CHINA: HOW THE RACIALLY-CHARGED MYTH OF MSG HAS TAINTED AMERICANS’ PERCEPTION OF CHINESE CUISINE

ALEX DASHWOOD WRITES — There exists a myth in the United States that the addition of monosodium glutamate (MSG) to food, which is predominantly used in Chinese cuisine, is a health risk causing negative side effects. Some consumers of it purport to experience symptoms such as dizziness and palpitations after ingesting it.

Despite demonstrable evidence that has proven the consumption of MSG to be safe, many Americans are still convinced that it is an ingredient that they must shun. This misconception teaches people in the United States that Chinese food is harmful and unhealthy, and is an alien to be feared. But these racially-charged perceptions are false. Worse, they mask the true nature of exactly what is monosodium glutamate and its use in both Chinese and other types of foods.

So, what is MSG? A compound that naturally occurs in many types of food including tomatoes, cheese, canned soup, and broths made with seaweed. It affords a delicious savory flavor called umami, which can be found in foods like ramen broth, gravy, soy sauce and anchovies. It was discovered by a Japanese chemist named Kikunae Ikeda in 1907, when he noticed umami qualities in certain foods. He learned how to “synthesize the molecule by extracting glutamate from seaweed and mixing it with water and table salt to stabilize the compound.” He then bottled and sold it commercially. It was not long before its use became widespread, including in packaged foods made in the United States.

By the 1950s, MSG was present in all types of foods in the U.S., such as snacks and baby food. Americans happily consumed it without fear.

But in 1968 a doctor wrote a letter, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, “complaining about radiating pain in his arms, weakness and heart palpitations after eating at Chinese restaurants.” He claimed that the cause of his symptoms was the MSG in Chinese food.

His letter engendered similar complaints from the public, which was supported by false research reports citing such symptoms. And yet, studies that ostensibly supported those assumptions had patent flaws. Participants were aware of the foods that contained MSG and complained of symptoms after they consumed them.

This research caused ubiquitous fear of foods containing MSG and, worse, promoted criticism against Chinese cuisine prepared in the U.S. The phenomenon became known as the racially biased “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.” Not surprisingly, then, this unfair and inaccurate label has prompted xenophobic attitudes toward Chinese cuisine and culture (along with other Asian foods and cultures), and has perpetuated the myth that Chinese food is unhealthy.

This bias must be dispelled. Chinese food is filled with protein and fiber-rich vegetables, which makes it a perfectly healthy alternative. Additionally, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that MSG is harmful. It is crucial that Americans understand this to appreciate the true nature of Chinese cuisine and eradicate their unwarranted fear of it.

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