If you rig your study carefully, you won’t have to think about lying with statistics

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Studies of the safety of monosodium glutamate have a certain sameness worth considering. To begin with, they are just that: studies of the safety of monosodium glutamate wherein the option of toxicity is really not considered.

The body of evidence that demonstrates that monosodium glutamate causes brain damage and endocrine disorders is dismissed with the statement that studies of animals do not represent the human condition and the FDA doesn’t disagree. Moreover, since one can’t see brain damage with the naked eye, there would be no reason for the man on the street to suspect that the brain damage that he cannot see would be caused by monosodium glutamate. And there are no physicians or alternative medicine practitioners suggesting that diagnosed endocrine disorders might have been caused by monosodium glutamate.

Only remaining for the glutamate industry to overcome are the concerns of consumers who find that ingestion of monosodium glutamate and other glutamate-containing food additives cause adverse reactions such as migraine headache, heart irregularities, and depression, and the growing number of physicians and neuroscientists who, based on clinical practice and/or experience in the laboratory, warn that ingestion of monosodium glutamate places humans at risk. Industry’s vehicle for dealing with this has been the double-blind study, rigged to encourage industry-sponsored researchers to conclude that once again there has been a study done that has failed to find that monosodium glutamate is in any way harmful.

Ajinomoto’s organization: its structure…

In response to the first reports of brain damage and adverse reactions following ingestion of monosodium glutamate, Ajinomoto Co., Inc., possibly the world’s largest producer of free glutamic acid and monosodium glutamate (and producer of many other individual amino acids), established a nonprofit corporation to represent its interests. The International Glutamate Technical Committee (IGTC) was organized in 1969 as an association of member companies engaged in manufacture, sale, and commercial use of glutamates. They sponsor, gather, and disseminate research on the use and safety of monosodium glutamate; design and implement research protocols and provide financial assistance to researchers; promote acceptance of monosodium glutamate as a food ingredient; and represent members’ collective interests. Those collective interests are to sell monosodium glutamate. The IGTC is an association of individuals, companies, and staff, composed of physicians and/or scientists employed by producers or users of glutamic acid and its salts or doing research on it in university laboratories (1).

Ajinomoto’s research strategies…

The premise that monosodium glutamate is safe for human consumption is based on human research essentially underwritten, designed, and implemented by the IGTC. Researchers have:

1) Selected subjects who might not be sensitive to the product;

2) Reduced the likelihood that subjects would react to monosodium glutamate test material;

3) Used toxic or allergenic material in placebos;

4) Used too few subjects, so there would be inadequate statistical power to produce a significant difference between adverse reactions of test subjects and placebo subjects, or to find a significant relationship between the experimental variable and the measured outcome;

5) Applied statistical tests to research designs that do not meet the tests’ underlying assumptions;

6) Focused on non-relevant variables;

7) Ignored relevant data.

Reviewed individually, inappropriate handling of subjects, methodology, and/or statistical analysis in any one study might be attributed to shoddy science or sloppy scholarship. However, there is sameness in these studies which lies in the fact that methodology virtually guarantees that no statistically significant difference between subjects treated with monosodium glutamate and subjects treated another way will be found; and/or no significant relationship will be found between two or more variables being investigated. Researchers, then, can “legitimately” conclude that subjects who were given monosodium glutamate did not have more reactions than subjects given a placebo, or subjects consuming greater quantities of monosodium glutamate did not become taller, shorter, fatter, or thinner, and did not have more adverse reactions or higher blood pressure than others. It is these studies that industry points to when claiming that monosodium glutamate is safe, or when claiming that the safety (never toxicity) of monosodium glutamate is controversial. We submit, however, that since industry bases its claim for the safety of monosodium glutamate on these studies, industry itself has demonstrated that ingestion of monosodium glutamate places consumers at risk. There really is no controversy.

Reference

  1. Samuels A. The toxicity/safety of processed free glutamic acid (MSG): a study in suppression of information. Account Res. 1999;6:259-310.

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