January 30, 2023


World's finest Food

Why the ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’ Myth Lingers

racism and msg lead art

IN 2019, a fast-casual restaurant called Lucky Lee’s opened for business in New York City with an extremely problematic premise: The white owner, Arielle Haspel, promised to serve up “clean Chinese” that was less salty, less greasy, and MSG-free, so that diners may enjoy their favorite dishes without feeling “bloated and icky,” according to one of her Instagram posts.

The restaurant shuttered after less than a year of operation amid accusations of racism and cultural appropriation from the Asian American community. (Haspel also deleted her post and couldn’t be reached by MH for comment.) But the whole experience is just one battle in the war of mixed messaging around MSG.

This idea of an improved Chinese food fit for the refined white palate is the culmination of decades of insidious mythmaking with MSG, or monosodium glutamate, sprinkled at its center. Today, there are still some Chinese restaurants that feel the need to declare they do not use MSG in their food. You’ll find “No added MSG” labeling all over the supermarket, too—from Lorissa’s Kitchen beef jerky to ranch dressing—right along health-haloed phrases like “gluten-free” and “non-GMO.”

There’s a counteroffensive that’s been launched as well: In recent years, one of the world’s largest suppliers of MSG, the Japanese-based Ajinomoto corporation, has recruited celebrities and chefs like Eddie Huang and Pepper Teigen to spread the good word about MSG—something that David Chang has continued to stump for separately in many ways (see his “MSG Is for Lovers” video). Ajinomoto’s related campaign “Redefine CRS” has since resulted in Merriam-Webster Dictionary revising its definition of “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” to point out that the term is “dated” and “potentially offensive” and that there’s no research to support the idea that MSG is harmful.

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So why all the hate?

Those who stand against MSG wrongly claim that it is the source of some very serious health outcomes. And yet that misinformation has spread worldwide. In the U.S., MDLinx, an informational platform for health-care professionals, still refers to MSG as a “notorious excitotoxin” that leads to brain damage. Then there’s Atchayapathra Foods, a healthy meal home-delivery service in India that shares an anti-MSG informational page warning about everything from “sleep-disordered breathing” to cancer. There are articles published as recently as 2017 that still warn that regular consumption of MSG can lead to a lower IQ. In fact, three years ago, the Supreme Court of Pakistan banned both the sale and import of what was referred to as “Chinese salt.”

All these sentiments run counter to scientifically backed rulings by the World Health Organization and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, who jointly concluded nearly 35 years ago that MSG was an ingredient of “low toxicity,” as well as declarations from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has designated MSG as “generally recognized as safe.” Still, four out of ten Americans actively avoid the ingredient, according to a 2016 International Food Information Council Foundation survey.

If the staying power of MSG fear feels a little like the persistence of urban legends, cultural experts believe there’s something to that—something far more hurtful.

The Rise of the “Essence of Deliciousness”

FOR THE better part of the past century, MSG was actually considered an indispensable ingredient worthy of celebration. The compound was discovered in 1908, when Kikunae Ikeda, a Japanese chemist, isolated the chemical responsible for making sea-kelp stock so tasty.

Ikeda proposed calling this new unique flavor umami—now associated with our sense of savoriness in food. On a scientific level, monosodium glutamate is the sodium salt of glutamic acid, and glutamic acid becomes glutamate when it’s broken down by the body. As soon as MSG hits the saliva in your mouth, it breaks down into glutamate and sodium, which your taste buds perceive as salty/savory umami (translated as “essence of deliciousness” from Japanese).

dr kikunae ikeda portrait

Ikeda brought his discovery to a Japanese iodine manufacturer, and in 1909 they joined forces to launch Ajinomoto, which still produces MSG today. After some initial struggles to find a consumer niche in its first few years, Ajinomoto eventually found footing by tapping into a kind of aspirational “new domesticity” that was appealing to modern Japanese housewives, according to research by Jordan A. Sand, Ph.D., a professor of Japanese history at Georgetown University. MSG soon became a pantry staple in Japan, then spread to other Asian countries and, eventually, the United States, where it was widely used by food manufacturers, notably in canned goods.

