As a former waiter in an Asian restaurant, I know how many people claim to be sensitive to monosodium glutamate, or MSG. Customers would demand that their meal be MSG-free to avoid the headaches, or nausea, or weakness they swore they would suffer afterward (Mayo Clinic).
Often, they informed me of their MSG-adverse status in the same way they might disclose a life-threatening allergy: not as a preference but as a serious, permanent condition with dire consequences. The MSG-avoidants are real, numerous, and often quite militant. I have seen them and served them noodles.
This isn’t just anecdotal evidence. According to one industry group, four out of ten Americans avoid MSG (Washington Post). That means more people avoid MSG than caffeine, gluten, or GMOs. The cluster of symptoms afflicting the MSG-sensitive is so well-known that its name is even enshrined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary: “Chinese restaurant syndrome” (CNN).
I’m generally against sweeping statements about what foods other people should or should not ingest. If you’d like to only eat a paleo diet, Cool Ranch Doritos, or foods starting with a certain letter depending on what day it is (MSN), that’s really none of my business.
• Consult the “Know MSG” campaign, which aims to demystify and debunk myths about the common seasoning. Learn about the large variety of non-Asian foods that contain MSG.
• Buy or download “Chinese Protest Recipes” to learn Chinese recipes including some using MSG. All proceeds benefit Color for Change.
With all that being said, if you think you suffer from “Chinese restaurant syndrome,” your actual ailment might be racism, MSG notwithstanding.
MSG critics largely cite one single study contesting its safety. In this experiment, scientists injected mice with incredibly high doses of MSG soon after birth and found they grew up with health problems (Men’s Health). There are a number of common food ingredients that might be harmful when injected into baby mice, but that doesn’t mean they’re unhealthy for people to eat. Aside from the newborn mouse injection study, almost all the evidence for MSG’s terrible side effects comes from decades of personal reports.
The problem is that “Chinese restaurant syndrome” is only ever reported after eating Chinese food. Nobody gets it from tomatoes, or Campbell’s chicken noodle soup, or KFC. Sufferers of “Chinese restaurant syndrome” aren’t stricken after eating mayonnaise, or potato chips, or cheese, or beef jerky.
All of the foods just listed contain MSG (Healthline). MSG is chemically indistinguishable from glutamate (FDA), a common amino acid found in almost every living being on the planet. If you feel tired and nauseated after eating a bite of Chinese food but not after eating a few Doritos, the culprit isn’t MSG. If you spend life avoiding Asian immigrant-owned businesses but not hot dogs, we aren’t talking about a medical problem but rather a social one.
Ever since Asian immigration to the United States started in the mid-19th century, white supremacist narratives have associated Asians with disease. The founder of the New York Tribune wrote that Chinese immigrants were “uncivilized, unclean, and filthy beyond all conception” (Time). In 1906, Santa Ana, California, burned down its own Chinatown over fears that one resident had leprosy (LA Times). In 2020, a man attacked a Thai woman on a train, yelling, “every disease ever has come from China” (CNN). Much American coverage of the initial COVID outbreak in Wuhan centered on the “bizarre and unusual” livestock for sale in the “unsanitary” Huanan Market (FAIR), the equivalent of a Western farmers’ market. Though saying you refuse to eat food prepared by Asian immigrants reeks of racism, MSG-related medical concerns provide a pseudoscientific cover for xenophobia.
Asians have long been thought to be an invasive, unclean element bringing exotic diseases into the American heartland. This belief is an element in anti-Asian violence and racism, MSG moral panics, and the idea that it’s only white-owned restaurants that can sell the “clean” versions of Asian food (Gothamist). As natural diets and “clean” living gained popularity after the 1960s, it’s no surprise that an “allergy” to a scary-sounding chemical provided a convenient vehicle for a very old racist narrative.
But with rising anti-China sentiment leading to personal and political assaults on East Asian people in the United States (NYDN), it’d be nice if some non-Asian Americans forgot what they “knew” about MSG.