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Why Americans Still Avoid Msg, Even Though Its ‘Health Effects’ Have Been Debunked

On April 4, 1968, a biomedical researcher wrote a letter that would forever change how America eats. In it, Robert Ho Man Kwok described a strange illness he contracted at Chinese restaurants — specifically those that cooked with the flavoring MSG. MSG was popular in the United States at the time. But when Kwok’s letter hit the New England Journal of Medicine, the ingredient’s fortunes reversed: Consumers spurned it. Food-makers axed it. Scientists threw themselves into critical MSG research. Fifty years later, 4 in 10 U.S. consumers still say they actively avoid MSG, according to the International Food Information Council, an industry-funded nonprofit that advocates for science in nutrition. That’s despite repeat studies that have shown MSG does not produce numbness, weakness or heart palpitations, the symptoms Kwok experienced.

“Sometimes it’s easier to put a ‘free from X’ label on something than to actually educate consumers about it,” said Lisa Watson, the spokeswoman for the Glutamate Association, an MSG trade group. “Personally I wish food companies would take the longer view.” In an effort to push back, Watson and her member companies regularly meet with chefs and nutritionists to talk up the merits of MSG. She has been heartened by statistics that show younger consumers are not quite as adverse to the product as their parents were. She has been glad to see media outlets run debunks of the MSG myth, and celebrity chefs, such as Hugh Acheson and David Chang, vocally embrace the seasoning. The “foodie movement” also has revived interest in cooking that shows off science, said Sarah Tracy, an adjunct professor at UCLA’s Institute for Society and Genetics who will publish a history of MSG this year. While Tracy isn’t entirely willing to give the seasoning her seal of approval — it is being researched for its possible role in promoting weight gain, she points out — she sees other cooks and consumers embracing the seasoning as a sign of their culinary savviness.

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