By the 1940s, a number of American companies were producing MSG domestically for the consumer, the most famous one being Ac’cent, which was advertised as “pure monosodium glutamate” that “makes food flavors sing”; various food magazines and community cookbooks featured the additive as an ingredient in the likes of fried chicken wings and barbecue sauce recipes. By 1969, 58 million pounds of MSG were being produced in the U.S. per year, says food historian Ian Mosby, Ph.D. For an entire generation, the ingredient was present in a dizzying array of food products (breakfast cereals, TV dinners, frozen vegetables, baby food, and soup) produced by beloved brands such as Campbell’s and Swanson—which today offer products free of MSG additives.

Families seemed happy to accept it as necessary for good fried chicken, ranch dressing, and mac ’n’ cheese. Then came the extremely loose yet nefarious connection with Chinese food.

The Fall of MSG

THE BAD spin on MSG all started with one confusing complaint.

In 1968, a researcher and pediatrician named Robert Ho Man Kwok, M.D., wrote to The New England Journal of Medicine detailing symptoms of numbness and palpitations that he experienced after the consumption of food from Chinese restaurants. The editor playfully dubbed the letter “Chinese-Restaurant Syndrome” and subsequently received numerous letters both ridiculing and supporting Kwok’s claims. The New York Times was quick to pick up the story, and a study published in the journal Science in early 1969 made a connection between the syndrome and MSG. As other scientists began to study the phenomenon, they didn’t take into account how their results might be spun for potential harm.

A year later, a study in Science reported that mice injected with MSG showed stunted skeletal development, obesity, and, in females, infertility. Extrapolating from the data, the author of the paper questioned whether MSG was safe for pregnant women. Except the scientists in the study delivered between five and 15 milligrams of MSG into the baby mice, a dose equivalent to 245,000 milligrams for a 180-pound human, far above the 500 milligrams Americans consume daily.

In July 1969, the researchers who conducted these early studies joined consumer activist Ralph Nader to urge a U.S. Senate committee to establish the safety of certain prolific food additives, such as MSG. In October 1969, a ban of MSG use in baby food was recommended by Jan Meyer, the chair of the White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health. A few months later, the New York City Health Department issued a letter to all Chinese restaurants and vendors demanding that MSG “be used sparingly when preparing food.”

By 1970, two studies in Science and Nature found no evidence that supported a connection between MSG ingestion and experiencing symptoms associated with CRS. But as political and public fear mounted, many American food manufacturers removed MSG from their labels, according to Sarah Tracy, Ph.D., a historian who is writing a book about the history of MSG. And Chinese restaurants started slapping large “No MSG” language on menus and storefronts.

msg bottle caution tape

What’s perhaps more telling is that even with MSG taken out of Chinese food, complaints of health issues continued. A 1977 study by researchers at Harvard University found that “respondents attributed virtually any unpleasant symptom experienced anytime within 24 hours after eating in a Chinese restaurant to represent the ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.’ ” It’s not a thing of the past, either. There are still Yelp reviews of Asian restaurants that include people complaining of headaches. That goes for both restaurants that still abstain from using MSG for fear of alienating customers and those that have decided enough is enough and dropped that charade. Surely, many people experience something negative when eating Chinese food, but what is it exactly?

The Health of the Matter

SCIENTISTS APPROACHED human nutrition very differently in the 1960s compared with today, and much of the confusion around MSG has been sorted out—at least within the world of dietetics.

Brian St. Pierre, R.D., C.S.C.S, a Men’s Health advisor, pokes a hole in the myth: “MSG is not a toxin,” he says. That’s because, first, the results of rodent experiments are not often replicated in humans, he says. And second, just like the infertility experiment on mice, other mice-based experiments centered on “injecting large doses of MSG” are simply impossible to mimic, even if you gorge.

“While MSG might cause headaches in some people, it doesn’t cause brain damage. In the studies done on rats, they were given ten to 100 times average human consumption on a bodyweight basis,” St. Pierre says. “There is no evidence that currently shows any detriment to brain health in humans when MSG is consumed in normal amounts.” The same goes for cancer, lower IQs, and the umbrella complaint of “allergies.”

