The Racist Myth of MSG and ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’
This is the story of a racist myth that began with a light-hearted letter to the New England Journal of Medicine in 1968 and subsequently exploded in North American culture — in direct opposition to every shred of scientific evidence — becoming so prevalent that credulous eaters buy into it to the point of experiencing its effects on a purely psychosomatic basis.
It’s often been called “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” and its premise is that MSG in Chinese food results in unpleasant allergic reactions. Interestingly enough, higher quantities of MSG in non-Chinese foods are not reported to have the same effects. MSG is a naturally occurring amino acid, and some of the highest levels of MSG a North American consumer is likely to ingest come in vine-ripened tomatoes, aged cheese, and dry-aged steak — yet there is no reported medical phenomenon known as “Italian Food Syndrome” or “American Steakhouse Syndrome”.
Monosodium glutamate was first isolated from the seaweed kombu, commonly used in the Japanese broth dashi, by biochemist Kikunae Ikeda of the Tokyo Imperial University in 1908. He named its taste umami because it differed from the five conventional flavours of sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and spicy. Ikeda patented his discovery and MSG became commercially available in 1909. It was found to enhance flavours with one third of the amount of sodium as traditional salt, i.e. sodium chloride. In this sense, monosodium glutamate is probably healthier than sodium chloride because it achieves flavour with reduced sodium levels.
MSG was immediately popular in Asia and became common in the North American food industry after World War II, used in baby food, canned soup, vegetable juice, frozen food, as well as seasoning mix brands such as Accent. Yet somehow in the 1960s, this popular food additive became associated with Chinese food and deemed a health hazard. Why? Because Chinese people, culture, and food have been targeted by widespread and effective racist hate campaigns in North America since the 19th century, buttressed by wild claims that the Chinese are “unclean”, carry diseases, are sexually-deviant opium addicts, inscrutable and sneaky, a Yellow Peril.
The 1968 letter to the New England Journal of Medicine which solidified the myth of MSG was actually written by a Chinese immigrant named Robert Ho Man Kwok, who described “numbness at the back of the neck, gradually radiating to both arms and the back, general weakness and palpitation” after eating in American Chinese restaurants. The letter opened the floodgates to a barage of letters and related articles complaining of headaches, dizziness, paralysis of the throat, tingling in the temples, tightness of the jaw, irregular heartbeat, depression, hyperactivity, and all manner of digestive ailments.
Given this preponderance of anecdotal evidence, numerous scientific studies have been performed since then attempting to identify this “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”. The funny thing is that no study has ever been able to do so. When people don’t know that they’re consuming MSG, they don’t suffer adverse reactions. All national and international food safety bodies have concluded that MSG is perfectly safe. People in Japan eat MSG every single day and the Japanese have the longest life expectancy in the world.
Fear of MSG is a racist remnant of the Chinese Exclusion era which exists only in North America and has been thoroughly debunked by science. Yet racist socialization is so powerful that people actually experience physical effects such as headaches, depression, and indigestion based solely on their indoctrinated fear of Chinese people and Chinese food. Think it over next time you eat parmesan cheese or a vine-ripened tomato.
… Well, that’s very interesting.
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