There are a lot of misconceptions about food and health in Pakistan, and our knowledge of what is healthy and what is not is based more on what we’ve heard rather than what we’ve read. However, when Google is at the fingertips of practitioners (policymakers and law practitioners) it’s odd that the highest judicial office banned a food without (on the face of it) looking at what science has to say about it.

The Supreme Court on Saturday banned the sale, import and export of ‘Chinese salt’ i.e. monosodium glutamate (MSG), also known as Ajinomoto, declaring it “hazardous for health”. After hearing a suo motu case concerning the sale of MSG and used oil in the Lahore Registry, the Chief Justice of Pakistan Mian Saqib Nisar ordered that the chief secretaries of all provinces be informed of the court’s decision. He further said that the prime minister should take up the issue in the cabinet. The care for public health is of course a worthy cause, but in this case, it may not be worth the trouble.

Way back in the 1970s, a Washington University researcher found that injecting enormous doses of monosodium glutamate under the skin of newborn mice led to the development of patches of dead tissue in the brain. The key word here is “enormous”, and a huge amount of anything should have a negative effect. Even so, when these mice grew into adulthood they were stunted, obese, and in some cases, sterile. The study was repeated in infant rhesus monkeys, giving them the MSG orally, and noted the same results. Irrelevant, because most of us here don’t believe that humans share genetic history with monkeys. But sarcasm aside, 19 other studies in monkeys by other researchers failed to show the same, or even similar results.

If that wasn’t proof enough that MSG has been falsely accused of causing headaches (a general complaint), in one study in Australia, 71 healthy individuals were treated with increasing doses of MSG or placebo in capsule form. The so-called “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” symptoms were reported at roughly the same rate, regardless of whether subjects were given the MSG or the placebo. Another study at Harvard tested 130 people who described themselves as being reactive to MSG. Only two of the original 130 showed consistent reactions to MSG and not the placebo.

We pick and choose foods everyday, and MSG should really come down to a personal choice. There are people who feel sick after eating certain foods, as a matter of taste and physiology. The point here is not to defend MSG, a seldom used table salt that will hardly matter to anyone in Pakistan. The fact is that no one is checking facts. Our reliance on hearsay is appalling, whether it is believing fake news stories, or that eggs are cholesterol demons.

On the subject of eggs, doctors (hopefully all of them) know that chicken eggs are high in cholesterol, but the effect of egg consumption on blood cholesterol is minimal when compared with the effect of trans fats and saturated fats. It was not eggs but foods that accompany the eggs in a traditional American breakfast - such as the sodium in the bacon, sausages and ham, and the saturated fat or oils with trans fats used to fry eggs and hash browns – that was the real culprit linked to heart disease. Thus it is the paratha that’s the problem rather than the egg. Most healthy people can eat up to seven eggs a week with no increase in their risk of heart disease. Some studies have shown that this level of egg consumption may actually prevent some types of strokes.

We are ten years or more behind in our understanding of what goes into our bodies. There’s a new health trend of drinking aloe vera juice from the “knowledge” that the aloe plant is naturally beneficial. But ingesting it can be unsafe, irrespective of the dose. Some of the side effects include stomach cramps, kidney issues, and low potassium levels. Even taking just one gram of aloe latex for several days can be fatal. No one really knows this yet.

Of course I may be wrong about everything and we should err on the side of safety. But I also know that there are many more things we ingest daily that are more dangerous and more used than MSG. Here is a list, for those with authority to crack down on: Up to 60 million people are at risk of being affected by high levels of arsenic in the groundwater, milk drinks like Nesquik and Milo, contain twice as much sugar as regular milk and are marketed as healthy for children, candies made by lesser-known manufacturers have high concentration of lead and nickel according to researchers at Karachi University, and, samples of chicken in Karachi have high levels of arsenic because the city’s environment hasn’t yet recovered from the damaging effects of leaded-gasoline that was phased out in 2001. This is all from very basic research of news reports of contaminated food in Pakistan. There so much more that can be said about industrial pollution, unsanitary conditions at restaurants, and general issues of sanitation and hygiene. MSG is the least of our problems, but has reached the highest court of the country.