A scan of the menus of most Chinese restaurants indicates that the majority offer a no-MSG (Monosodium Glutamate) option. As a youngster, I delivered Chinese food and ate free Chinese food every day that I worked, with no ill effect, so it didn’t bother me to see the chefs sprinkling the white crystalline flavour-enhancing substance into the woks. I don’t know exactly when, but suddenly it seemed to become a fad to ask that MSG not be added. I assumed it was just another way for the white glove crowd to differentiate themselves from the rest of us slobs, but a CBC discussion today made two somewhat surprising points. One, there is no evidence that MSG does any harm at all, and two, that the anti MSG movement may be a form of subtle racism.
CBC Host Samira Mohyeddin asked why did people start hating on MSG and how are some people pushing back? Her guests included Ian Mosby, award-winning author and historian; MiMi Aye, British-Burmese food writer, cookbook author and host of The MSG Pod; and Chris Tunstall bartender, mixologist, and co-owner of A Bar Above in San Diego. By Far Ms. Aye made the strongest case for MSG as a healthy food additive. Listen to the discussion here.
The controversy surrounding the safety of MSG started on 4 April 1968, when Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok wrote a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine, coining the term “Chinese restaurant syndrome” and blaming it on MSG. He described symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, and heart palpitations. In January 2018, Dr. Howard Steel came forth claiming that it was actually a prank submission by him under a pseudonym. Steel said he did it as part of a $10 bet, that he could get a fake article into the prestigious medical journal.
The fake article led to others writing to the journal to say they had similar reactions, so the editors dubbed the peculiar claims Chinese-Restaurant Syndrome, and over the years it persisted in the public consciousness, even though the “research” was rooted in ancient stereotypes and suspicions about Chinese food. The Japanese multinational food and biotech company Ajinomoto has been making the stuff for more than a century. The company writes on its website, “to this day, the myth around MSG is ingrained in America’s consciousness, with Asian food and culture still receiving unfair blame, Chinese Restaurant Syndrome isn’t just scientifically false — it’s xenophobic.”
The US food and drug administration says MSG is safe. Various randomized and highly-controlled tests have failed to prove it causes any of the so-called symptoms. MSG occurs naturally in Parmesan cheese, Tomatoes, corn and peas. For that reason, the Canada Food Inspection Agency considers claims of “no MSG” or “MSG free” to be misleading and deceptive given the availability of naturally-occurring MSG.
Bottom line, it makes food taste better, it doesn’t harm you, and if you want to be “woke”—stop saying “No MSG” please.