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Want full disclosure with that meal?

Published September 25, 2005

When the Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act, also known as the "Cheeseburger Bill," cleared the U.S. House last year, the food and restaurant industries cheered. Now, the legislation awaits passage in the Senate.

The bill would ban lawsuits against the food industry if consumers gain weight or experience obesity-related health problems from consuming its products.

By calling it the Cheeseburger Bill, however, the sponsors are implying it's about fast food - and it isn't. It's about all prepared foods, whether we get them in a restaurant, a school cafeteria, a hospital or a supermarket.

And prepared foods are increasingly loaded with a flavor enhancer called glutamate, or MSG. (According to an FDA fact sheet, glutamic acid, L-glutamic acid, monosodium glutamate and glutamate are all commonly known as MSG.)

For centuries, cooks in Asia used seaweed to flavor foods. But in 1908, Japanese scientists isolated the active component, and the Ajinomoto Company, currently the world's leading producer of MSG, was born.

Then, MSG came from seaweed; now, it's more often produced by genetically modified bacteria. MSG is available in most supermarkets, and in its various forms it's added to nearly all processed foods, including bouillon, salad dressings, yeast extracts, powdered milk, soy sauce, even canned tuna.

You can even find it in infant formula, pet foods and produce. In its promotional literature, Emerald BioAgriculture Corp., makers of the popular plant growth enhancer called AuxiGro, notes that its product will produce higher yields, bigger fruit and vegetables, and "a noticeable swelling in your bank account."

That swelling bank account is the reason MSG is added to so many products. A few cents' worth allows food producers to use less costly, and fewer, ingredients and more filler.

But flavor is less a matter of ingredients than of body chemistry. Flavor enhancers such as MSG stimulate our taste buds and then our brains; what we're eating simply tastes better. And when we like a product, we buy more of it.

That's all good for the food industry, but for consumers it's a different story. The first published report of a physical reaction to MSG appeared in 1968, in a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine that labeled the cluster of symptoms Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.

But it soon became clear that the syndrome went well beyond the instances of numbness, tingling and chest tightness reported in that initial letter. Researchers found that MSG could actually stimulate our neurons to death, particularly in infant animals. In fact, they routinely used MSG to induce brain damage in newborn rats and mice; the MSG appeared to damage the hypothalamus, the part of our brain that controls our weight. Since then, the MSG-obesity link has turned up in research done around the world.

The MSG industry counters such findings by saying that MSG occurs naturally, that glutamates are found in many foods, including tomatoes, mushrooms, even some cheeses. To promote its products, Ajinomoto created the Glutamate Association and the International Glutamate Technical Committee, both of which fund and publish studies showing MSG is safe.

However, the MSG industry has close ties to government agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For instance, Andrew G. Ebert, Ph.D., chair of the IGTC, was until recently a member of the FDA's Food Advisory Committee, overseeing the safety of our food supply.

And FDA and USDA regulations require only that monosodium glutamate, the sodium-glutamate combination often sold as Accent, be listed on labels. Other added glutamates need not be labeled.

In 1998, AuxiGro received an Environmental Protection Agency exemption from the requirement of a tolerance for residues. That means there's no limit to the amount of glutamates that can remain on or in produce treated with it, and treated produce need not be labeled in stores that sell it.

So MSG is in our foods, but we don't always know which ones, or in what quantities. And it's been implicated in a host of physical ailments, including neurological diseases and obesity, but the food producers are free to add as much as they want to their products.

Russell Blaylock, a board-certified neurosurgeon and author of Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills, notes that our current childhood obesity epidemic mirrors exactly the MSG-induced obesity in experimental animals.

Worse, he says that consuming MSG is addictive: "People will not experience withdrawal symptoms as seen with heroin, but they will crave glutamate-enhanced foods over unenhanced foods."

Other researchers agree. Michael Hermanussen, M.D., a pediatrician in Germany, says the amounts of glutamate found in nature aren't the problem; it's the glutamates we add to much of what we eat and drink that cause overeating. Hermanussen has been conducting a study using Memantine, a drug usually used to treat Alzheimer's disease, for weight control, and all of his subjects, he says, have lost weight easily.

Memantine is a member of the class of drugs called glutamate blockers, which keep MSG from reaching glutamate receptors in the brain. Ajinomoto's pharmaceutical arm, Ajinomoto Pharma, partners with a company called Daiichi Pharmaceuticals. Daiichi partners with Merz Pharmaceuticals.

And Merz produces Memantine. The same company that produces a food additive linked to neurological damage and obesity is also involved in producing a drug that can block the effects of that additive after we consume it.

And now, our elected officials may well compound the problem by passing legislation that will remove the only recourse we have if we become obese or ill from consuming that additive. Granted, if someone eats nothing but quintuple cheeseburgers and super-humongous fries every day of his life and then becomes obese and sick, he's pretty much given up any right to sue the providers of those products. He knew what they were when he ordered them. His was an informed choice.

This is different. The information we need is being kept from us, deliberately, in the name of profits.

If we're going to be held personally responsible for our food consumption and its effects on our health, we need to be told exactly what's in that food. All products containing added MSG, in any form, should be labeled as such.

Lynn Stratton is a Times database editor.

[Last modified September 23, 2005, 19:55:02]


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