I have spent much of the summer looking after my mom, who had a devastating reaction to a powerful antibiotic. Nurses keep telling me that there are no side effects to this drug, and I have explained, again and again, that side effects may not be widespread, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Most people don’t die from eating peanuts or wheat, but if you’re allergic, you do. And, seriously, all you have to do is read the insert that comes with most medications to know that everything does something to someone. (Fortunately, the doctors acknowledge that there are side effects, so I have gotten support there.)
It’s frustrating, when I point to mom’s sensitivity, to see reactions that range from disbelief to contempt. As a result, I understand the frustration of people who are sensitive to various substances, from medications to ingredients. And yet I find myself frustrated as well by campaigns to get rid of things that are, in fact, perfectly safe for the majority of people. I want my mom to recover from the horrible reaction she had to the antibiotic, which has stolen both her mind and her strength, but I don’t want the drug outlawed, as it has saved thousands of lives.
While it might seem odd to compare MSG to an antibiotic, I don’t think it’s a bad comparison. People have argued often and loudly that we use too much of both. The biggest difference is that MSG occurs naturally. Perhaps it is because it is natural that even when there are side effects with MSG, they aren’t as shattering as the side effects of many drugs. Which is why I wonder about the continuing crusade to get rid of MSG (or reduce its use — can’t really get rid of it as it is a natural substance that occurs in many common foods). MSG is a potential allergen, but it’s not a poison. I’m all for the free-market practice of creating and labeling foods “no MSG,” to reach the market of those who are sensitive, but I think the rhetoric is making people afraid of something that need not be feared — unless you’re sensitive. I’ve got my own range of sensitivities, but I don’t want others to have to do without things they enjoy just because I can’t handle them. Because for most of us, MSG is just fine. And here is no less an authority than Harold McGee telling us so.