On Your Mind... Hospital Ratings, Milk Myths, and the Truth About MSG

"Why haven't you answered my question yet?"

You might be surprised to learn that this question is one of the most common questions I get.

I'm the first to admit that my inbox can get a little full. (My assistant likes to point out that my unread e-mail count almost hit 50,000 at one point.)

But the e-mails I do always read are from you, the readers. And that's why I love our weekly Q&As in the Health & Wealth Bulletin. I get the chance to interact on a personal level with you.

Unfortunately, I can't answer every question, as I'm prohibited from giving individual advice. And there's simply not enough space in this letter to get to everyone's question. But today, I'm answering a handful of questions on topics that keep cropping up...

As I mentioned before, I do read all of the e-mails. And my team keeps a file of e-mails that we're researching and will use for future issues. So please keep sending in your questions and feedback... [email protected].

Now let's dig into your questions...

Q: In a recent missive, you shared a list of the best treatment centers for cancers. Do you have suggestions for finding a good hospital for non-cancer related treatments? – R.B.

A: If you need to choose a hospital for any kind of surgery or procedure, don't trust the masses. According to a study in the journal Health Services Research, you can't fully trust ratings on popular sites like Facebook, Yelp, or Google.

The problem is that people review these places like they would restaurants. They neglect to show you the important stuff – like infection rates, safety ratings, and more. What's worse, this report showed that 20% of hospitals getting the best "crowdsourced" ratings actually had the lowest scores from Medicare's Hospital Compare. This system looks at things like infection rates, timeliness of care, and safety procedures. It accounts for about 57 different measures – far more than what your average Joe on Facebook would consider.

So don't blindly follow personal recommendations. Do your own research. We recommend using U.S. News & World Report for its hospital rating system. We've also recommended the Hospital Compare system, which you can find here. And be sure to check with your insurance provider to make sure the hospital is in-network to avoid sky-high fees.

Q: My wife is making the family switch to skim milk. I can't stand it. Is it really healthier than whole or 2% milk? – M.M.

A: Apologies to your wife, but she has fallen victim to one of the biggest myths in the food industry...

I've told readers for years that the key here is full-fat dairy. The fat will keep you feeling full, and you'll get plenty of calcium and other nutrients. If you opt for the low-fat or skim varieties, you don't get the calories. That sets you up to overeat to satisfy your hunger hormones.

That goes for milk, too. Milk contains a sugar called galactose that increases inflammation. If you drink milk, opt for the whole milk variety so you feel fuller and don't drink too much.

But the best thing to do is skip milk altogether and do what I do... I recommend getting calcium from a variety of sources, including cheese, yogurt, fortified orange juice, leafy greens, and fish.

Q: Forgive me if you covered this recently, but for various reasons we frequently end up with a pile of cash in our brokerage account and would like to know where to put it (other than in your account) while not in play. We don't want to expose it to much more risk than the money-market side of the account. – T.O.

A: It depends on how much you think you'll need the money in the future... If you want it to be liquid for emergencies or even investing, you could look for a high-yield checking account.

Big national banks, like Bank of America and Wells Fargo, offer savings accounts that yield 0.03% and 0.01%, respectively. But you can do much better with a little searching. Websites like Bankrate and NerdWallet can help you find the best rates.

If you want to look for even better rates on any of these accounts, join a credit union. Credit unions are nonprofit companies that act as local community banks. Credit unions often pay the best rates, but many have membership requirements. Sometimes it's as easy as living in the community that the credit union serves, but it can vary. You can find a credit union near you with A Smarter Choice.

(Note: We do not endorse nor are we affiliated with any credit union or financial institution mentioned in this letter or in the links above.)

Q: I've seen "MSG-free" on lots of packaging lately, but then I also hear chefs promoting MSG for its flavor. What's the deal? Should I avoid it or is it okay? – T.B.

A: Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a flavor-enhancing chemical used in some foods to boost their taste. It's more common in Asian cuisine – you'll likely see some Chinese takeout spots sporting "No MSG" signs in their windows.

The fear of MSG comes from older studies that showed it caused lesions to form on the brains of baby mice. Now, safety studies have since shown that this was at 1) very high doses and 2) did not have the same effect in other species (like humans). MSG later was vilified for its supposed role in "Chinese restaurant syndrome." That term started in the '60s and is now outdated... But it refers to MSG causing a host of symptoms that we now recognize as a food sensitivity.

These symptoms include flushing, headache, numbness, tingling, nausea, and sweating. It's important to know that this isn't an allergy – your immune system does not respond that way, so you can't take allergy meds to combat it. The only course of action is to avoid foods with MSG, hence the labels.

Now, few people actually have this MSG sensitivity. The real problem with MSG today has to do with your liver. You might remember that we've written before about fatty liver disease, which is on the rise. It's caused by your liver storing up excess fat and losing its ability to function properly. And it can cause liver cancer, one of the deadliest cancers you can get.

A 2009 study from the Journal of Lipid Research showed that trans fat induced fatty liver disease was "exacerbated" by MSG... that's even at levels that we would typically consume on a daily basis. So limiting your exposure to MSG will help keep your liver healthy, but a better step is to cut out the trans fats too – that means no processed foods, or anything fatty or fried.

Q: Is alcohol-based mouthwash better than mouthwash without alcohol? – K.O.

A: No. Several studies have shown that the alcohol in mouthwash increases the risk of oral cancers. The proof isn't absolute, but the link is strong. The alcohol used in the mouthwash breaks down into a known carcinogen, acetaldehyde.

Try a nonalcoholic mouthwash. Just check the label for alcohol. Many brands advertise that the mouthwash is "alcohol-free" on the front label. And do what I do... Alternate between nonalcoholic and regular mouthwash. I prefer to use my own mouthwash using 3% hydrogen peroxide from the drugstore diluted with equal part water.

Got questions you want answered? Send them our way... [email protected].

What We're Reading...

Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
November 8, 2019