Watoga Park Foundation
The Chinese Restaurant Syndrome
How we fell for a myth
Bitter, sweet, salty, sour and umami, otherwise known as savory. These are the five basic stimulations of our taste buds that make up the entire range of human taste. This story is about umami.
Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) is an ingredient that gives food a savory flavor and is a mainstay in Chinese dishes. It was isolated in 1908 by a Japanese scientist attempting to replicate in other foods, the distinctly savory flavor of his wife’s soups.
Considered a flavor enhancer, it is used in many processed foods including potato chips and other snack foods.
Back in the 70s, I read an article in a major newspaper stating that monosodium glutamate (MSG) was causing a laundry list of maladies including, but not limited to, heart palpitations, numbness, general weakness and even migraine headaches.
Through the decade ahead, the list of health problems associated with MSG continued to grow as the contents of the original article was repeated in other publications. It became “common knowledge” that MSG is bad for you, or so we thought.
This news was nothing short of distressing for me. Like most everybody I know, I love Chinese food; even the Americanized versions that do not exist in China. Not only that, but I suffer from frequent migraines, which can be associated with certain foods and drink.
First, let me state that I am not normally credulous. I have a penchant for the unadulterated truth. I adore facts. Facts bespeak truth. Facts are not malleable; they are uncompromising in the face of falsehoods.
Good science relies entirely upon facts. Facts are good when you are about to undergo brain surgery or fly across the country in a jet.
I don’t even fancy euphemisms. If I was asked to describe myself to someone who had never seen me, I would not say the following:
“Well, I am a follicle challenged, septuagenarian male, with character-driven features and a prominent aquiline nose.”
Preferring instead, something much closer to the truth:
“Well, I am a old bald homely man with a big schnoz.”
That said, during the early years of the demonization of monosodium glutamate, I found myself ordering my favorite Chinese dish, but requesting that the chef not add MSG.
The flavor of the dish clearly suffered, but I didn’t want to take a chance. In other words, I had bought into a belief that had no basis in science nor reality.
The following is the origin story of this unfounded allegation against MSG, a naturally occurring compound used to improve the flavor of foods. MSG is a natural compound found in tomatoes, cheese, meat, fish, parmesan cheese, mushrooms, and even human breast milk.
Back in the 1960s, a letter was sent to the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine by someone claiming to be a doctor.*
The letter simply described personal anecdotal instances of adverse health effects after consuming Chinese food and ascribing MSG as the cause of said ailments. It was not supported in any way by actual research, nevertheless, it was published by the prestigious journal and from there it snowballed.
Over time the belief that MSG was unsafe became conventional non-wisdom. In a recent survey, 43% of Americans still believe MSG to be unhealthy for a myriad of reasons yet to be substantiated by research.
The fallout of this widely believed accusation against a naturally occurring compound included a severe reduction in business for Chinese restaurants. All the while, consumers continued to eat potato chips and many other processed foods containing high levels of MSG, apparently without the same health complaints.
In response, many Chinese restaurants responded by putting signs in their windows and notices on the menus stating that they did not use MSG. In effect, they were defending themselves against a fantasy creature, a threat that did not exist.
It was a kind of mass hysteria; hypochondria and psychosomatisis on a massive scale.
Once the allegation was out in the public it took years to correct and, clearly, some still have not gotten the message. Most of the research conducted on MSG by the early 1990s showed conclusively that MSG is not a health concern for most people.
Just as consuming too much salt can raise blood pressure, and ingesting large amounts of cholesterol can cause a build-up of plaque in blood vessels, too much of anything can be bad – including MSG. Toxicity is a matter of dosage; everything is toxic at some threshold, even the consumption of plain old water.
Myths and legends can be fun and entertaining, and, they can also be hurtful and dangerous. Chinese restaurateurs and their families suffered from the MSG myth.
The attitude towards Chinese restaurants and the folks who worked in these establishments during this period was often expressed in what can only be explained as racial epithets and stereotyping.
With all of the health problems associated with the typical American diet we need to be cognizant of proper nutrition. There is no doubt that eating too much processed food and overconsumption of salt and sugar can lead to diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and a range of other unhealthy conditions.
But we must also beware of false claims.
I recently saw a pop-up ad picturing a banana that stated, “The one fruit you should avoid.”
The ad made ridiculous claims that had no scientific basis whatsoever. Bananas are an all-around healthy food, containing many essential nutrients.
Bananas are only dangerous to your health when you slip on their peel.
If we are to consider ourselves a truly informed people, we must exercise healthy skepticism and employ critical thinking in deciding what to believe and what to discard as a rank untruth. This is particularly so today in the age of social media.
If we, even individually, repeat unfounded claims then we can become the instruments of pain and further the spread of ignorance.
In researching the Salem Witch Trials recently, I learned that between February 1692 and May 1693, 200 people were accused of witchcraft, of which 20 were hung. All based upon unfounded (obviously) claims and a hysterical public.
In closing I offer you a brief test of critical thinking:
1. Do unicorns exist? (Answer – No)
2. Is COVID-19 real? (Answer – Yes)
3. Can Ohioans competently drive on our mountain roads? (Answer – No)
Hurrah, you passed.
* This American Life Episode 668. Colgate Magazine, The Strange Case of Dr. Ho Man Kwok, Michael Blanding, January 2020
Harvard – “Scientific stu-dies have repeatedly indicated that MSG is safe at ordinary levels of consumption.” 2005
Mayo Clinic – What is MSG – Is it Bad For You? Katherine Zeratsky R.D., L.D. 2020