msg1

MSG myths debunked with real science

Food additives are one of the most passionate issues amongst people who eat (which would be everyone). AspartameHigh fructose corn syrup. GMO‘s. Salt. Sugar. Trans fats. Polysorbate 80. Some of the angst caused by these additives is that they have scary chemical names.

Obviously there is a “low fructose corn syrup” that has got to be better and healthier? Right? No.

However, there is one food additive that appears to be the root of all evil–MSG. How many times have you been to a Chinese restaurant where they put up signs with NO MSG ADDED?

Just so you know, unless that restaurant isn’t using soy sauce (one of the major components of nearly all Chinese food flavorings), the amount of MSG in your Kung Pao Chicken is still quite high, because that soy sauce has more MSG in it than could possibly be added by a shaker of MSG.

MSG myths debunked. It’s time.

Background

MSG, or monosodium glutamate, has no taste by itself, but it is used by many professional cooks as a flavor enhancer, improving and enhancing the flavor of almost any food. The taste that is enhanced by MSG is different than the standard sour, sweet, bitter and salt flavors–it is called “umami,” which also is enhanced by substances like soy sauce. It’s the savory flavor that one finds that is different from the commonly stated “four tastes” that chefs used to consider when developing flavors for food.

The taste enhancing quality of MSG is not well understood, but it’s possible that humans evolved the pleasurable taste of umami as a result of natural selection favoring those who enjoy eating high quality protein foods.

MSG has been used as a flavor enhancer for several thousand years. It is one of the key components of many Asian cuisines, especially Japanese who have extracted MSG from kelp for centuries. The Romans used a sauce called garummade from fermented fish, that was used instead of more expensive salt. In fact, MSG can be used to mask bad flavors, such as spoiled meat, just like salt.

So, before we get anywhere down this debunking trip, MSG wasn’t invented by Monsanto and forced down the throat of innocent people everywhere. It’s been a flavor enhancer for a few millennia.

The Myth

The myth of MSG probably started with personal anecdotes after eating Chinese food. A 1969 article in Science claimed there was a dose-response relationship between Chinese food and the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome (CRS).  But the study did not isolate MSG as the cause, and was not blinded (which would be nearly impossible if were to determine if the cause was the food rather than the ingredients).  Unfortunately, the study has never been repeated, so it’s impossible to determine if it provides evidence that Chinese food does anything, let alone MSG.

Joe Mercola, one of the leading purveyors of nonsense science and medicine, calls MSG “the silent killer lurking in your kitchen cabinets.” Oh my.

His claims are based on a belief that MSG is an excitotoxin, which causes a pathological process by which nerve cells are damaged and killed by excessive stimulation by neurotransmitters. This pseudoscience is promoted by  Dr. Russell Blaylock, a board-certified neurosurgeon and author of “Excitotoxins: The Taste that Kills.” Setting aside the Appeal to Authority (a board certified neurosurgeon may not have any actual knowledge of neurochemistry), a book isn’t necessarily a high quality source.

Mercola pushes a belief that MSG overexcites your nerve cells to the “point of damage or death, causing brain damage to varying degrees — and potentially even triggering or worsening learning disabilities, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease and more.” Oh my!

But Mercola doesn’t stop there. He also believes that MSG causes obesity, eye damage, headaches, fatigue, disorientation, depression, and a whole host of other maladies. And he states that up to 40% of the US population may be impacted by MSG. OH MY!

Real Science

First, what exactly is MSG. This is the point that makes many scientists laugh, because MSG or monosodium glutamate is simply the sodium salt of glutamic acid, an amino acid which is the building block of proteins. You consume glutamic acid from almost every food you eat from grains to meat, since it’s a constituent part of probably every protein found on the planet.

Some grain proteins have over 30% by weight glutamic acid. Since glutamic acid doesn’t exist except in the presence of water, it precipitates with sodium or other cations (potassium, lithium, and others).

Hence, the “monosodium” part of MSG. Precipitated salts do not change it’s essential chemical nature, because a glutamate ion does not exist without water.

