MSG, Racial History, and the Failsafe Diet

One thing people are really great at doing is denying their own history.

Controversy abounds in the concept of ‘MSG sensitivity’, that idea that monosodium glutamine creates serious food reactions in some proportion of the population. Some people will fight tooth and nail to say that they break out in hives the second it passes their lips; some say that every single piece of evidence suggests that MSG is, if anything, better for you than most sodium and that MSG sensitivity is naught but racism against the Chinese.

I haven’t been a believer in MSG sensitivity for a couple years now. I think that, at the very least, the concept is a holdover from a distinctly racist age. But one thing that I question when I see it raised is the statement that those who claim MSG sensitivity miraculously only react to it in Chinese food, as though they have no awareness that it occurs in high levels in much less racially charged food products. I question this claim because it is simply wrong.

I am a diagnosed autistic, and long before I was a diagnosed autistic I was a suspected one. I am still a suspected ADHD sufferer, and I had some severe childhood behavioural issues due to the intersection of both conditions with very severe bullying. Due to the lack of a cure for autism (then again, as an ASAN supporter, I consider that about the best possible scenario) and the controversy of drug treatment for ADHD, one can find a large variety of alternative treatments for both disorders. Some very prominent alternatives are diet-based. As a child, I spent some time on the Failsafe Diet, a diet particularly prominent in Australia for these conditions. I still have a copy of a guidebook to it in the very room I’m composing this post in.

The idea of the Failsafe Diet is that salicylates — a naturally occuring chemical in many food products and aspirin — and amines — a type of organic compound — along with certain kinds of antioxidants, preservatives, and flavourings, are to blame for the vast majority of childhood disorders and behavioural issues and that a diet designed to be low in all of those (or just the specific ones the child ‘responds’ to) can fix them or mitigate their severity. I was a ‘responder’ to several different additives, MSG being one of them. The issue of being unable to eat Chinese food wasn’t even raised during the couple of years I was on the diet.

What was raised? Tomatoes, pasta, two-minute noodles (ramen), several other foods that I can’t even remember these days but that weren’t particularly Chinese. Large swarths of food were cut out of my diet, and if you attempted to plot them amongst racial lines you would find nothing to support the “the concept of MSG sensitivity is still intentionally racist” hypothesis. Inherently racist, certainly, but many of the people who discuss it today don’t even make that link.

What did the Failsafe Diet do? Well, my mother still swears that it helped. I question her assumption. I feel as though there were times when I personally felt better, but that could easily have been psychogenic — I was a gifted child and particularly obsessed with the diet, pouring through the guidebooks and analyzing nutritional labels. Also, though my memories of my childhood are choppy and misplaced, my severe childhood depression may well have overlapped with the timeframe I was on the diet, at least for a while.

But I don’t think it made anyone hate Chinese people.


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