Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Nestle's Maggi Controversy In India: If MSG Is Unhealthy, Why Doesn't Everyone In China Have Headache?

It is clear now that the dispute between Nestlé and India’s food authority (the FSSAI) is rooted in a technicality. Both sides agree that levels of lead in a packet of Maggi noodles measured as a single unit fall within the permissible limit. 

The FSSAI case is that the “tastemaker” sachet, the seasoning added to the noodles, breaches the 2.5 parts per million ceiling when tested by itself. Nestlé argues that since the tastemaker is never consumed by itself, and the instructions on noodle packets make clear it is to be eaten in tandem with the noodles, the two should be taken as one product.

I agree with Nestlé’s contention. After all, the FSSAI’s own regulations differentiate between condiments and concentrates on the one hand, and ready-to-eat or ready-to-drink items on the other. Beverages like Coke and Pepsi are allowed a maximum of 0.5 ppm lead, whereas soft drink concentrates are permitted four times as much of the heavy metal. Dehydrated onions, turmeric powder, dried herbs, exactly the kinds of things that go into a tastemaker sachet, have a maximum permissible lead concentration of 10 ppm, far higher than the allowance for bulkier staples.

While Maggi and other quick-cook noodles are pulled off shelves in India, nations where these products are exported are testing them, too. Nestlé claims Canada passed India-made Maggi noodles a few days ago, and Singapore has certainly pronounced them safe. This could be because Singapore cares less about hygiene than India, and Canadian inspectors are more relaxed about food safety than their Indian counterparts, but the experience of other countries merits some attention nevertheless. 

It is also worth understanding that, even if Maggi noodles as a whole, and not just their tastemaker, had a lead content of 4 ppm or 5 ppm, it would require 200 kilograms of those noodles to match the amount of the toxic metal found in a single strip of many ayurvedic medications manufactured legally in the country, (and encouraged with tax concessions), which typically have lead concentrations in excess of 70,000 ppm.

The taste of umami
Then there is the issue of monosodium glutamate, which was also supposedly found in the noodles despite Nestlé claiming not to have added any. Glutamate, or glutamic acid, occurs naturally in our bodies, and in several foods such as cheese, walnuts, tomatoes and mushrooms. A century ago, a Japanese biochemist named Kikunae Ikeda discovered that glutamate provided a taste apart from the broadly recognised ones of sweet, salty, sour and bitter. He called this fifth taste umami or savouriness. 

Ikeda found a way to extract glutamate and combine it with salt and water to produce a stable crystalline form called monosodium glutamate. The process was akin to the isolation of pure sugar and salt that humans had perfected in previous eras. Just as white sugar and table salt are safe when eaten in moderation, so is monosodium glutamate. The taste enhancer has become a staple of East Asian diets, but in recent year the West has produced a lot of scare-mongering connected to it.

The only scientific studies that showed any ill effects related to MSG were ones in which rats were injected with enormous quantities of the substance, such large amounts, indeed, that virtually any condiment so injected could be expected to produce an adverse reaction. Some, like cinnamon, are toxic at much lower concentrations, but that hasn’t stopped me from using garam masala. Billions of humans have consumed and continue to consume MSG in moderation (it stops being effective beyond a certain point anyway) with no rigorously identified bad consequences.

Irrational fears
A similar pattern of irrational aversion and imagined effects is discernible with regard to GMO foods passed as safe by competent authorities. Almost all corn and soya grown in the United States today come from genetically modified varieties, and Americans have eaten these products abundantly for two decades. Yet, there are people who insist GMO foods are bad for us, basing their conclusion on a couple of badly conducted two-decade-old rat experiments.

What I find interesting is the hierarchy of irrationalism that develop within societies. If a religious activist claims that non-vegetarian food makes children less sensitive,  he is rightly ridiculed. However, if MSG is labelled an “excitotoxin” that can cause aggressive behaviour, it sounds sufficiently scientific to be acceptable in educated circles. 

Thus, Amit Khurana of the Centre for Science and Environment can state, without fear of becoming a laughing stock, that MSG “can cause hyper-tension, palpitations and headaches”, though there is no evidence it does any of those things. As the food critic Jeffrey Steingarten once asked, in response to the suggestion that MSG is unhealthy, “Why doesn’t everyone in China have a headache?”

When it comes to food scares, the supposedly sophisticated Left is as susceptible as the rustic Right, and environmentalists like Vandana Shiva as guilty of spreading untruths as conservatives like Anil Badkul of the Digambar Jain Mahasamiti. 

The newish Left and the old Right converge in their reverence for traditional knowledge, though they may have reached that destination from very different paths. Which is why you will not find any critiques of Ayurveda on the Centre of Science and Environment website any more than you would in an RSS mouthpiece.

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