Here’s the actual science behind glutamates (you can ignore this paragraph, if chemistry makes your eyes glaze over). When glutamic acid or one of its salts is dissolved in aqueous solutions, a pH-dependent instantaneous chemical equilibrium of the amino acid’s ionized forms, including zwitterionic forms, will result.

These forms are called glutamates. Salts exist only in a dry and crystallized form. The form ultimately responsible for the taste is the glutamate ion, and the form of glutamic acid at the time of the addition is not important. However, crystalline glutamic acid salts such as monosodium glutamate dissolve much better and faster than crystalline glutamic acid, a property important for use as a flavor enhancer.

Glutamic acid, one of the amino acids upon which every single protein is built in the human body, is chemically indistinguishable from the acid salt, MSG. Once you ingest MSG, it dissociates into sodium and the glutamate, which will be absorbed and utilized by the body.

Glutamic acid does not suddenly change properties when in salt form. Once it’s consumed, the glutamate separates from the sodium, and binds with hydrogen to become an acid again. The sodium is either utilized by the body or excreted through the kidneys.  It’s a simple physiological process, no mystery at all.

More science

Let me repeat myself, just for clarity. Ingest MSG into the liquid environment of the stomach, and it simply dissociates back into one sodium ion and one glutamate ion, and the glutamate is absorbed into the blood to create new proteins. It’s very simple chemistry, about the simplest I could describe in human physiology.

The body produces glutamate (or glutamic acid more properly) during various cellular processes, including the citric acid cycle, or Kreb’s cycle, which is a complex metabolic system fundamental to how the cell builds proteins and provides energy.

Glutamate is also a key compound in eliminating and controlling the waste nitrogen in the body (which is created by cells in the form of urea). It is also a neurotransmitter, used by nerve cells to transmit certain types of information, and is a critical substance in cognitive functions in memory and learning.  In other words, glutamate is very important to your life.  Without it, you will probably die. Or at least not be able to think.

So if you eat a lot of glutamate in your food, and your body synthesizes glutamate in substantial quantities, what is bad about MSG. Well, there’s a couple of issues that might happen. MSG does have a sodium, but it’s actually less by weight than an equivalent amount of table salt. Interestingly, in a 1984 Journal of Food Science article, MSG may actually be useful in reducing sodium consumption while not compromising taste (salt is critical to taste of many savory foods).

And that’s about it.

Best evidence

But is there any evidence that MSG is dangerous to humans?  In a word, no.

These review articles, which are meta-analyses of a large number of primary research articles, along with clinical trials, just don’t support the myth that MSG has an effect on anyone. There might be a small subpopulation of people who are sensitive to MSG, but even that has little support in scientific evidence, and is completely dismissed in systematic reviews.

About that Chinese Restaurant Syndrome

It is possible that Chinese food itself causes CRS. The food is saltier. It is filling. It can be high in carbohydrates and oils. In other words, other substances within the food may have the same exact effect as what is claimed by MSG alone. Funny thing is that soy sauce is higher in free glutamate (as discussed above, the form of MSG in solution) than what is used by most cooks. So are tomatoes. So are dozens of other foods.

In fact, according to a report by Food Standards Australia New Zealand, a typical Chinese restaurant meal will have between 10-1500 mg glutamate per 100 g food. Soy sauce has 400-1200 mg/100g. Vegemite (for my Australian readers) has about 1400 mg/100g. Parmesan cheese has around 1200 mg/100g. Tomatoes have around 200 mg/100g. In other words, your typical Italian meal (with tomato sauce and Parmesan) may provide more glutamate than your typical Chinese meal.

The TL;DR version

MSG is just a simple salt of glutamic acid, one of the 20 or so amino acids that are the building blocks of every protein in the body. The glutamate in MSG is indistinguishable, even at the atomic level, from all other glutamates on the planet. All of them. The glutamate in seaweed or manufactured from some process in a lab are equivalent to the ones produced by humans.

Almost everyone who claims an MSG sensitivity does not base that on anything but their personal experience. Anecdotes. They remember the one time that they might have had MSG, but forget all the times they felt fine after having sushi with soy sauce. Or a BBQ sauce that contains soy sauce and tomato sauce.

