Last week, I went to a food convention here in SF called the Fancy Food Show where a ton of food brands come and show off their goods. I had an amazing time and discovered some cool new products. Unfortunately, I had one annoying experience that has stuck with me. This one Western brand claimed to make “healthy” Chinese sauces like plum sauce and oyster sauce. When I asked which unhealthy ingredients he thought traditional Chinese sauces had, one ingredient he mentioned was MSG or monosodium glutamate. I was totally annoyed because the connection between MSG and Asian food is a completely ignorant idea built on Western perceptions of Asian culture. I felt so fired up after this conversation I knew I had to do something. So I decided to write about it instead of putting them on blast (which I definitely thought about).
What is MSG and how is it used?
MSG or monosodium glutamate is the sodium salt derived from glutamic acid, a naturally occurring amino acid. Glutamic acid is important to your body because it’s used to build proteins that transmit information from your brain to other cells. Because of its importance, it can be found in a lot of foods we eat on a normal basis. It can be found naturally in foods like tomatoes, meat, and mushrooms or artificially in foods like Doritos, Pringles, and Vegemite. Whether natural or artificial, our bodies metabolize it in the same way.
Typically, artificial MSG is used as a flavor enhancer. It doesn’t have much taste on its own, but it brings out the umami flavor of other foods. It is used in the same way as salt is used to enhance the flavor of food. You can buy artificial MSG in stores or on Amazon. When purchased at the store, they look like small crystals. You only need to add a small pinch to enhance the flavor of a dish.
Is MSG actually bad for you?
So the main question is: Is MSG actually bad for you? The short answer – no. There is no conclusive evidence that suggests MSG is responsible for stuff like headaches, chest pain, or nausea. However, some experts say it is possible individuals can be sensitive to MSG, but it is rare. There have been numerous studies done on this topic, and while some support the negative effects of MSG, the MSG dosage used in these studies is far higher than the average daily intake.
Misconceptions of MSG and Chinese Restaurant Syndrome
MSG is often associated with Asian food, specifically Chinese food. This idea originated from a doctor named Robert Ho Man Kwok who wrote a letter about it to the New England Journal of Medicine in 1968. He reported feeling headaches, heart palpitations, and face tightness after eating MSG flavored food from Chinese restaurants. This effect became known as Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. After his letter was published, other people reported feeling the same effects, and scientists began studying it. Their studies confirmed the effects, but one of the flaws with these early studies is that participants knew when they were consuming MSG.
What people didn’t want to admit was that these claims were closely tied with how the Western world perceived (perceives) Asian countries, Asian culture, and Asian cuisine. Namely, dirty and exotic. I mean think about this: if MSG did cause all those symptoms, then people living in China, a population of over a billion people (one seventh of the world population), would have a continuous headache which is as ridiculous as it sounds.
Talking specifically about Chinese American restaurants, the effects people claim to feel likely stem from the other ingredients used in Americanized Chinese food such as sugar. Eating prepackaged foods with high sugar levels has been known to cause headaches. The addition of sugar was necessary to assimilate traditional Chinese foods to American tastes. It was necessary, so the Chinese could survive. Laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1883 prevented Chinese immigrants from entering the US as laborers, so they needed to find another way to support themselves.
Change is coming
The silver lining is that this perception is changing. In 2019, a white woman opened a restaurant called Lucky Lee’s that claimed to make “clean” Chinese food. The backlash was immediate, and it was eventually forced to close later that year. Influential chefs like Grant Achatz and David Chang have also spoken out about MSG. Grant Achatz of Alinea says he carries MSG around with him. David Chang gave an entire talk about the stigma against MSG at the 2012 MAD Symposium. And lastly, a campaign has been started to update the definition of “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
Thinking about it now, it’s actually sad that even Asian Americans like my parents believe this stereotype.
My experience with MSG and why it’s a bad stereotype
I grew up thinking MSG was the reason Chinese food was unhealthy simply because my mom said it was. And when you’re little, you believe everything your parents say. It wasn’t until just recently that I discovered this was a total myth. But thinking about it now, it’s actually sad that even Asian Americans like my parents believe this stereotype. In addition, it’s a damaging idea because it feeds the perception that Asian cooking is inferior to Western cooking when that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Can you imagine what it’s like growing up with the idea that the food from your culture is inferior simply because it’s different? Because people never took the time to understand it? Well that’s what I went through. And millions of kids across the country still deal with that every day.
Even now when I tell my parents MSG is not bad for you, they nod and say okay, but I can tell they still believe it’s unhealthy. This perception unfortunately sticks like super glue, so even though progress has been made, it will take a long time before it completely changes.
References and Other Information
I didn’t want to just write a piece on MSG without reading credible sources about it. I’m not saying I’m in any way an expert, but I do hope you read everything and make your own informed decision. My hope is that you think twice before you say something like “Oh MSG is bad for you” and maybe question someone else’s negative perception of it.
- CNN, MSG in Chinese food isn’t unhealthy — you’re just racist, activists say
- Eater, Watch David Chang’s MAD Talk on the Stigma of MSG
- FDA, Questions and answers on Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
- Government of Canada, Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) – Questions and Answers
- Harvard Library, Fact of Fiction? The MSG Controversy
- Healthline, MSG (Monosodium Glutamate): Good or Bad?
- Mayo Clinic, What is MSG? Is it bad for you?
- NY Times, The Campaign Behind Chinese Restaurant Syndrome
- Tasting Table, Grant Achatz and MSG
- The Guardian, Chinese restaurant syndrome: has MSG been unfairly demonised?
- US News, How to stop a headache
- Washington Post, Why Americans still avoid MSG even though its ‘health effects’ have been debunked