The tarnished ‘gold standard’ of peer-reviewed studies

“Why we shouldn’t take peer review as the ‘gold standard,’” (1) which appeared in the Washington Post on August 1st, should be read by everyone who values their health and well-being.

The authors, Paul Thacker and Jon Tennant, bring to light the fact that shoddy work often makes it past peer reviewers while excellent research gets shot down. They explain how peer reviewers “often fail to detect bad research, conflicts of interest and corporate ghostwriting,” and that the practice is “neither golden nor standardized.”

At the Truth in Labeling Campaign we have spent roughly 30 years monitoring badly flawed research published by glutamate-industry agents, and are very familiar with a wide variety of insidious journal/industry cooperation.

For years the International Glutamate Technical Committee (IGTC) was the primary front organization responsible for production and publication of research for Ajinomoto (principal producer of MSG in the US). During that time the IGTC amassed a number of double-blind studies concluding — but not demonstrating — that MSG is safe. The fact that these studies were often done at generally respected universities or medical schools, all of which required that the research be approved by medical research review committees, had, and still has, public relations value. Subsequently, those studies were published in peer reviewed journals — accepted by editors who, themselves, often had ties to the food and/or drug industries.

If the “peers” who review the work of glutamate-industry representatives are themselves glutamate-industry representatives (or very close friends), that work is very likely to be published. Also consider the fact that the journals may have close ties to industry.  For example, the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology accepts advertising, and The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, acknowledges the generous support of members of the food and/or drug industries. Both of those journals publish glutamate-industry sponsored studies. 

When professional peer review journals hesitated to take articles from glutamate industry researchers because the flaws in their badly designed studies – such as lacing their placebos with excitotoxic aspartic acid (in aspartame) — had been pointed out to journal editors, those researchers held seminars and/or presented their papers at professional meetings with abstracts printed in appropriate journals. Studies reported in abstract form are not peer reviewed, and letters to the editor criticizing abstracts are not generally published. In the 1990s, the principal forum for such papers was the American Academy of Asthma, Allergy, and Immunology. In addition, there were journals that, by policy, do not accept critical letters. Food Additives and Contaminants is one. 

Not to be overlooked is suppression of information. When contradictory or embarrassing information has been published, those in positions of power block dissemination of that information. When critiques of deceptive and misleading research reports are offered for publication, those in positions of power refuse to publish them. When, prior to publication, criticism of deceptive and misleading research reports are anticipated, researchers publish their questionable research in journals that do not accept comment following publication, present their findings orally at industry-sponsored or professional meetings, or publish their findings in abstract form only. Neither oral presentations nor published abstracts are subject to peer review or to published criticism. In no case is it immediately obvious that the data or criticism of that data have been suppressed.

References and additional information can be found in The toxicity/safety of processed free glutamic acid (MSG): a study in suppression of information, by A. Samuels.  Account Res.1999;6:259-310.

If you have questions or comments, we’d love to hear from you. If you have hints for others on how to avoid exposure to MfG, send them along, too, and we’ll put them up on Facebook. Or you can reach us at and follow us on Twitter @truthlabeling.