M.S.G. scare as a prototype
Looking into the rearview mirror may be an especially helpful way to understand the silliness of current health scares associated with nutrition, says Alan Levinovitz in “The Gluten Lie.”
Mr. Levinovitz begins his book with a brief recounting of the decades long scare, fading in popular consciousness only recently, related to the food additive monosodium glutamate.
With the 1968 publication of a letter in the New England Journal of Medicine appearing to implicate M.S.G. with a host of symptoms, a cascade of news coverage followed. A New York Times article asked what was causing “Chinese restaurant syndrome,” and soon afterward the scientific journal Nature published an article definitively blaming M.S.G. Bolstered by the Nature article, a young activist named Ralph Nader embarked on a campaign to have M.S.G. removed from baby food and to eliminate the additive, a sodium salt originally extracted from seaweed in the early 1900s, from the Food and Drug Administration’s list of ingredients Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS).
Even without strong supportive scientific data, fears of M.S.G. only grew in the 1970s and 1980s. Two books were published by medical doctors linking M.S.G. to a range of maladies. George R. Schwartz, an emergency medicine specialist, published a book in 1988 connecting the ingredients to AIDS, A.L.S, Alzheimer’s, cancer and many other conditions, including obesity. Eight years later, neurosurgeon Russell L. Blaylock published a book adding autism to Dr. Schwartz’s list and described M.S.G. as toxic and addictive.
In the years that followed, numerous scientific studies failed to demonstrate that M.S.G. caused the numerous symptoms to which it had been linked. A 2013 study suggested M.S.G. symptom complex is extremely rare even among those who have reached the conclusion they are sensitive to the ingredient.
Still, belief in the toxicity of M.S.G. persists, “despite the repeated debunkings,” Mr. Levinovitz says.
It is difficult to read about the attacks on M.S.G. and not be reminded of two modern-day versions of the Blaylock-Schwartz duo — Dr. Davis of “Wheat Belly” and David Perlmutter, the neurologist who penned “Grain Brain.” Given the quality of their science, the earlier authors ended up about where one might expect — Dr. Schwartz was suspended in 2006 for illegal prescription of narcotics, and Dr. Blaylock is “a marginal figure in the anti-vaccine movement,” Mr. Levinovitz says.