MSG is perfectly safe.  Go have a spoonful. Or put it on your food, because it does make it tastier. But it isn’t going to hurt you, unless for some illogical reason you think it will.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in December 2012. It has been completely revised and updated to include more comprehensive information, to improve readability and to add current research.

Key citations

 

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  • Jason Crose

    There are so many variables that have not been tested and so many health issues that have not been professionally researched. You can list all of the studies you like but the truth is that medical science is pseudo-science. It’s basically useful in proving something does have an effect but not so much at proving something does not have an effect. This is shown by the continued use of the words “there is no evidence” not “it’s an absolute fact.”

    We simply do not understand the human body enough to prove within a reasonable doubt that much of anything does not have a negative effect. Also, is it listed in this article that Glutamate is a powerful neurotransmitter? And that glutamic receptors exist in multiple locations in the body? Are the combined effects of MSG and damage from un-diagnosed food allergens (aka food intolerances like gluten) addressed? What if gluten or some other device is damaging the intestinal wall? What if they are damaging the blood brain barrier?

    Furthermore, cancer, rheumatoid/inflammatory disorders, and mental disorders are treated within the medical field as if they are the 7th wonder of the world, doctors barely have a clue. Yet people are getting better by using the SCD Diet, the GAPS Diet, antifungals, etc. Recently we’re seeing numerous studies released on the gut brain connection and that antibiotics may be permanently destroying the beneficial microbes in the gut creating an imbalance. That’s the root of disease, that’s where western medicine started 2000 years ago, that’s what people were treating with old time crazy sounding turpentine remedies in the 1800s. I’m not saying turpentine is a miracle cure, but it is a powerful antifungal and I don’t just imagine that that is why it was used. I’ve completed 3 weeks of 1tsp turpentine and 1sp sugar daily. I feel better than ever. Before this MSG containing foods would cause me massive anxiety. Now I can eat them in moderation.

    And lastly, to be fair, there are some fallacies here, it could theoretically be something else in my food that was causing the problem but I’m not the first person to notice this and I do read the labels for Natural Flavoring and other MSG containing substances. Unfortunately, there’s no money in researching a cure so no one is going to try to prove it any time soon. The only way things are going to get better is the network of people learning together like at Mercola.

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  • MariusDejess

    “MSG is perfectly safe. Go have a spoonful. Or put it on your food,
    because it does make it tastier. But it isn’t going to hurt you, unless
    for some illogical reason you think.”

    Can anyone prove from some kind of double-blind tests that MSG really enhances food flavors?

    I have just tried again yesterday to see whether it adds flavor to for example noodle, but no, nothing of flavor except what ordinary salt imparts, saltiness.

    Tell me your own double-blind tests: put cooked spaghetti in two completely look-alike bowls, add MSG in one and not in the other, take notice which has MSG; now ask someone to taste the spaghetti in both bowls, and tell you which one has any taste at all, and what is the taste.

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  • Shawn Parella

    I think it is incomplete to simply say that MSG is not “dangerous to humans” without acknowledging animal research, where far more invasive experiments can be performed. MSG has been shown to cause neuron swelling and rupture in mice. As for the blood brain barrier crossing, “Although the blood brain barrier (BBB) has low permeability to MSG, the presence of high affinity glutamate transporters located at the BBB capillary luminal membrane could facilitate the uptake of MSG into the brain.” Nothing definitive here, but enough for me to keep an open mind.

    Deciphering the MSG Controversy
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2802046/

    • http://www.skepticalraptor.com/skepticalraptorblog.php Skeptical Raptor

      Animal studies just have no relevance. Unless we can provide real evidence in the form of clinical trials, then you’re relying upon the precautionary principle which is irrelevant to me.

      Once again, glutamate is an amino acid. Please convince me that a simple amino acid, which is part of every single protein on this planet, can be harmful.

      BTW, you need to read some of my articles about what constitutes real science. Here are the problems with that article:

      1. It was published in a very low ranked journal that has almost no reputation in the scientific world. If the researchers actually had real data, it’s so important that it should have been published one of the 500 higher ranked medical journals.
      2. The researchers failed miserably to distinguish between the excess Na+ versus the glutamate. That’s just amateurish.
      3. Vitamin C? HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA
      4. The amount of MSG they added would be like consuming a kg of NaCl. It’s the sodium that harms. These guys would get flunked out of a real Ph.D. program for doing this high school science fair crap.

