It’s the weekend, so our local Chinese restaurant is packed. I’m not looking at my menu though; I’m people watching. Parents on the table in front letting their own food go cold while they help their children get to grips with chopsticks, teenagers over in the corner clearly on a first date (chances of down-the-top spillage: high) and a large party sitting in the window across the room, their lazy susan (ask your parents) piled high with dishes to share.
I don’t notice the middle-aged couple on the table next to us I until our beers arrive and the waiter asks to take our order. Weren’t they looking at the menu when we sat down twenty minutes ago? We reel off our list of dishes to the waiter and he leaves, glancing quickly in their direction.
They sit in silence. After a while, the man finally speaks. “Darling, you need to pick something…” he says in a hushed whisper.
She sighs for a moment and finally looks up. “I know, I know… I just don’t want something that’s covered in MSG.”
“Yes MSG!” my mum throws me a withering look and wags her finger at me when I tell her about this over coffee the next morning. “God, why do think me and your dad never eat Chinese food? It’s so bad for you. It’s so dangerous.”
Maybe it’s me. Maybe my husband and I are too obsessed with all Asian food. Maybe we love travelling as far East as often as possible. Or maybe it’s because I can get a ‘stomach hangover’ from eating absolutely anything. MSG has never been on my radar. I’m almost 99% sure I’ve probably eaten it at some point, but I’m not even certain that I know what it is. And yet my mum hates it?
But it seems that my mum and ‘middle-aged restaurant lady’ aren’t on their own; MSG (or Monosodium Glutamate to use its full name) has had a bad press since the late 1960s, when Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok wrote a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine in 1968, coining the notorious term ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.’
This term, which is often hijacked and used as a racist slur against Asian food culture, referred to the feeling of headaches, numbness to the neck and back, and the excessive tiredness he felt whenever he ate at Chinese restaurants in the United States. The reason for this strange illness? Well, Kwok took a leap: “Others have suggested,” he said, “that it may be caused by the monosodium glutamate used to a great extent for seasoning in Chinese restaurants.”
That letter (and the controversy that surrounded its legitimacy) changed our food-eating habits forever. Footfall in Chinese restaurants rapidly declined all across the US in particular, with many resorting to covering their shopfronts with ‘NO MSG’ posters, and many Asian food companies adding the same message to their packaging to ensure they still got pride of place in the local all-American grocery store.
All of this… for a simple seasoning?
Public enemy to family favourite
On the other side of the world, the story is very different. MSG is a staple of authentic cooking, used in family homes, 5-star restaurants and street food stalls across India, China, Japan and Thailand. It sits on counters and in cupboards right next to salt and pepper, making a star appearance in stews, ramens and pretty much anything that contains fish, meat or poultry.
Its origins lie not in China, but in neighbouring Japan, discovered in 1908 by Kikunae Ikeda, a professor at the University of Tokyo. When eating dinner with his family he found that his soup was tastier than usual – due to his wife’s addition of ‘kombu’ (kelp seaweed) into the dashi broth. Hidden within the kombu was glutamic acid, which he found to produce this mouth-watering ‘umami’ flavour. Umami is now known as the fifth taste, alongside sweet, sour, bitter and salty.
By stabilising this chemical with salt and water, Ikeda created Monosodium Glutamate, a fine white power that could be mixed into or sprinkled onto any dish. And so his career took a sharp turn, with his table seasoning ‘Aji-no-moto’ (which translates as ‘essence of taste’) appearing in homes and restaurants throughout Japan and neighbouring countries. Its base ingredients were changed for mass-production, and MSG began to take over the world, sitting proudly in kitchens in the East and sitting quietly in tins and packets of processed or freeze-dried food in the West.
Well, until 1968 that is.
Here’s the thing.
At the height of MSG hysteria, many people were quick to cut Chinese food from their diets, not realising just how many other foods contain MSG or naturally occurring glutamic acid. This hypnotic umami taste appears in a whole myriad of foods, from the humble tomato to parmesan cheese. It’s in your favourite stock cubes, cured meats and Worcester sauce. Even Marmite is filled with this wonderful flavouring, marketed simply as ‘yeast extract’.
Since the 1970s, scientists worldwide have conducted many tests to check whether Dr Ho Man Kwok’s claim is unfounded. A study in 1970 by the University of Western Sydney found that a group of people who ate MSG every day for six weeks suffered no adverse reactions at all, with one researcher stating that ‘Chinese restaurant syndrome is an anecdote applied to a variety of postprandial illnesses; rigorous and realistic scientific evidence linking the syndrome to MSG could not be found.’
According to an article in the New Scientist, there were 19 studies exploring the impact on MSG on the human body undertaken between 1968 and 1990. When looking at specific attributes like heart rate, skin temperature and blood pressure, there was ‘little difference between those said they reacted to MSG and those who did not’.
Despite all this (and despite the fact that MSG was concluded as safe in a 1995 report for the FDA), the International Food Information Council stated that over 42 % of Americans still actively avoid eating MSG over fifty years later, alongside other food ‘nasties’ like caffeine, gluten and artificial colours and flavourings.
Over the last few years, high-profile members of the culinary world have hit back at the negative perceptions of MSG and flawed opinions of Asian food, none more directly as Anthony Bourdain, late host of food show ‘Parts Unknown’. In a 2016 episode filmed in China, he said “I think (MSG) is good stuff. I don’t react to it. Nobody does. It’s a lie. You know what causes Chinese Restaurant Syndrome? Racism.”
Dave Chang, owner of the Momofuku restaurant chain and star of the Netflix series ‘Ugly Delicious’, regularly promotes the use of MSG, famously tweeting in 2018, ‘Whenever I make fresh popcorn, I season with a little salt, little black pepper and a little MSG… shake vigorously… never fails to impress. If anyone gives you shit about MSG just give them a bag of Doritos. Works every time”
Restaurant lady, if you’re reading this, perhaps all of this can be summed up into one brilliant quote from the legendary Jeffrey Steingarten, the American Vogue food writer:
“If MSG is bad for you, why doesn’t everyone in China have a headache?”