If you stopped eating gluten, you’d feel way fucking better all day. Whenever you feel shitty, that’s because of gluten. It’s just true. Gluten’s a vague term. It’s something used to categorize things that are bad. You know, calories. That’s a gluten. Fat, that’s a gluten.
—SETH ROGEN IN THIS IS THE END
Once Upon a Toxin
More than 100 million Americans want to avoid gluten, and they are in good company. Oprah’s twenty-one-day cleansing diet is gluten-free. Bill Clinton’s personal weight-loss guru, Dr. Mark Hyman, has asked if modern “super-gluten” is a dietary demon. In the best-selling book Grain Brain, neurologist David Perlmutter argues that it causes dementia and Alzheimer’s. And in Wheat Belly (over 1 million copies sold), cardiologist William Davis includes a section titled, in all-caps, “BREAD IS MY CRACK!” Dietary demon, indeed.
It’s hard to believe that twenty years ago virtually no one, including health enthusiasts, had even heard of gluten. Bestselling diet books omitted it entirely. Back then, the nation’s latest dietary demon had a different name: monosodium glutamate.
Where menus and labels now advertise foods as “Gluten Free,” restaurant owners and manufacturers once had to reassure their customers with a different promise: NO MSG. True, MSG seems safe—it’s a sodium salt first extracted from seaweed by Japanese scientists in 1908, and a staple seasoning in the cuisine of long-lived East Asians. But health-conscious Americans knew better. Everyone had read the newspapers and watched the TV exposés, which revealed the crystalline flavor enhancer as a deadly poison. By the mid-1980s, it was common knowledge that MSG caused devastating migraines, irritable bowel syndrome, and a suite of other symptoms. Still worse, some authorities believed it caused brain damage and chronic disease. Only fools and Chinese people would risk their health by consuming such a potent toxin.
The MSG scare began on April 4, 1968, with a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine from Chinese American physician Robert Ho Man Kwok. In the letter, titled “Chinese-Restaurant Syndrome,” Kwok reported that after eating in Chinese restaurants he regularly experienced numbness, general weakness, and palpitation. His colleagues had suggested he was allergic to soy sauce, but Kwok knew that couldn’t be right. He often used soy sauce in his own home cooking with no ill effect.
“The cause is obscure,” he admitted, before identifying three likely suspects: cooking wine (“because the syndrome resembles to some extent the effects of alcohol”), monosodium glutamate, and the high levels of sodium in restaurant Chinese food.
An avalanche of responses poured into the NEJM. Everyone had experienced the syndrome! In May, the journal printed no less than ten of these letters, many written by highly credentialed physicians, each endorsing a different cause of “Chinese restaurant syndrome.” One suggested “muscarine poisoning” related to the ingestion of imported mushrooms. Another singled out “the elusive tannins of tea” and “frozen-food processing of Chinese vegetables.” Terrifyingly, one neurologist recounted treating a stroke in an otherwise healthy patient—inexplicable, save for the fact that three hours earlier the man had eaten Chinese food.
Utterly convinced by their research, the authors of the Nature article sought out a young lawyer-advocate named Ralph Nader, with whom they campaigned to have MSG removed from baby food and stricken from the Food and Drug Administration’s Generally Recognized as Safe list. In October 1969, Gerber, Heinz, and Squibb Beech-Nut caved to enormous public pressure and announced that their baby food would no longer be made with MSG. And on April 4, 1970, two years to the day from the publication of Kwok’s letter, the National Research Council ruled that MSG was “fit for human consumption but not necessarily by infants,” a cryptic pronouncement that only heightened safety concerns.
For millions of sufferers, the “discovery” of MSG sensitivity came as a tremendous relief. Headaches, upset stomachs, aching joints, cold sweats, colicky babies—finally, the mystery of endless recurring ailments had been solved. And the solution made sense. Most domestic cooks were unfamiliar with monosodium glutamate, a foreign, scary-sounding chemical. Food industry spokespeople were calling for calm deliberation—proof positive they were hiding something big. After all, if there was no need for concern, why did they go ahead and remove MSG from baby food?
But amid the outcry against MSG, science marched on, ever skeptical of snap judgments and anecdotal evidence. After many rigorous studies, the panic proved unfounded. In contrast to popular belief, clinical trials strongly suggested that MSG did not produce symptoms like migraines. Today, food allergy experts believe the overwhelming majority of reactions to MSG are psychological, not physiological. According to the 2013 edition of Food Allergy: Adverse Reactions to Foods and Food Additives, a comprehensive reference manual for hospitals and private practitioners, there is little doubt about “the rarity of the MSG symptom complex even among individuals who believe themselves to be MSG sensitive.” In other words: your MSG headaches are probably just headaches.
