“Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”, MSG and Xenophobia

What is Chinese Restaurant Syndrome?

Coined in the mid 1960’s in a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine, “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” (less commonly known as MSG symptom complex) is defined in the Merriam Webster Dictionary as “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.” The effect of this term has led to decades of Chinese and other Asian foods gaining a reputation of being “unhealthy” and “cheap”- despite there being no consensus in the medical field that MSG in fact causes those symptoms.

What is MSG?

Classified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration “generally recognized as safe”, Monosodium Glutamate (known as MSG) is a sodium salt of the common amino acid glutamic acid, often added to food for enhanced flavour. MSG doesn’t have any flavour on its own. Glutamic acid itself is often found naturally in some foods such as tomatoes and cheeses. In 1908, Professor Kikunae Ikeda of Japan was trying to find out what made a traditional seaweed broth so tasty, and managed to isolate the naturally occurring glutamic acid. The next year, a crystallized version of the product began being manufactured. Nowadays, MSG is produced by the fermentation of products such as starch, sugar beets, sugar cane or molasses.

The Xenophobia Behind It

Despite scientists being unable to find consistent results that prove the existence of “harmful side effects” when consuming MSG, MSG continues to be heavily vilified in North American media, culture and even the education system. This has led to the vilification of Chinese food (and by proxy, of course, many other Asian cuisines). Try it – google MSG – stock photos of Chinese food comes up even before pictures of the additive itself!

MSG Search Results

Think about it – how is Chinese food portrayed in your favourite movies and TV shows? Usually it’s used as the greasy, cheap take out ordered as a late night snack or something unhealthy! Compare that to how food from other foreign cultures are portrayed – take for example Italian cuisine or French cuisine, which is usually portrayed as high class and expensive. It’s even led to controversies such as this: Arielle Haspel, who is not of Asian descent, appropriating Asian culture to open a high class restaurant – advertised as “clean Chinese food”, dissing an entire culture’s heritage!

The Take Out

The truth is – and here’s a shocker – MSG exists in many foods, not just Chinese cuisine. Some occur naturally, and some artificial.

The chances are you consume MSG in 20 other ways besides Chinese food every single day – and the chances are that you aren’t getting “MSG syndrome complex” every day. To tie MSG and the alleged effects onto the cuisine of an entire culture is discriminatory and name a medical condition after it has lasting effects on the many hardworking Asian people trying to run businesses and bring a delicious taste of amazing food to our neighbourhoods. Whether or not MSG truly causes harm, a single culture should not be burdened with the negative image. So please, go support your local authentic Chinese restaurant today, and take everything you read and consume with a grain of salt!

Sources

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Chinese%20restaurant%20syndrome

https://www.healthline.com/health/chinese-restaurant-syndrome

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-51139005

https://www.fda.gov/food/food-additives-petitions/questions-and-answers-monosodium-glutamate-msg

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/12/nyregion/lucky-lees-nyc-chinese-food.html

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