Editor’s note: The following excerpt, edited for space, is from the introduction to The Gluten Lie and Other Myths About What You Eat, by Alan Levinovitz, Ph.D. Levinowitz is a professor of philosophy and religion at James Madison University in Virginia. His views are his own. The book was released in April.
More than 100 million Americans want to avoid gluten, and they are in good company. Oprah’s 21-day cleansing diet is gluten-free. Bill Clinton’s personal weight-loss guru, Dr. Mark Hyman, has asked if modern “super-gluten” is a dietary demon.
In the bestselling book Grain Brain, neurologist David Perlmutter argues that it causes dementia and Alzheimer’s. And in Wheat Belly (over 1 million copies sold), cardiologist William Davis includes a section titled, in all caps, “BREAD IS MY CRACK!”
Dietary demon, indeed.
A Different Bogeyman: MSG
It’s hard to believe that 20 years ago virtually no one, including health enthusiasts, had even heard of gluten. Back then, the nation’s latest dietary demon had a different name: monosodium glutamate (MSG).
True, MSG seems safe — it’s a sodium salt first extracted from seaweed by Japanese scientists in 1908, and a staple seasoning in the cuisine of long-lived East Asians. But health-conscious Americans knew better.
By the mid-1980s, it was common knowledge that MSG caused devastating migraines, irritable bowel syndrome, and a suite of other symptoms. Still worse, some authorities believed it caused brain damage and chronic disease.
The MSG scare began on April 4, 1968, with a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) from Chinese American physician Robert Ho Man Kwok.
In the letter, titled “Chinese-Restaurant Syndrome,” Kwok reported that after eating in Chinese restaurants he regularly experienced numbness, general weakness and palpitation.
‘Syndrome’ Strikes a Nerve
An avalanche of responses poured into the NEJM. Everyone had experienced the syndrome! In May, the journal printed no less than 10 of these letters, many written by highly-credentialed physicians, each endorsing a different cause of “Chinese restaurant syndrome.”
The rapidity with which MSG became a nationally recognized health threat is astonishing, especially given that this was 1968, a time when telephone wires and printed paper still regulated the spread of information.
Less than two months after Kwok’s letter, The New York Times ran an article under the headline, Chinese Restaurant Syndrome Puzzles Doctors. Within six months, the prestigious journal Nature published research by scientists who definitively identified MSG as the culprit — and, alarmingly, pointed out that it lurked everywhere, not just in Chinese food: TV dinners, canned goods, seasoning and even baby food.
Ralph Nader Joins Outcry
Utterly convinced by their research, the authors of the Nature article sought out a young lawyer-advocate named Ralph Nader, with whom they campaigned to have MSG removed from baby food and stricken from the Food and Drug Administration’s Generally Recognized as Safe list.
In October 1969, Gerber, Heinz and Squibb Beech-Nut caved to enormous public pressure and announced that their baby food would no longer be made with MSG. And on April 4, 1970, two years to the day from the publication of Kwok’s letter, the National Research Council ruled that MSG was “fit for human consumption but not necessarily by infants,” a cryptic pronouncement that only heightened safety concerns.
But amid the outcry against MSG, science marched on, ever skeptical of snap judgments and anecdotal evidence. After many rigorous studies, the panic proved unfounded. Today, food allergy experts believe the overwhelming majority of reactions to MSG are psychological, not physiological.
Difficult to Swallow
But when it comes to food sensitivities, people are incredibly unwilling to question self-diagnoses. No one wants to think that the benefits they experienced from going gluten-free or eliminating MSG might be psychological. That would mean the problem was psychological to begin with, and there’s something intensely disturbing about the notion that we can make ourselves sick. This can make us feel vulnerable, stupid and weak, as though we have the choice to be better but lack the mental acuity to manage it.
On top of all that, it’s hard not to feel like a psychological explanation trivializes your condition — hence the expression “It’s only in your head.”
Figuring out the effects of one’s diet is enormously complicated. Your headaches went away — but was it the absence of MSG or an increase in home-cooked meals? Did you lose weight by going gluten-free or by eating less fast food? To complicate matters further, discovering a dietary solution feels empowering, and empowerment itself can lead to significant positive physiological changes. Unless we can be absolutely certain of our self-diagnosis, it’s best to keep an open mind about alternative explanations.
‘Lies’ We Tell Ourselves
But admitting uncertainty is hard, particularly uncertainty about how our own bodies work. So instead, we lie to ourselves. We lie to ourselves about our ability to recall symptoms and their intensity — the fact of having had a headache, say, and its severity. We lie to ourselves about our ability to recall what we’ve eaten, a perennial problem for researchers who rely on self-reported food consumption data.
Finally, we lie to ourselves about our ability to accurately diagnose the relationship between what we consume and our experience of physical and mental symptoms.
Scientists universally acknowledge the prevalence of these lies. They are the reason for placebo-controlled studies of food and medicine — like those conducted on MSG — which substitute a neutral substance for the substance being tested. Placebo-controlled studies are necessary to distinguish actual physiological effects from the power of positive (or negative) thinking. Antidepressants — and gluten-free diets — can make us feel better just because we think they will. And MSG can make us sick for the same reason.
Craving ‘Dietary Salvation’
Everyone recognizes that expectations can shape experiences and distort memories. Yet while most of us recognize how self-deception shapes stories about supernatural healing, we are less willing to consider how it might shape our own stories of dietary salvation.
If we are serious about the quest for good health, physical and mental, we cannot be slaves to fear and to our desire for easy answers. We must honestly admit our ignorance. We must recognize our capacity for self-deception. And when others — including medical and scientific professionals — refuse to do the same, we must learn to recognize their lies.
It would be nice if our current food fears were based on sound, settled science. But, most beliefs about gluten, fat, sugar and salt have little basis in fact and everything to do with a powerful set of myths, superstitions and lies, which, despite modern scientific progress, have remained unchanged for centuries.
This book is a call for change. Everyday foods don’t have life-giving or death-dealing properties. Grocery stores aren’t pharmacies. Your kitchen isn’t stocked with silent killers, and the charlatans that make a living on false promises and uncertain science need to be revealed for what they really are. The time has come to slay our dietary demons, by exposing the falsehoods and liars that give them life.
Excerpted from The Gluten Lie: And Other Myths About What You Eat by Alan Levinovitz. Copyright © 2015 by Alan Levinovitz. Published by Regan Arts. Used with permission.