MSG MYTH. Chefs at a well-known Chinese restaurant in Hong
Kong’s central district are seen cleaning metal bars used to
hang meat in this April 25, 2003 file photo. A social-media
campaign backed by a Japanese seasonings company is targeting
the persistent idea that Chinese food is packed with MSG and can
make you sick. (AP Photo/Anat Givon, File)
From The Asian Reporter, V30, #02 (January 20, 2020),
Asians cringe at "Chinese restaurant syndrome
By Terry Tang
The Associated Press
A social-media campaign backed by a Japanese seasonings
company is targeting the persistent idea that Chinese food is
packed with MSG and can make you sick.
So entrenched is the notion in American culture, it shows up
in the dictionary: Merriam-Webster.com lists "Chinese restaurant
syndrome" as a real illness that has been around since 1968. But
much of the mythology around the idea has been debunked:
monosodium glutamate, also known as MSG, shows up in many foods
from tomatoes to breast milk, and there’s no evidence to link it
"For me, it’s another thing to point to other people and say
‘Look, if you think racism toward Asians doesn’t exist in this
country, like here it is,’" said restaurateur Eddie Huang. "I
know how white people see us. ‘They’re cool, they’re acceptable,
they’re non-threatening. But they’re weird, their food.’"
Huang, a New York City-based chef and author (his memoir
inspired the ABC sitcom "Fresh Off the Boat"), and TV’s "The
Real" co-host Jeannie Mai are launching a social-media effort
with Ajinomoto, the longtime Japanese producer of MSG
seasonings. They plan to use the hashtag #RedefineCRS to
challenge Merriam-Webster to rewrite the definition.
When reached for comment, Merriam-Webster said it had not
received complaints before about "Chinese restaurant syndrome"
but would reconsider the term.
"Our aim is always to provide accurate information about what
words mean, which includes providing information about whether a
use is offensive or dated," senior editor Emily Brewster said in
a statement. "We’ll be reviewing this particular entry and will
revise it according to the evidence of the term in use.
Shifts in culture and attitudes put the dictionary in a
constant state of revision, she added.
Before joining the effort, neither Huang nor Mai had any idea
the phrase was in the dictionary.
"The dictionary I thought was a reputable kind of bible that
was fact-checked all the way through in order to get us
information," said Mai, who is Vietnamese and Chinese. "‘Chinese
restaurant syndrome’ is truly an outdated, super racist term."
The symptoms are listed as numbness of the neck, arms, and
back as well as headaches, dizziness, and palpitations. It
affects people eating food but "especially Chinese food heavily
seasoned with monosodium glutamate."
The campaign isn’t looking to wipe the phrase out, but update
"I actually think it’d be interesting if they just kept it
and just noted this is an outdated, antiquated thing," Huang
said. "I do think these things are important to remember and
Huang and Mai say the campaign is not about trying to help
boost sales at Ajinomoto, which was founded in 1908 after a
Japanese professor figured out how to isolate glutamate from a
"They’re already selling tons of their products. They don’t
really need my help to be honest," Huang said.
So, how did the myth endure for more than five decades?
It started with a letter to the New England Journal of
Medicine in 1968, according to Robert Ku, author of
Dubious Gastronomy: The Cultural Politics of Eating Asian in the
USA. Dr. Ho Man Kwok, who was Chinese American, wrote a
letter speculating that some Chinese restaurants left him
feeling numbness and other symptoms. Other readers, doctors
themselves, then wrote in saying they experienced something
similar. Some researchers claimed that MSG was the source, Ku
said. The journal’s editors decided to call it "Chinese
"For a long time, Chinese restaurant syndrome was considered
a legitimate ailment that the medical community seemed to back,"
The New York Times picked up on the debate. Chinese
restaurants everywhere were putting up signs and menus that said
"No MSG" because of the backlash.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that specialists doing more
research began disproving the syndrome, Ku said. They found MSG
was in just about every processed food.
"It made no sense that only Chinese food that has MSG causes
these ill effects but you can’t get it from Campbell’s Soup," Ku
MSG comes from glutamate, a common amino acid or protein
building block found in food, according to Julie Stefanski, a
spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics. Glutamate
is present in foods like ham and some cheeses.
The Food and Drug Administration says MSG is generally
recognized as a safe addition to food. In previous studies with
people identifying as sensitive to MSG, researchers found that
neither MSG nor a placebo caused consistent reactions, the
At a Chinese restaurant in Phoenix, some patrons had never
even heard of the term.
Linda Saldana is bothered by one culture’s food getting
"I’m obviously not Asian," said Saldana, who was having lunch
with her husband, son, and two nieces. "But if that was to be
said about Mexican food, I’d feel a little offended because how
could food cause all that?"
Terry Tang reported from Phoenix and is a
member of The Associated Press’ race and ethnicity team.