      • Jason Crose

        For animal studies to not be relevant it would be neccessary that animals not respond similar to humans to a reasonable number of stimuli. Such as their body not using potassium or their skin not containing melanin or not being succeptible to poisoning by arsenic. The plain fact is that animal studies are always relevant because they share a natural lineage with us, other animals.

        Animals are mammals – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mammal

        Humans are mammals – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mammal

        That’s a close enough connection that it cannot be dismissed.

        Glutamate is a Neurotransmitter – Meldrum, B. S. (2000). “Glutamate as a neurotransmitter in the brain: Review of physiology and pathology”. The Journal of nutrition 130 (4S Suppl): 1007S–1015S.PMID 10736372.

        Antibiotics allow yeast to floursish in the gut – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1257633/

        “Results are showing that both allergens produce significant increases in inflammation-related white blood cells in the lungs of the mice, and they elevate blood levels of key markers of allergic reactions, including IgE, interleukin-5, and interleukin-13. Mice not treated with antibiotics show much milder reactions to the allergens.”

        Candidiasis – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMHT0024526/

        “Yeast of the genus Candida have exploded into prominence in recent years as opportunistic and nosocomial fungal pathogens. However, the most recent textbook on these organisms was written in 1988.” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2732517/
        aka, we don’t know jack about it yet.

        I could go on and on trying to find the tidbits available to tie this all together but the truth is no one is going to spend the money necessary to prove that the billion dollar processed food industry is far worse than we thought and the billion dollar pharmaceutical industry is selling us pills to treat a condition that can be cured.

        So here’s my point. People are sick because of antibiotics killing their beneficial gut bacteria plus excess sugar to feed yeast plus MSG which contains a powerful neurotransmitter plus the resulting multiple food intolerances that result from a damaged gut. Once the gut is compromised the whole body is compromised and in this country we’ve fallen into a system that ensures that that happens.

      • Charles Shaver

        Painfully aware now for some thirty-five years that added cultured ‘free’ (as opposed to extracted natural ‘bound’) MSG is unsafe, but not learning of the 1980 U.S. FDA approval of the expanded use of added MSG (knowing full well then it would be harmful to “a few people;” FDA BACKGROUNDER, August 31, 1995; lucky me) until about early 2002, or the “how” until 2010 (based on personal insight and at-home experimentation) I could dissect your entire page of flaws but why bother. It’s much simpler, and sufficient, to just quote a major false statement within and suggest where you can find the real truth of the matter: “But is there any evidence that MSG is dangerous to humans? In a word, no.”

        As to the truth of the matter, simply go to the CDC/NCHS website and do at least a cursory review of the incidence and mortality of a few chronic diseases (e.g., diabetes) since 1980. Don’t count female breast cancer, though, the FDA approval of the processing of soy with hexane in the early ’70s better accounts for the late ’70s presentation (National Cancer Institute chart, 1973-1999) of that deadly, disfiguring and costly epidemic. With about twenty-five million added MSG poisoning related premature American deaths (genocide) since 1980, how much more proof does a rational person need?

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  • Grace Flower

    Wow, I am not a scientist..just a Mother trying to figure out what is wrong with her son. I have a 10 year old that has depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts (that seemed to come out randomly), learning disabilities, inattentive ADD, allergies, asthma, intolerance to artificial colors and medication hypersensitivity. All of his Dr.’s call him a puzzle and I have done everything in my power to make him better. After a third anti-anxiety medication caused a full body rash, we decided to do a strict elimination diet. Fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy. After two weeks, there was no depression, he stopped talking about suicide, he was happy and he was off all medications. After seven weeks, his grades have improved, his teachers say that he’s more outgoing, smiling and making friends. His personality has changed and he is so much easier to be around, homework is not a nightly struggle, his memory is so much better. He received a flu shot at week five and by that night, he was threatening to kill us and kill himself, he was sobbing, depressed and miserable. His flu shot contained MSG. You can have all the science of people that MAY be affected but my son is one of them. We have tested several foods, fast foods and suppliments and they all have overlapping ingredients of MSG. As for the blood brain barrier, all of his symptoms are neurological and emotional. I believe the Dr.’s that say that an allergy effects an area of the body and I believe that my son’s area is the brain. Swelling in the brain could cause personality changes and neurological issues.

