In 1968, Chinese-American physician Robert Ho Man Kwok penned what he thought was a lighthearted letter to The New England Journal of Medicine. He wrote of experiencing numbness, palpitations, and weakness after eating in Chinese restaurants in the US, and wondered whether the monosodium glutamate used by the cooks here might be behind his strange illness.
The consequences of Kwok’s letter were far-reaching and devastating. MSG, then a common food enhancer, was immediately tagged as a toxin in the public eye, a move supported by flawed “research”, and was removed from nearly every commercially-available food found on store shelves. “Chinese restaurant syndrome” evolved out of this newfound panic, with claims that MSG-enhanced food only led to headaches, dizziness, and even fainting–a claim that science has since thoroughly debunked. Despite the research, 4 in 10 Americans still say they actively avoid MSG. But make no mistake: the real danger doesn’t lie with MSG itself, but in the anti-Asian racism fueling anti-MSG propaganda.
First, I’ll get the facts out of the way. MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is a naturally occurring amino acid in high-umami foods such as tomatoes and walnuts; umami is one of the five tastes, described as ultra savory or simply “deliciousness.” MSG as a food additive was first developed in 1908 by Japanese biochemist Kikuane Ikeda, who was trying to isolate the savory taste of kombu, an edible seaweed used as a base in Japanese soups.
Needless to say, his work was a hit all around the globe. From GOYA products to noodles from your local Thai restaurant, MSG is everywhere. It’s certainly not some poison developed by Asian and Chinese restaurateurs to sicken the American public, but after Kwok’s letter, it was treated as the pariah of additives. As early as 1986, scientists were arguing that years of research had “failed to reveal any objective sign” that MSG was dangerous, but by then, American anxieties about MSG were almost impossible to contain. Asian restaurants around the nation were viewed with hostility and suspicion, fueling a wave of anti-Asian racism that hurt more than a few businesses, people, and communities.
The anti-MSG, pro-”clean” food movement is part of the reason why Chinese food, even now, is viewed by many as processed, unclean, or unhealthy. It’s a stigma that unfairly extends onto Chinese and Asian people themselves, contributing to harassment and other forms of anti-Asian racism. By parroting anti-MSG talking points and deeming all foods made with MSG dangerous, one directly participates in this extremely harmful rhetoric.
Though MSG has slowly begun to be re-embraced by the American public, it still has yet to fully recover from the onus of Chinese restaurant syndrome. Leslie Stein, science communications director for the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, an institute that studies taste and smell, expressed surprise at the lingering notoriety of MSG. “There really is no evidence it has a deleterious effect,” she says.
Making informed choices about what you eat is never a bad thing. There’s no right or wrong. However, it’s worth understanding the origins of those choices. In the case of MSG, it was never really about the science.