The Myth of MSG

The common belief that MSG has negative health consequences is rooted in a racist history of xenophobic biases against the Asian community.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

A California judge denied a $1.5 million class action lawsuit on December 8, 2015, which claimed that Annie Chun’s, a processed food company, was liable for false advertising. The company, which specializes in “simple gourmet Asian cuisine,” advertised all its products as 100 percent natural, but the lawsuit pointed out that the products contained MSG, or monosodium glutamate, which it claimed was not “natural” and a chemical additive. The reason that the judge gave for finding Annie Chun’s not liable was that the plaintiff had not argued why the lawsuit needed to be filed on behalf of a national consumerate (which it was), despite the fact that Annie Chun’s operated in California and was being sued under California law.

Monosodium glutamate is a chemical additive that has become increasingly used by companies internationally as a flavor enhancer. It is the ionic form of glutamate, an amino acid used to build proteins in the human body, and it is chemically recognized by the body as another protein when consumed. MSG’s use in processed food began in the 20th century, as it provided an affordable way for corporations to provide a diverse and wide range of food products to consumers, allowing for variety and making processed foods more appealing. However, the current scientific consensus is that monosodium glutamate has negative health effects, ranging from weight gain to eyesight loss to minor effects like nausea; yet there is a lack of substantive, concrete evidence that confirms this widely accepted information.

The first report that shed MSG in a negative light was by Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwon in the 1960s. In a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine, Kwon stated that he had gone to a Chinese restaurant for a meal and within an hour, he began feeling palpitations and numbness throughout his body. He suggested that these symptoms were indicative of a larger syndrome, which he coined as “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” bringing up other examples in the past when he and his Chinese friends would experience these symptoms after dining in Chinese restaurants in the U.S. that served northern Chinese cuisine. He then argued that research needed to be done on this new syndrome, and a variety of responses were sent in to the editors. Many readers agreed, but they also added on to this list of symptoms, including a “pounding Chinese headache” and dizziness. Others tried to interpret the cause of their symptoms, with a large majority pointing to the “oriental eating practices of the Chinese.”

A few scientists began to conduct research to isolate what was causing CRS, and in 1969, researchers Robert Byck and Hanno Schaumburg published their results in the New England Journal of Medicine. Byck and Schaumburg were able to isolate MSG as the cause of the many symptoms associated with CRS by isolating wonton soup from a restaurant where some claimed to have experienced symptoms. They recorded that there were three grams of MSG per 200 grams of soup, and after choosing a sample of 12 individuals who then consumed the soup, observed the reported symptoms. However, the experiment’s results failed to produce any concrete information, because like all chemical compounds, MSG creates different responses in different individuals, so some had more responsive symptoms than others. Other experiments followed, and those that came to the conclusion that MSG was the cause of CRS failed to explain a couple inconsistencies. The first is that consumers only experienced these health risks only in the U.S. and only in Chinese restaurants; the experiments failed to explain why Chinese cuisine in other countries hadn’t affected other people who have consumed this cuisine. The second is that as more reports began flooding in about others’ experiences when it came to CRS, the list of symptoms grew longer and longer, ranging from numbness to even deterioration of eyesight. Furthermore, research failed to distinguish what set MSG apart from other forms of glutamate, which is used as a metabolic precursor to GABA, a neurotransmitter used to reduce neurological excitability within humans. This means that if there were no difference between GABA and MSG, then MSG would cause the human body to be more prone to relieving stress, anxiety and improving one’s mood. If anything, excessive consumption of MSG could possibly lead to weight gain because it is a flavor enhancer that makes food more appealing, but again, this is not a direct effect of the additive itself.

During the late 20th century, though inclusive laws like the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act were passed, Asian immigrants still faced an environment of racially and xenophobically charged biases that seemed to be of lasting permanence. Literature with first-person accounts of interactions with these Asian immigrants would paint them as dirty and exotic, replete with claims of “cooking dogs” or other lovable domestic animals that the genteel white population would never imagine putting in a pot. Particularly, Asian cuisine, now established in restaurants, stood out, unassimilable in its unfamiliar, spice-filled glory. As early claims of CRS began to surface, this particularly garnered more attention as celebrities like Lorne Greene, and even media sources like The Toronto Star, began exclusively reporting on the phenomenon. Rumors started to circulate; Chinese restaurateurs would use MSG to mask the exotic meats or ingredients within their foods, for instance. The claims began to include such a wide range of cuisine and symptoms that another, lesser known variation of this restaurant syndrome became coined, known as Japanese Restaurant Syndrome. Such misinformation caused many to denounce the Asian community as a whole and also exacerbate the xenophobic perceptions surrounding Asian immigrants.

Though researchers throughout the 20th century have acknowledged that not enough research has been done to verify that these claims about MSG are true, current society continues to believe that CRS exists with little empirical evidence. This is evident because people continue to avoid MSG, despite the FDA stating that there has been no correlation found between consuming MSG and the alleged side effects. This statement has also been backed up by the Food Standards Australia New Zealand, or FSANZ. Despite the scientific consensus, the 20th century rumors surrounding MSG have become concrete assumptions that continue to spur the marginalization of Chinese immigrants, Chinese culture, and the Asian community in the U.S. Not only is this indicative of the ever-continuing structural oppression that marginalized groups continue to face, but it also provides another example of how science has been used to prop up the existing racism in the status quo.

Even though nowadays American manufacturers use MSG in large quantities, the negativity surrounding MSG has continued to be uniquely associated with Chinese culture. It shows how racialized discourse is what the science surrounding MSG has become. Until substantive research is actually done, it is important to challenge these assumptions that have become so ingrained into society. Otherwise, we will continue to trust misinformation that continues to exacerbate the oppression that we say we are trying to challenge.