    • http://beginingsinwriting.wordpress.com/ R.w. Foster

      Slight problem with your hypothesis: There’s no MSG in any vaccine.

      • lilady R.N.

        Small correction. Adenovirus vaccine, which is approved for use for military personnel contains MSG. There is no MSG in any seasonal influenza vaccine…or in any vaccine which “civilians” would receive and which are on the CD Childhood Recommended Vaccine Schedule and the CDC Adult Recommended Vaccine Schedule:

        http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/pubs/pinkbook/downloads/appendices/B/excipient-table-2.pdf

        • http://beginingsinwriting.wordpress.com/ R.w. Foster

          Well, I feel a bit foolish. Thank you for that bit of knowledge you dropped on me, ma’am.

      • http://www.skepticalraptor.com/skepticalraptorblog.php Skeptical Raptor

        And even if there were MSG cannot harm anyone. Period.

    • Jason Crose

      There’s MSG in this flu vaccine – http://www.nvic.org/vaccines-and-diseases/Influenza/flufacts.aspx

      I’m 37, I’ve lived with this for as long as I can remember. When I was very young I was more just melancholy and would not defend myself verbally or physically because the constant deep emotional pain I felt made me meek. But last year I found this video.

      I started cutting out MSG by learning about how it is hidden from labels by using names like Natural Flavoring. Artificial Flavoring, etc. At this point in my life I had an anxiety disorder so bad I was generally just at work or sitting at home by myself. I rarely went out and I had not dated in 7 years. Removing MSG from my diet was not easy, sometimes I would miss something on a label or just plain get a craving. But after 3 months most my anxiety was drastically reduced. If I had to quantify it I’d say it was down 80%.

      At that point I still had two nagging problems and a new one. The first problem was if I slipped up once or twice I was back where I started. The second problem was that I had massive cravings for junk food. For some reason eating junk food gave a small amount of relief while actually consuming it. And third, my new problem was a burning sensation in my gut.

      I had been going to mainstream doctors for years and seen three psychologists for anxiety. Nothing helped, not Paxil, not cognitive therapy, not meditation, nothing. So I finally got up the nerve to contact a chiropractor who practices naturopathy. She had me do a test called ALCAT. This test is not accepted by the American Medical Association, which specifically means that their study of the test did not prove that it works. They dismissed the test based on too much variance in results when the same sample was tested twice. But the information on what the variances were and how much the variance was does not appear to be readily available online. My ALCAT test results came back with results that I am highly intolerant of MSG, Citric Acid, and Cocoa. And that I am moderately intolerant of Gluten. I’ve read that much of the MSG and Citric acid in our food is produced in a factory using bacterial production methods rather than natural sources such as sea plants and citrus fruit. And gluten often comes from unnaturally hybridized plants. Medical science does not appear to study substances below the molecular level so it is hard to say how much of a difference the production method makes, but I have to imagine we’re playing with fire when we do not follow nature or traditionally tried and true preparation methods that people have survived well with for hundreds of years. I tried to cut all of these substances out but each of MSG, Citric Acid, and Gluten are found in just about everything at the grocery store and I was just too worn out, depressed, and stressed to push myself to learn how to cook.

      So as I struggled to stay free of these substances I continued reading and learned about a yeast called Candida. There is a theory that antibiotics kill off the beneficial bacteria in the gut and Candida, being a yeast, flourishes. It supposedly burrows into the intestinal wall where all of our nutrients pass in from the intestines. There it supposedly opens those holes letting things through that should not reach the blood stream. This is said to cause inflammation throughout the body. There are also other theories that gluten damages the blood brain barrier etc that contribute to the possible issues. I figured I also had some stinky armpits, a white film on my tongue, and had had cracked toenails in the past so I thought fungus(yeast) might be something I had already been dealing with.

