MSG’s slow road to redemption continues

MSG has been branded as a dangerous food ingredient for decades, especially associated with Chinese cuisine. The problematic controversy isn’t rooted in science, but instead, racism, with chefs of today advocating to debunk dated myths about the ingredient’s health impacts. 

In 2019, Lucky Lee’s, a fast-casual Chinese American restaurant in New York City, closed its doors after less than a year in business. According to a since-deleted Instagram post, the owner vowed to serve “clean Chinese” food that included less salt, grease, and would leave customers feeling less “bloated and icky.”

While the white-owned restaurant was met with immediate backlash for racist rhetoric, its original premise, to improve Chinese food fit for the refined western palate, sheds light on a prolonged battle between the Chinese food industry and racist myths about one commonly used ingredient — MSG. 

Monosodium glutamate, abbreviated as MSG, is a popular flavour enhancer that has been popularised as a harmful processed additive mostly found in Chinese dishes, despite a plethora of scientific evidence that says the opposite.

Not only has MSG been deemed GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) by the FDA, it is also naturally occurring in many foods, such as tomato products, protein isolates, and cheeses. Everything from chips to condiments, and frozen meals and fast foods, are also likely to contain MSG.

‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’

The debate of whether MSG is safe for consumption began in 1968, when a doctor wrote a letter titled “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” to the New England Journal of Medicine, complaining of falling ill after eating at Chinese restaurants.

The story sparked outrage against the ingredient, quickly spreading the idea that Chinese food was dangerous. A year later, a scientific paper identifying MSG as “the cause of the Chinese restaurant syndrome,” was published and claimed that it could cause “headaches, burning sensations, facial pressure, and chest pain.” 

It wasn’t until 2020 that Merriam-Webster redefined its definition of Chinese restaurant syndrome from “a group of symptoms (such as numbness of the neck, arms, and back with headache, dizziness, and palpitations) that is held to affect susceptible persons eating food and especially Chinese food heavily seasoned with monosodium glutamate” to a term that is “offensive” and “dated.”

The so-called syndrome is one of several examples of viral monikers used to place blame on a country or group of people, and the effects are dangerous.

Consider the Covid-19 global pandemic that former US president Donald Trump constantly, publicly referred to as the Chinese virus. Shortly after his racist rhetoric hit the mainstream, hate crimes against the Asian American community surged.

Similarly, MSG myths impacted the Chinese food industry, so much so that “No MSG restaurants” lists exist all over the internet and many Chinese takeout restaurants still advertise against MSG use today.

Reclaiming MSG

“I notice some Chinese American takeout places have ‘no MSG’ signs, but they’re actually lying because I know some of the sauces they use contain MSG. They may be referring to the fact of no added MSG,” said Keegan Fong, owner of Woon in Historic Filipinotown, Los Angeles.

While dishes at Woon do not have added MSG, Fong says some of the ingredients and sauces used already contain MSG. “Almost all our main dishes contain trace amounts of MSG because almost all dark soy sauces contain at least a little bit of MSG,” he said, shedding light on how commonly the ingredient is consumed.

Yet, Woon still receives calls from potential customers asking if the restaurant uses MSG.

“It’s a complex answer because almost all Italian restaurants contain MSG in their food. So, it’s kind of an annoying question because we may actually be using less MSG than other cuisines, but people only ask us if our food contains MSG because we are a Chinese restaurant,” Fong said. “I’m sure we’ve lost customers over this.”

Calvin Eng, lead chef and owner at Bonnie’s in Brooklyn, New York has had a similar experience. “People still email us all the time to give them a list of dishes they can have that don’t contain MSG,” he said, noting that the list is short: rice and a fruit plate.

Some history: Do some slight research on MSG, and there’s no doubt that you’ll come across the name Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok.

What most people don’t know, however, is that “Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok” was actually an alias for Dr. Howard Steel, the real doctor who wrote the letter.

Although the surname Ho Man Kwok faintly alludes to a person of Asian descent, Dr Howard Steel was a white male orthopedic surgeon. In the letter to NEJM, Steel kept linking his illnesses to Chinese food, misconstruing the relationship between the Chinese identity and illness. 

Steel sent the letter as a comic syndrome letter, somehow never realising that it would actually be published and taken seriously. In the end, he even tried to communicate to the NEJM that the letter was a joke, but it was to no avail.

Regardless of his intentions, this doesn’t erase the fact that Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, now MSG Symptom Complex, is recognised as a xenophobic term that continues to harm Chinese food establishments to this very day — thus, the reason why we now see Chinese restaurants feel the pressure to put “no MSG” signs on their storefront windows over 50 years later.

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At Bonnie’s, everything from Bloody Marys to desserts contain MSG, and is something Eng takes pride in.

“Many people still aren’t comfortable with the ingredient, and I’m trying to educate and change that by being pro-MSG. I’m proud to use it and I advertise it,” he said. Even on his left arm, where he had ‘MSG’ with a heart tattooed four years ago.

“Everyone assumes that it is bad for you. All data suggests that MSG is not harmful to you. In fact, people consume it in large amounts,” said award-winning chef David Chang (Momofuku) at the 2012 MAD Symposium in Denmark. “People who say they’re allergic to MSG will happily dip their sushi in soy sauce or eat a miso soup.”

Chang is one of many public figures who advocates for MSG use publicly and passionately. In addition to independent restaurants and chefs taking individual steps to advertise or not completely write off the use of MSG in dishes, several campaigns like Know MSG advocate for debunking myths surrounding the ingredient and are helping bring it back into the mainstream.

Source: BusinessInsider SA

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