Glutamate by itself is a naturally occurring amino acid and acts as a neurotransmitter. It also exists in abundance naturally in tomatoes, shrimp, hard cheeses, and, yes, even the whey-protein shake you might knock back after a workout. So even if you avoid consuming foods seasoned with MSG, you’re likely consuming glutamate in many common foods you eat.

protein bottle, tomato, shrimp, cheese, with caution tape

As for the most common complaint of “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” in 2018 the International Headache Society removed MSG from its list of causative factors for headaches after studies could not prove a definitive connection.

The Real Symptom

MOSBY DESCRIBES the late 1950s as a time of heightened anti-Chinese sentiments. By the 1960s, domestic and international politics had shifted toward a fairly clear anti-communist agenda. In fact, he says, during this time, anti-Chinese sentiments were so mainstream and accepted that most Americans didn’t consider their apprehension to be racial bias.

The nature of Chinese food at this time made things worse, says Fei-Hsien Wang, Ph.D., a historian who studies MSG. But the cultural blame for that was also misplaced: “As Chinese restaurants became more common in the U.S., most were not fine dining but greasy, heavily seasoned takeout fast food that catered to American tastes,” she says. Abnormal usage of MSG made for a fine scapegoat for the physiological and gastrointestinal symptoms that accompanied unhealthy eating habits—especially when it happened to be Chinese food. Meanwhile, plenty of food-court and fast-casual chains have since popularized this unhealthy Americanized version.

takaaki nishii poses in front of a display of ajinomoto products

President Takaaki Nishii of Ajinomoto, one of the world’s largest suppliers of MSG, poses in front of a display of his company’s products.


Emily Porter-Salmon, Ph.D., a semiotician at the London-based cultural-insight agency Sign Salad, says MSG faces a tough uphill battle for reputation redemption. “It’s the harsh chemical name, and it is Other with a capital O.” Modern consumers are wary of overly processed foods that are devoid of nutrition and rely entirely on multisyllabic chemical additives to taste good. Meanwhile, trendy diets often feature organic, unadulterated ingredients that are raw, pure, or perhaps reminiscent of meals eaten by prehistoric ancestors. A fine, white crystal that is not pure salt or sugar seems at odds with that ideology—even if it’s been proven to add deliciousness while subtracting, well, nothing.

“MSG is seen as this high-tech food additive made in this other place, and that is seen as inherently frightening and hostile in the West,” says Porter-Salmon. “If it were derived in the West, it would just be seen as any other food additive.” Don’t discount the downright racist “microaggression that is super strong around unfamiliar foreign food,” says Porter-Salmon, a sentiment echoed by Mosby and Tracy.

Today, more chefs like Huang, Teigen, and Chang are pushing to change perceptions. In fact, many are increasingly outspoken about how MSG should be the not-so-secret ingredient for adding depth and roundness to savory dishes.

“MSG can give the illusion of cooking time when you don’t have it,” says food writer Niamh Shields, author of Bacon the Cookbook.

“It works a treat when added to tomato sauce for pasta, particularly if you’ve got tomatoes that aren’t the best,” says Helen Graves, a food writer and an editor of Pit, a magazine about food and fire. “I wouldn’t hesitate to add it to a ragù or other slow-cooked dish—the kinds of dishes where we are always looking to create ‘depth’ but sometimes don’t quite achieve it.”

MiMi Aye, the author of Mandalay: Recipes and Tales from a Burmese Kitchen and the host of The MSG Pod, a popular cooking podcast, suggests that anyone new to the game make two versions of their favorite dish–one with MSG and one without. “My favorite way to demonstrate this is to make scrambled eggs,” she says. “Whisk four eggs with salt and pepper, divide into two bowls, and add a small pinch of MSG to one. You’ll never eat eggs without MSG again!”

Nick Lacasse, a former Around the World in 80 Plates contestant and an executive chef at Walden Catering, suggests that the only limitation on uses may truly be our imagination. “MSG would work great in pickles, as the flavor develops as it ferments and evolves,” he says. You can also try pickled mushrooms, or any vegetable with a denser flesh.

At the end of the day, was the MSG panic in America really Chinese panic? After 50 years of discourse, the ingredient still has a long road to travel before its negative mystique fades away. If you’re paying attention, you should be able to taste the change already. Says Wang: “There’s MSG in KFC, but there’s no KFC Syndrome, you know?”

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