But when it comes to food sensitivities, people are incredibly unwilling to question self-diagnoses. No one wants to think that the benefits they experienced from going gluten-free or eliminating MSG might be psychological. That would mean the problem was psychological to begin with, and there’s something intensely disturbing about the notion that we can make ourselves sick. Psychology, not physiology, becomes the mechanism of illness, and the individual displaces bad food as the source of blame for their suffering. This can make us feel vulnerable, stupid, and weak, as though we have the choice to be better but lack the mental acuity to manage it. On top of all that, it’s hard not to feel like a psychological explanation trivializes your condition—hence the expression “It’s only in your head.”
And so the myth of MSG sensitivity lives on. Among those who believe they react to MSG, the long-standing conclusion of allergists borders on heresy and often provokes extreme anger. Here are two representative responses to a 2014 online essay, “Is MSG Misunderstood?,” published on Livestrong.com, a popular source of health information:
This is like saying the devil is good. I went to a Chinese restaurant for my son’s birthday and after feasting when we came out, he as [sic] disoriented and ripped of [sic] the rearview mirror. You cannot rehabilitate MSG so just stop or I will stop reading your blog.
The anger in these comments reflects the unwavering faith people place in their own dietary diagnoses, a faith that is often misplaced. Figuring out the effects of one’s diet is enormously complicated. For most of us, cutting out MSG or going gluten-free involves broader changes in how we approach food. That makes it difficult to sort out what caused what. Your headaches went away—but was it the absence of MSG or an increase in home-cooked meals? Did you lose weight by going gluten-free or by eating less fast food? To complicate matters further, discovering a dietary solution feels empowering, and empowerment itself can lead to significant positive physiological changes. Unless we can be absolutely certain of our self-diagnosis, it’s best to keep an open mind about alternative explanations.
But admitting uncertainty is hard, particularly uncertainty about how our own bodies work. So instead, we lie to ourselves. We lie to ourselves about our ability to recall symptoms and their intensity—the fact of having had a headache, say, and its severity. We lie to ourselves about our ability to recall what we’ve eaten, a perennial problem for researchers who rely on self-reported food consumption data. (Can you really remember how much kung pao chicken you ate two weeks ago? Did you eat more of the vegetables, the chicken, or the peanuts?) Finally, we lie to ourselves about our ability to accurately diagnose the relationship between what we consume and our experience of physical and mental symptoms.
Scientists universally acknowledge the prevalence of these lies. They are the reason for placebo-controlled studies of food and medicine—like those conducted on MSG—which substitute a neutral substance for the substance being tested. Placebo-controlled studies are necessary to distinguish actual physiological effects from the power of positive (or negative) thinking. Antidepressants—and gluten-free diets—can make us feel better just because we think they will. And MSG can make us sick for the same reason.
That’s why personal testimonials cannot, in themselves, establish the efficacy of a drug or diet. Just imagine if being super-convinced that something worked made it a legitimate treatment. Blessed water from the fountain at Lourdes would count as highly effective medicine. Exorcism would be a great way to deal with behavioral problems. And modern medical science as we know it wouldn’t exist.
Everyone recognizes that expectations can shape experiences and distort memories. Yet while most of us recognize how self-deception shapes stories about supernatural healing, we are less willing to consider how it might shape our own stories of dietary salvation.
Unfortunately, where people are prone to self-deception, they are also open to deception by authority figures. When the general public believed that demons made them sick, exorcists made money selling holy water. Now we are bombarded with thousands of dietary solutions to our health problems, endorsed by genuine doctors and nutritionists—fat-melting miracle pills, detoxification smoothies, vitamin-rich goji berries—and we buy them, figuratively and literally. Frequently these solutions come packaged with a scapegoat. Get rid of this one terrible substance and there will be no more cancer. No MSG, no headaches. Eliminate gluten, eliminate Alzheimer’s. (And melt fat in the process!) It’s that simple: point an accusatory finger, tell the right story, and a new demon is born.
Like gluten today, MSG was once the scapegoat of choice. While debate about the dangers of MSG continued to rage in scientific journals, impatient doctors and eager advocates went public with premature conclusions. A mythic narrative quickly took shape, of virtuous researchers fighting against evil, baby-poisoning corporations. Media outlets played up the story’s sensationalist allure, featuring hyperbolic headlines like this one from the Chicago Tribune in 1979: “Chinese food make you crazy? MSG is No. 1 Suspect.”
Paranoia snowballed, and MSG metamorphosed from a potential allergen into a dietary supervillain. In 1988, Dr. George R. Schwartz, an emergency medicine specialist, published In Bad Taste: The MSG Symptom Complex, in which he connected MSG to the following ills: ADHD, AIDS, ALS, Alzheimer’s, asthma, cancer, diarrhea, depression, gastroesophageal reflux, Huntington’s, hyperactivity, hypertension, obesity, Parkinson’s, and premenstrual syndrome.
