I have been known to get a little frustrated with the culture of misinformation in modern society. There is a common attitude that if a lot of people believe something, it’s probably true. When someone tells me something like ‘everyone knows that’, there’s a quote from the perceptive Sir Terry Pratchett that springs to mind:
“The IQ of a mob is the IQ of its most stupid member, divided by the number of mobsters.”
Sadly, I’m inclined to agree. People don’t seem to get more intelligent when they clamour together. As their minds collectively bend towards the same outcome they begin running with the pack, like lemmings leaping over the cliffs of free-thinking despair. This is a bit of a fatalistic view, perhaps. I wholly understand that this largely occurs due to a primitive cultural coding which tells us that there’s safety to be found in numbers. It is why people have difficulty empathizing with someone far removed from their cultural or ethnographic circle, but it’s also the same impetus that makes a person want to play cricket with their neighbours and have them all around for a backyard barbeque.
Have I told you guys about MSG?
The story behind MSG is one of my favourite examples of the ingrained propensity we all have for cultural misinformation. For those of you who don’t know, MSG stands for monosodium glutamate and it is commonly used as a cooking supplement to enhance a dish’s natural flavours. It is used most predominantly in Asian cooking and in the 60s it was linked to a health condition known as ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’, a loose collection of complaints symptomatic of allergic reaction or food poisoning. To this day, people still believe MSG to be bad for you.
So, what is MSG?
In the early 1900s, a biochemist named Dr. Ikeda, one of the leading researchers into taste neurosensory, identified a substance called glutamate. Glutamate was a naturally occurring chemical compound which was found in highest quantities in foods such as meat, tomatoes, cheese, seaweed and breast milk. Once he had identified this compound which made everything taste better, Dr. Ikeda used salt as a stabilising agent, or monosodium, and went on to found one of the largest monosodium glutamate manufacturers the world would ever see. MSG is little more than salt and glutamate, two highly common, naturally occurring foodstuffs.
In the 60s, a gentleman named Dr. Ho Man Kwok published an article in a journal describing a loose collection of symptoms he consistently encountered upon eating out at Chinese restaurants, ranging from headaches, to neck pain, to palpitations of the heart. Dr. Ho would go on to perform a series of tests on lab rats which involved feeding them copious quantities of MSG. When the rats inevitably developed brain legions, MSG was declared a health risk and has been spoken of in hushed tones ever since.
The part of this story you don’t hear is that Dr. Ho fed them ridiculously high quantities of MSG compared to anything that would be fed to you at Chinese restaurant. The part of the story you don’t hear is how food manufacturing companies, instead of not putting MSG in their product, began to relabel MSG as ‘Artificial Flavours’, and other misnomers, so that we never actually stopped consuming it. The part of the story you don’t hear is how there are virtually no complaints of ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’ in Asia, despite Asian cooking utilising more MSG than any other cultural demographic. Not to mention the fact that that there hasn’t been a conclusive study indicating that MSG is bad for you since the 60s.
And yet, when I type MSG into a search engine, I see just as many websites indicating that MSG is a health risk as ones that debunk these myths. I myself was still under the impression that MSG was bad for me, until I found out what it actually was and the truth behind the matter.
Beliefs can be hard to change, guys, especially when you have large groups of people telling you that they’re right. Don’t base your truth soley on what’s commonly accepted. Be prepared to ask questions of both those around you and of yourself. Because truthfully, I do believe that wisdom is not measured by the times you are right, so much as the times you’re willing to concede that you’re wrong.
Stay gold, Pony Boy.