If there were ever a perfect example of “the more you know, the less you’ll fear,” then knowing more about monosodium glutamate (MSG) has to be among them.
MSG has been used in foods since the early 20th century. The fears about the alleged side effects caused by MSG, however, started in 1969 when a physician, Ho Man Kwok, wrote a simple letter to the editor of a medical journal, asking about symptoms he experienced after eating in a Chinese restaurant, but not when preparing similar foods at home.
Dr. Kwok noted symptoms that included heart palpitations, headaches, dizziness, and suggested several causes for them. The one that stuck was MSG, and the phenomenon became known as “Chinese restaurant syndrome.” (CRS) Consumers didn’t want to risk those symptoms just from having won-ton soup, so there was mass avoidance of patronage of Chinese restaurants, to the point that the restaurants removed MSG from their cooking.
Two Problems with the CRS Assumption about MSG “Side Effects”
First, 50 years of rigorous, credible research has never found MSG to cause symptoms of “Chinese restaurant syndrome”. This is true even in double-blinded studies that recruited ONLY people who identified themselves as “MSG-sensitive,” and where neither the participant nor the researcher knew who got the real MSG or a placebo. Symptoms were just as likely in people who got the placebo as in people who consumed the MSG.
Perhaps even more amazing is that the power of suggestion, and putting a name to something that never existed before, was able to sweep through the nation long before social media or the Internet.
*Read the latest update about the term “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” at the end of this article.
People Talk About It, So It Must Be True?
Au contraire. This is why learning facts really alleviates fears. Once I learned how benign MSG was, not only did I lose all fear of having it in food, but I actually started using it in my own cooking. Here’s why:
MSG is a simple compound, made up of two molecules: sodium and glutamate. Sodium you know as part of table salt, or sodium chloride. Glutamate you may not know, but your body has been making it forever and we make far more ourselves than we’d ever get from MSG.
Glutamate is one of the “non-essential” amino acids, the building blocks of protein, because our body makes it. Some amino acids are “essential” because we don’t make them ourselves, and must get them from food. Even though we make glutamate, it’s also present in all protein-containing foods, like meat, fish, dairy foods and plant proteins, such as beans and whole grains.
Our bodies don’t absorb MSG as a single molecule. As soon as it hits our stomachs, it breaks apart into sodium and glutamate. Since these components are familiar to our bodies, and indeed, already present in us, there is simply no plausible way MSG could produce the symptoms people attribute to it. Also notable: over 90% of glutamate stays in your gut – it does it’s work right there and isn’t absorbed, further evidence it is incapable of producing the alleged side effects.
Before 1969: 50 Years Without Fears
MSG isn’t a new ingredient. It began commercial use in 1908, so had over 50 years of use before anyone discovered “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.” MSG was included in recipe ingredients in many cookbooks (I found it in one from the 1960’s called “The Stillmeadow Cookbook,” by Gladys Taber, who wrote of life on her Connecticut farm.)
Chefs today know MSG. You’ve probably heard them on television speak of “umami”, the fifth taste, after sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. Chefs love flavor, and umami is all about flavor intensity. Ever notice how adding some parmesan cheese to many foods enhances their flavor? Parmesan cheese is absolutely loaded with glutamate! Other examples of high-umami foods are mushrooms, eggplant, and tomatoes. Where would Italian food be without these high-glutamate foods? Yet no one has ever complained about “Italian restaurant syndrome.”
Constant reinforcement by media, testimonials, and anecdotes have really helped to perpetuate the fear of MSG side effects. If you have a friend who swears they are MSG-sensitive, you might believe him/her. Chinese restaurants don’t want to risk losing customers, so many still claim that they keep MSG out of their kitchens. The bottom line however, is this: bad reactions that you may associate with Chinese food are absolutely not due to MSG.
Bonus: Could MSG Have Benefits?
Yes! If you’re trying to lower your sodium intake, MSG is your friend. Gram for gram, MSG has two-thirds LESS sodium than regular salt, yet actually provides a flavor boost. In recipes, substituting MSG for one-third to half the salt called for, significantly lowers the sodium content and boosts flavor better than if you’d used all regular salt.
The win-win of better flavor and lower sodium is my kind of swap.
*Note: In May 2020, Merriam-Webster updated its dictionary definition of “Chinese restaurant syndrome,” a term many Asian Americans saw as antiquated and even racist. Now, the definition has a detailed disclaimer noting the term as ‘dated’ and ‘offensive.’ It also states that research conducted since the so-called syndrome was reported in the 1960s has not found any link between MSG and those symptoms.