MSG (Safe to Eat)

Reports that MSG is dangerous stem from one anecdotal letter and years of racism.

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a compound made up of sodium and glutamate (an amino acid) found naturally in our bodies and in a variety of foods (tomatoes, cheeses, anchovies, mushrooms, etc). Usually when it’s mentioned people are referring to the synthesized food additive version which is added to meals to bring out their umami flavors. It’s been a commercially produced food additive since 1909 but, despite being used by tens of millions of people, 42% of Americans today think it’s dangerous. The cause of this fear goes back to one article.

Chinese Restaurant Syndrome

The April 4, 1968 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine contained a letter titled Chinese-Restaurant Syndrome by Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok on his observations of eating American Chinese food. Kwok said that about 15 to 20 minutes after eating at a Chinese restaurant he developed a headache, weakness, heart palpitations, and numbness. He proposed several possible causes but singled out MSG as the answer. This single letter was the beginning of decades of mistrust in MSG.

The ideas of MSG side-effects and “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” have largely been fueled by racism. Suspicion or fear of East Asian cultures, the exoticism of the “Orient”, and/or a general lack of knowledge has led some people to be suspicious of Asian cuisine. In 1969 New York City imposed regulations on MSG use in Chinese restaurants but not on MSG in general. While the supposed adverse reactions to MSG should cause caution for any food item containing MSG, Chinese food in particular got singled out and maligned. Lots of processed western foods contain MSG, lots of plants naturally contain significant levels of MSG, and yet Doritos and shiitake mushrooms didn’t seem to get singled out quite like Chinese food did.

Asian restaurants were singled out and maligned for their use of MSG, but Western processed foods were not.

Safe to Eat

There is no connection between MSG and the symptoms Kwok described. The US Food & Drug Administration states that MSG is safe to eat and that there is no evidence to support claims of headaches and nausea from eating normal amounts of MSG. In double-blind studies using subjects who claimed to have sensitivity to MSG some subjects were blindly given MSG and, unaware they were eating MSG, had no ill effects. These tests were unable to reproduce any of the side-effects claimed about MSG.

MSG, like any food additive, is safe in moderation. Excess anything can make you sick. Because of the association of Chinese food with MSG some Asian restaurants in the US have reduced their usage of MSG just to satisfy public opinion, to the detriment of the food and the customers’ taste buds.

Blue Raspberry

At the confluence of food safety and marketing, blue raspberry was born.

In the natural world, no raspberry is anywhere close to the electric blue shade of “blue raspberry.” Most raspberries are red but there are some blue-ish raspberries. The white bark raspberry, native to western North America, is a very dark shade of blue, nearly black. So why do we have the flavor and color of blue raspberry?

Red Number 2

In the 1950s there was a growing movement in the U.S. to ensure the safety of food and food additives. There was increasing doubt over the safety of the food dye Red No 2 (which at the time was made from coal tar). Food companies could capitalize off of this concern if another color was used.

It was during this time that the Gold Medal company of Cincinnati introduced a new flavor of blue raspberry cotton candy. Blue raspberry’s popularity grew but things really took off when Icee introduced their blue raspberry flavored frozen drink in the early ‘70s. The competition between blue raspberry and red flavored candies/drinks was taken to a new level in 1976 when Red No 2 was banned in the United States because it was potentially carcinogenic. Simple put, at the time, Blue No 1 was safer to consume than Red No 2.

Marketing

To mimic real life, food companies then and now use the color red for lots of flavors: cherry, apple, cinnamon, watermelon, cranberry, etc. It’s a crowded space. However, there are not many foods that are naturally blue, which as a marketing opportunity was very attractive. Blue was a way to set raspberry apart from the other flavors. This is similar to why pink lemonade exists: lemonade isn’t pink, but it’s a bright color that stands out from the crowd. Blue raspberry had the color all to itself for a long time which was marketing gold.

Elvis’s Fool’s Gold

One of Elvis’s favorite sandwiches was the 8,000 calorie Fool’s Gold Loaf.

On the evening of February 1st, 1976 Elvis and his buddies were in Memphis talking about this sandwich they loved from a restaurant called the Colorado Mine Company in Denver. Right there and then Elvis decided “we’re going”, had his jet readied, and the group flew from Memphis to Denver on a midnight run for sandwiches.

The sandwich is called the Fool’s Gold Loaf, it’s 8,000 calories, and if you would like to make your own you will need:

  • 1 hollowed-out loaf of French bread
  • 1 entire jar of smooth peanut butter
  • 1 entire jar of grape jelly
  • 1 pound of bacon

Elvis purchased 22 Fool’s Gold sandwiches for himself and his buddies, and the husband & wife owners of the Colorado Mine Company met them at the airport hanger with the sandwiches as well as Perrier and champagne.

Colonel Sanders … Not A Military Colonel

Colonel Sanders was a Kentucky Colonel, not a military one.

Colonel Harland Sanders, founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, was not actually a military colonel (he never served in the military). Rather, he was given the honorary title of Colonel as part of the Kentucky Colonel program.

The governor of Kentucky bestows the title on individuals “… with strength of character, leadership and dedication to the welfare of others.”