Written by: Jon Zhang ‘24
Edited by: Owen Wogmon ‘23
In 2019, the Chinese restaurant Lucky Lee’s provoked an uproar by marketing “clean” Chinese food. Founded in New York City by a White American health coach, the short-lived establishment aimed to serve Chinese dishes that didn’t leave customers feeling “bloated and icky,” triggering debates over cultural appropriation .
To critics, the restaurant’s business model perpetuated harmful stereotypes about Chinese American food being unhealthy and unclean. One common ingredient that has received an especially bad rap is monosodium glutamate (MSG). MSG is a combination of sodium and the amino acid glutamate. Glutamate occurs appears readily in foods such as parmesan cheese, tomatoes, and mushrooms, giving them their distinctive savory flavors. Crystalline MSG was synthesized in 1908 by a Japanese chemist, who sought to replicate the characteristically savory sensation he described as “umami,” one of the five basic tastes. While mostly flavorless on its own, MSG combines with other tastes to boost the umami profile of many foods. Following its creation, MSG became a commercial additive to processed foods (including ubiquitous snacks like Doritos!) and a common ingredient in East Asian cuisine [2,3].
Lucky Lee’s pledged to never use MSG in its food, signaling the ingredient’s continued associations with unhealthiness . Indeed, 42% of respondents in a 2018 survey of Americans by the International Food Information Council claimed that they actively avoided food products with MSG . So how did MSG garner such a bad reputation? In 1968, Chinese American doctor Robert Ho Man Kwok wrote a letter to the editor of The New England Journal of Medicine detailing symptoms of “numbness at the back of the neck . . . general weakness and palpitation” after eating in a Chinese American restaurant . Dubbing his symptoms as a case of “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” Kwok’s letter attracted significant press and prompted a flurry of similar testimonials describing adverse symptoms .
The outcry was overblown from the start. Kwok’s letter was not a rigorous, peer-reviewed investigation, merely a ponderance of his symptoms. Furthermore, he posited many other potential causes for his symptoms, such as high sodium content or the types of soy sauce and cooking wine used . Nevertheless, researchers pounced on MSG as the culprit. A 1969 study published in Science journal definitively declared that MSG was “the cause of the Chinese restaurant syndrome” and that it caused headaches, burning sensations, facial pressure, and chest pain in its consumers . A doctor and professor at Washington University School of Medicine who conducted MSG experiments on mice from 1969-70 reported that infant mice injected with MSG exhibited brain damage that led to stunted skeletal development as adults. He eventually concluded that the ingredient warranted investigation and regulation for children [7,8]. Findings like these heightened public anxiety surrounding MSG.
Recent literature reviews, however, have critiqued these earlier investigations. Among the flaws identified are small sample sizes, failures to include control/placebo groups, injecting MSG instead of administering orally (as would naturally occur during consumption), and determining causality from animal studies without confirming findings with human participants. Recognizing these limitations, many experts agree that MSG cannot be causally linked to any harmful health effects .
Additionally, an experiment published in the latest issue of Food Science and Human Wellness counters some of the findings that labeled MSG as unhealthy. In this study, groups of mice were given varying levels of MSG, ranging from 30-1500 mg/kg/day. Researchers collected blood samples and evaluated three biomarkers: C-reactive protein, trimethylamine N-oxide, and angiotensin II. High levels of these biomarkers are indicative of issues such as inflammation, hypertension, and cardiovascular diseases and, therefore, were used to assess animal health .
The low-MSG group (30 mg/kg/day) did not experience significant increases in any of the biomarkers compared to the control group . Scaling these findings up to US adults, (with average weights of ~171 lb for women and ~200 lb for men according to the CDC), an acceptable intake threshold ranges from ~2.3-2.7 grams/day for US adults . For reference, the FDA states that the average American consumes just 0.55 grams of added MSG/day, meaning that regular MSG intake lags far behind the threshold . Moreover, the study found that only the high-MSG group (1500 mg/kg/day) displayed significant increases in the concentrations of all three biomarkers, but this is clearly an excessive level of MSG that, reasonably, would never be consumed by a human . This investigation upholds the FDA’s classification of MSG as “generally regarded as safe,” a determination shared by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN and the WHO .
In short, the Public’s mistrust of MSG is not supported by modern evidence. Despite the anecdotes of ill symptoms going back to the late ’60s, scientific investigations have been unable to determine direct causes between MSG consumption and adverse maladies. While it is perfectly reasonable for consumers to avoid certain foods because of health and safety concerns, fueling persistent beliefs in unfounded concerns is unnecessary at best and maintains harmful ethnic stereotypes at worst.
Dr. Kwok’s explicit linkage in 1968 between his symptoms to the Chinese community inflamed longstanding xenophobic tendencies amongst White and non-Asian Americans. Cartoons from the 1880s ridiculed Chinese Americans by portraying them eating rats, and San Francisco tour guides discouraged visitors from consuming “disgusting” Chinese dishes. News articles reported on the filth and stench associated with Chinatowns. As a result, Americans came to view Chinese food as tastelessly exotic and/or low-quality .
Even though MSG was (incorrectly) accepted as the cause of the reported symptoms, the stigma extended to Chinese cuisine. The outrageous media coverage that ensued from Kwok’s letter certainly reflected the biases of prejudiced reporters. In 1979, a Chicago Tribune article explicitly linked incidents of “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” to “a problem of Chinese cooking practices” . These insensitive attitudes resurface to this day, such as in the marketing tactics of establishments such as Lucky Lee’s . The consistent failure to separate MSG as an ingredient from its connections to Chinese culture demonstrates that longstanding suspicions against Chinese food undeniably influenced the tremendous uproar that began in the 60s.
The lingering fears surrounding MSG reveal the intersections between science and society. Flawed science can reflect and reinforce entrenched prejudices and harmful stereotypes, producing inaccurate and socially harmful effects that are antithetical to the scientific principles of preserving truth and promoting knowledge. Even when new discoveries are made to challenge incorrect assertions, previously established “knowledge” can be difficult to uproot. The controversial history of MSG serves as a warning to researchers. Implicit biases can undercut the quality of scientific discoveries, and faulty conclusions can fortify these existing biases, making them even more difficult to combat.
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[Image] MSG.jpg [Internet] [cited 2021 Nov 14]. Available from: https://www.eatthis.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2019/03/MSG.jpg?fit=1200%2C879&ssl=1