found in their many food categories.
Senomyx’s products work by amplifying the intensity of other flavors, such as the salt in Campbell’s soups. The soup maker can reduce the amount of sodium in each can by about one third with the addition of Senomyx’s chemical, and then proudly label the soup “low sodium.” Because very small amounts of the additive are used (reportedly less than 1 part per million) Senomyx’s chemical compounds will not appear on labels, but will fall under the broad category of “artificial flavors.” For the same reason, the company’s chemicals have sped past the FDA’s safety approval process usually required for food additives. Senomyx’s MSG-enhancer earned the Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) status from the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association, an industry-funded organization, in less than 18 months, which included three months of tests on rats. With public health officials calling for consumers to limit salt and sugar in foods, food manufacturers are scrambling to find ways to reformulate their concoctions with less of the two ingredients they depend upon most for mass taste appeal. Collaboration with Senomyx seems to be the magic bullet: a sodium- and sugar-reduced product with no taste change, and a politically correct “cleaned up” label.
With questions of future safety of the additives now left largely up to chance, Senomyx’s concoctions are quietly finding their way into the global packaged food stream. In fact, according to Senomyx’s website, it “received a positive review by the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives, which determined that there were no safety concerns with the use of the Company’s savory flavor ingredients in foods. The positive assessment by JECFA is expected to expedite regulatory approvals in a number of countries, particularly those that do not have independent regulatory approval systems.”
Two of Senomyx’s newest innovations include a Cool Flavor Program, which enhances cooling, menthol sensations, and a Bitter Blocker Program. According to Senomyx’s website, the company is collaborating with Solae, the international soy ingredients supplier, “to develop new bitter blockers that better modulate and control bitterness in certain soy-based products.” Senomyx has identified the receptors in the mouth responsible for sensing bitter taste (nature’s way of warning us against ingesting poison) and developed a chemical additive to knock out these receptors when eaten with hydrolyzed soy protein and other soy derivatives.
Senomyx’s revenues for the last quarter of 2007 were up 87 percent from the same period in 2006, stock prices are rising and the corporate outlook for 2008 is glowing. CEO Kent Snyder reports that corporate goals include “continuing to achieve significant progress in all of our discovery and development programs such as regulatory approval for our S2383 sucralose enhancer and selection of a sucrose enhancer for regulatory development. We also expect expanded commercialization of food products containing our savory flavor ingredients and additional new business development accomplishments.”
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14. Reports to Truth in Labeling Campaign.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2008.
About the Author
Jack Samuels is a graduate of Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, where
he received both a Bachelor of Arts degree with a major in biology and a
Master of Science in Hospital Administration degree. Mr. Samuels is
co-founder and president of the Truth-in-Labeling Campaign (TLC) (www.truthinlabeling.org), a former vice
president of Nutrition for Optimal Health Association (NOHA), a former member
of the advisory board of the former National Organization Mobilized to Stop
Glutamates (NOMSG), and a member of the honorary board of The Weston A. Price