Which foods we choose to savor or avoid with an upturned nose are not always statements of preference. Politics can also bias what we eat. No food illustrates that tension more than monosodium glutamate — better known as MSG.
You’ll see “NO MSG” labels proudly slapped on snack foods across grocery stores nationwide, right alongside other, now health-haloed, labels like “GMO-Free” or “Gluten-Free.”
Instead of warning consumers of an allergen, these MSG labels instead warn people against something at times called “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” a derivative term used to describe the collection of symptoms you’ll find scattered across Yelp reviews that claim eating too much Chinese takeout containing MSG can give you headaches, heart palpitations, numbness, and weakness.
Except, it doesn’t.
The origin of this myth and the way it has twisted itself into our culinary mindset today can be traced through Japanese seasides, disputed medical research, and all the way to the anti-Asian violence we’ve seen throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, Jennifer LeMesurier tells Inverse. LeMesurier is an assistant professor of writing and rhetoric at Colgate University and author of the report “Uptaking Race: Genre, MSG, and Chinese Dinner.”
What is MSG?
Long before it stepped into the spotlight, MSG was already enjoyed naturally in foods like tomatoes, stinky cheeses like parmesan, and even seaweed.
A cousin of table salt, MSG is a sodium salt of glutamic acid, meaning it’s part salt but also part glutamate — a type of amino acid associated with neurotransmitter connections in the brain. MSG doesn’t taste too great on its own (just as table salt doesn’t) but when added to food it enhances savory flavors by bringing out their “umami” with a dose of saltiness.
MSG, however, is more than three times less salty than actual table salt by mass.
When people warn of the dangers of MSG today though they’re not usually referring to tomatoes. Instead, they’re thinking about a form of synthesized MSG that Japanese chemist, Kikunae Ikeda, first derived from seaweed in 1908.
This innovation made it possible for MSG to be sprinkled in stews or soups just like salt (it was even originally marketed in salt shakers, LeMesurier says) but what LeMesurier calls a “racist game of telephone” between American doctors and journalists in the 1960s would soon give this plant-based seasoning a bad name.
How did the MSG myth start?
It all starts with a letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1968 by Dr. Ho Man Kwok, a pediatrician in Maryland, which explored the potential reasons he may have felt numbness at the back of the neck after eating American Chinese food. Kwok comes to no clear conclusion but does pen the infamous line:
“Others have suggested that it may be caused by the monosodium glutamate seasoning used to a great extent for seasoning in Chinese restaurants,” wrote Kwok.
But oddly enough, it wasn’t just this line that started the myth but instead of the reaction it received from other doctors.
“The start of the MSG myth was less a ruse and more of a tacitly racist game of telephone, as it were,” says LeMesurier. “[L]ooking at the other doctor's responses to Kwok is where it gets interesting... the doctors wrote derisive messages — and even poems! — in response to Kwok's original letter, clearly making fun of the idea that MSG could be harmful.”
They even went so far as to racistly riff on the name “Kwok” itself, which LeMesurier says is a common Cantonese last name, to associate it with “crock,” as in crock of shit.
“In short, the doctors responding to Kwok were using his letter as an opportunity to make puns about Chinese food and generally joke about this problem,” explains LeMesurier. “But the journalists at the time saw these messages' hyperbole as actual cause for alarm.”
This is exampled in headlines like “Chinese Food Make You Crazy? MSG is Number One Suspect,” LeMesurier told “This American Life” in 2019.
Is MSG bad for you?
The misinformation about MSG spread like wildfire and other scientists and doctors began designing experiments and running trials to see if they could replicate and quantify what Kwok had described. These included non-human forms of ingesting MSG — like injecting it under the skin of mice or into their brain.
While these extreme forms of MSG “consumption” did have some negative effects on the mice (including neurological damage,) MSG consumed orally in human trials could not replicate these effects. Through decades of testing MSG, the FDA has remained steadfast in its 1959 assessment that the seasoning is not harmful when consumed as intended (aka, don’t inject it.)
In recent years, scientists have even begun studying how MSG may be good for us, including as a replacement for salt in certain snacks to reduce its overall sodium content.
The racist impact of the MSG myth
While MSG may still turn its image around, the pervasiveness of this myth has had a significant impact on the people it targets, namely Asian Americans and Asian immigrants. The MSG myth has shaped the West’s view of Chinese food, in particular, into something cheap, unhealthy, and even dirty — and that's a perception that often intrinsically passes to the people behind the food as well, says LeMesurier.
“During the 2021 protests against anti-Asian prejudice and violence, you'll often see a sign that says ‘Love us like you love our food,’” says LeMesurier. “But what that equation misses or covers up is the range of bad reasons that might support that love.”
“If people only love Asian food when it's cheap, or when they're drunk or hungover, or when they want something 'novel', that's a very conditional love.”
The West’s cultural obsession with wellness and focus on “purity” in food has become a way to enjoy these foods (but only on “cheat days”) while simultaneously diminishing and demonizing them, says LeMesurier. Any flavorful foods that might cause intestinal discomfort, or God forbid bloating, are off-limits in this white-washed wellness space.
“Do I think that believing in the MSG myth means that you explicitly hate Asians?” asks LeMesurier. “No. But I do think that the dominant perception of Asian food as lesser, cheaper, and potentially riskier feeds into the ongoing negative perception of Asians as outsiders, and that ongoing perception is linked to the violent targeting of Asians during this time of Covid-19.”
This is a problem that can’t be solved overnight, but LeMesurier says we all have a role to play in helping repair it by questioning our biases and assumptions about MSG and working to change how we talk about it — and the people who cook with it.
One place to start, she says, is with retiring the name of this “syndrome” itself: “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.”
“MSG is found in a range of products that are not Chinese, like Doritos,” says LeMesurier. “Words really do matter.”
CHECK, PLEASE is an Inverse series that uses biology, chemistry, and physics to debunk the biggest food myths and assumptions.
Note: This article has been updated to reflect that LeMesurier’s 2019 interview was with “This American Life” not “RadioLab.”