Eight years later, neurosurgeon Russell L. Blaylock repackaged Schwartz’s theories under the apocalyptic title Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills. In his book, Blaylock provided a detailed “scientific” explanation of MSG’s toxicity and addictiveness, and added autism to the list of ailments that it caused. Schwartz wrote the foreword, declaring Excitotoxins a “cutting-edge synthesis” by a “practicing, board-certified neurosurgeon with a deep understanding of the structure and function of the brain.” He called for parents to stop poisoning their children, and predicted that Blaylock’s book would be “seen as a landmark work” and “a marker of our time.”
Schwartz’s predictions did not come to pass. Instead, his license to treat patients was suspended in 2006 after authorities caught him illegally prescribing narcotics and amphetamines. (Schwartz still tweets sporadically from a Twitter account located in the “Mexican Caribbean .”) Blaylock is now a marginal figure in the anti-vaccine movement and the star of poorly produced YouTube videos like “Nutrition and the Illuminati Agenda.” His most recent theory about our health problems singles out “chemtrails”—clouds of toxins spread secretly by government aircraft for undisclosed purposes.
Today these men look like obvious cranks. But in their time it was hard not to take them seriously. In Bad Taste and Excitotoxins overwhelmed readers with jargon and scientific citations, which, combined with the authors’ medical pedigrees, created a compelling patina of authority. 60 Minutes actually featured Schwartz in a 1991 segment on the dangers of MSG. When Jeff Nedelman, a spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, complained that Schwartz’s appearance could lead to “unwarranted panic among consumers,” he only reinforced the narrative of evil food companies fighting to keep consumers from the truth—just like tobacco companies had done when faced with damning evidence about cigarettes.
The case against MSG also drew strength from a common and convincing myth: the products of technology and modernity are inherently dangerous. Although ridiculous on its face—you wouldn’t want to sip public drinking water from two hundred years ago—this myth has tremendous cultural currency. According to psychologist Keith Petrie at the University of Auckland, who specializes in how people perceive illness, fear of modernity routinely biases our judgments about medical care and dietary risk factors like MSG.
“Radio waves, chemicals—these things are invisible, and they are extremely powerful,” Petrie explains to me. “That can be frightening. It makes you feel like you have no control of your health.”
Schwartz and Blaylock expertly exploited their readers’ fears of modernity. The ominous opening sentence of Excitotoxins uses the word “chemical” twice:
Laypeople who struggled to understand Blaylock’s technical case against MSG would have had no difficulty with his intuitive premise: modern substances—chemicals, additives, preservatives, vaccines, MSG—are inherently dangerous.
Belief in MSG’s toxicity persists despite repeated debunkings. Scientists have confirmed and reconfirmed that the flavor enhancer, found in everything from sushi to Doritos, is no more suspicious than any other substance. In 2014, the American Chemical Society—the world’s largest scientific organization—summarized the consensus yet again in a short video meant to reassure consumers that MSG is perfectly safe. Yet an online search turns up scores of popular articles that continue to regurgitate Schwartz’s and Blaylock’s unsubstantiated alarmism. One article for the Huffington Post calls MSG a “silent killer lurking in your kitchen cabinets.” Another states that “chronic MSG ingestion by children may be one reason behind the nation’s falling test scores.” That’s laughable, but not really surprising. For true believers, the myth will always be more sacred than the evidence.
If we are serious about the quest for good health, physical and mental, we cannot be slaves to fear and to our desire for easy answers. We must honestly admit our ignorance. We must recognize our capacity for self-deception. And when others—including medical and scientific professionals—refuse to do the same, we must learn to recognize their lies.
Sadly, the story of MSG is unexceptional in the world of nutrition science. Well-intentioned doctors constantly jump to unwarranted conclusions about food. Media outlets are always hungry for tales of crusaders fighting evil corporations. Supplement peddlers and diet gurus continue to exploit an irrational public. It would be nice if our current food fears were based on sound, settled science. But, as you are about to find out, nothing could be further from the truth. Most beliefs about gluten, fat, sugar, and salt have little basis in fact and everything to do with a powerful set of myths, superstitions, and lies, which, despite modern scientific progress, have remained unchanged for centuries.
This book is a call for change. Everyday foods don’t have life-giving or death-dealing properties. Grocery stores aren’t pharmacies. Your kitchen isn’t stocked with silent killers, and the charlatans that make a living on false promises and uncertain science need to be revealed for what they really are. The time has come to slay our dietary demons, by exposing the falsehoods and liars that give them life.
65 Bleecker Street
New York, NY 10012
Copyright © 2015 by Alan Levinovitz
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For information address Regan Arts Subsidiary Rights Department, 65 Bleecker Street, New York, NY 10012.
First Regan Arts hardcover edition, April 2015.
Library of Congress Control Number: 2014919372
Interior design by Kris Tobiassen of Matchbook Digital
Jacket design by Richard Ljoenes
Front cover photograph © Adrian Burke / Image Brief
Printed in the United States of America
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