It’s safe for most, a real headache for some.

By: Elaine Blume, Health & Fitness

A few years after coming to the United States from Hong Kong. Robert Ho Man Kwok noticed that he suffered from strange and unpleasant sensations whenever he ate at a favorite Chinese restaurant. First, the back of his neck, and then his arms and back would become numb. He would also feel weak and have heart palpitations. The symptoms began 15 or 20 minutes after he started eating and last for about two hours.

Because he was a physician, Kwok reported the unusual cluster of symptoms in a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine. The letter evoked a lively response.

Chinese Restaurant Syndrome (CRS) was, it appeared, a common complaint. One fellow sufferer, neurologist Herber Schaumberg of Albert Einstein College of Medicine, undertook to study the reaction . In experiments with 56 volunteers, he pinpointed monosodium glutamate (MSG), the widely used flavor enhancer, as the cause. CRS symptoms included burning sensations in the upper body, and feeling of tightness and pressure around the cheeks, jaws and chest.

Soups, Schaumberg found, were particularly likely to provoke an attack, because they are usually eaten on an empty stomach, while they also contain a large amount of MSG> Researchers have since noted that women are more likely to experience the syndrome than men. And although one preliminary study has suggested that individuals suffering from vitamin B-6 deficiency are more likely to experience CRS, almost anyone will react if exposed to a high enough dose of MSG. Caffeine helps counter the effects of MSG. So if you’re susceptible, try drinking coffee or tea along with your Chinese meal.

The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) considers the flavor enhancer to be “generally recognized as safe,” and the Glutamate Association, which represents the MSG industry, claims that “extensive research clearly supports the statement that monosodium glutamate is safe for humans.” But, some people respond to the additive with migraine headaches that may last for many hours. Also, scientists have reported that MSG may cause asthma and temporary, but potentially dangerous, disturbances in heart rhythm. And at least one physician is convinced that it can trigger bouts of serious depression.

MSG is a form of glutamic acid, one of the amino acids that make up all proteins. Large amounts of glutamic acid are present in food, bound up in the proteins. In this state the chemical has neither the flavor-enhancing properties nor the adverse health effects of free glutamate. Added glutamate acts to improve the flavor of meats, poultry, seafood, and some vegetables. Exactly how it works, however, is a mystery. Despite the fact that most people associate MSG with Chinese restaurants, it is actually added to many different types of processed and restaurant foods, including canned and packaged soups, bouillon cubes, and TV dinners. About 80 million pounds of the additive, all imported, are sold each year.

In 1970, a committee of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) with strong legal ties concluded that ordinary levels of MSG in food would be unlikely to cause problems in human infants. The committee argued that the so-called blood-brain barrier limits the passage of excess glutamate into the infant’s brain. Nevertheless, because it could find no evidence “ that the usage (of MSG) confers any benefit to the child,” the committee recommended “that MSG not be added to foods specifically designed for infants.” Even before the NAS report was published, public pressure forced the baby food industry to stop using MSG. Perhaps for this reason, the FDA has never banned MSG from use in baby food.

But, MSG may pose dangers for adults as well as infants. George Schwartz, a Santa Fe clinical researcher and expert in emergency medicine, believes that in some people the additive causes subtle but serious psychiatric effects. “I see many causes of irritability, depression, and other mood changes that patients can reproduce at will by consuming MSG,” Schwartz says. In 1981, a team of Australian researchers reported that two asthma patients developed life-threatening reactions when challenged with MSG.

Since processed and restaurant foods contain so many different ingredients, it can be difficult to identify the cause of a bad reaction. If you suspect that you are allergic to MSG, you should check with an allergist, or test yourself by systematically excluding MSG from you diet, and then later reintroducing it, that simple test will defiantly prove your case. “Many people enjoy MSG without any ill effects, “ says Santa Fe’s Schwartz. “There’s no reason why they shouldn’t go on enjoying it. But, some others are highly sensitive to it. Those individuals need to be very aware that MSG may be affecting them adversely while they do not expect it.”

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