      I was still struggling with avoiding my trigger foods. I would go two days feeling good and two weeks feeling bad. Month after month I became more and more desperate. I tried multiple Candida remedies, cleanses, etc. Some made me feel 100% better for a couple days but nothing lasted. The best thing I did was the SCD Intro Diet Chicken soup. On the third day my gut was literally like a washing machine, something in there was moving back and forth back and forth like a swarm of tiny bees or waves. I think it was my beneficial bacteria taking back my gut and Candida trying to run away. But unfortunately work stress pushed me to drinking a soda and I was never able to put myself through those three days again and get on the full SCD Diet. So, finally, still in desperation, I came across a powerful antifungal. This is where I stop for a moment and say that I’m not telling you to do this. I was desperate and the better half of my life (youth) was already behind me. But what I did was take turpentine and sugar. Turpentine and sugar is an old remedy that was still in use in the early 1900s. It was even in the Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy, not to say that everything medical from 1900 was spot on but it was in practice at that time.

      On the first day using turpentine and sugar I no longer had armpit odor

      On the second day using Turpentine with sugar I spent an hour and a half having watery yellow bowel movements. Afterward I felt very relaxed.

      On the third day I woke up and felt a jump in my step, I was more energetic. But I was concerned about using turpentine so I waited two weeks to use it again.

      Two weeks passed and I had the same reactions.

      This time however I noticed a little eye twitch, I couldn’t say it was related but I stopped using turpentine while I waited for the twitch to stop.

      Some weeks later something was going around work and I caught it. I never get better on my own so I went in and got antibiotics. The antibiotics plus some guaifenesin cold syrup handled most of my symptoms.

      I then returned to my doctor and told him about the armpit smell and showed him my white tongue. He put me on 2 weeks of Diflucan. The bad side effects were a sty under my eye and what looked like yellow poison ivy on my hands. However, the first three days I would hack up a lung 30 minutes after taking my pill. And after those three days my normally chronic bronchitis cough was gone. Then after the two weeks were up I slipped up and ate gluten and MSG and there was no affect. I became over excited and the next two day continued eating gluten and MSG with no effect. I decided to stop tempting fate and went back to eating health, my cravings were pretty mild. But two weeks later I felt worse than I had in months. My naturopath said this was common after taking Diflucan. There’s a theory that Diflucan prompts Candida to try and escape out through the body’s tissues instead of just out the digestive tract so a person should use the Diflucan until the Candida is completely gone. So my naturopath recommended I get back on Diflucan since I was already possibly in this state. But my doctor would not prescribe it as it can cause liver problems. So, once again out of desperation I went back to Turpentine. I used Turpentine for two weeks. I feel better than I have in 10 years. I have energy. When I speak to people in a meeting I can now speak with authority and defend my recommendations. I go out now with friends. I’m simply doing or enjoying a lot of things that I could not before. Take it for what you will but that was my experience. I hope something in there helps you with your troubles. There are great Facebook groups on Candida, SIBO, Turpentine, Andy Cutler Chelation, etc where people like me are getting better and sharing what they are trying, maybe one of those will help you. And don’t mind all the “experts” writing in here. Medical science is all psudo-science, researchers don’t know nearly enough about how the body works as a whole to run an effective study. If they did we wouldn’t be seeing so many constant findings and certainly something as important as the gut brain connection would have been fully realized years ago. Lets face it, we put animals in cages, do tests on them, and then dissect them and still we don’t fully understand the workings of their bodies so the idea that any medical study is conclusive is just absurd. But hey, I’m the crazy Turpentine guy right, so who’s going to listen to me. 😉

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      • Jason Crose

        You can look up half a dozen animal studies at the National Center for Biotechnology Information and see evidence that there may be a problem. There is no absolute proof that these same problems cannot occur in humans under any of the unlimited number of possible circumstances. Furthermore, the use of the statements “We’re going to have to disabuse you” and “Your peanut story is cute” and “Your criticism of the article is silly” and “Geez.” are passive aggressive.