(CNN)If you've heard of the term "MSG," you might have also heard of its common -- but inaccurate -- connotations.
MSG in Chinese food isn't unhealthy -- you're just racist, activists say
For years, monosodium glutamate, a food additive known as MSG, has been branded as an unhealthy processed ingredient mainly found in Chinese food, despite a lack of supporting scientific evidence.
This perception, which activists argue is outdated and racist, is so widespread that the Merriam-Webster dictionary has an entry for the term "Chinese restaurant syndrome" -- a type of condition that allegedly affects people eating "Chinese food heavily seasoned with monosodium glutamate," with symptoms like dizziness and palpitations.
Now, activists have launched a campaign called "Redefine CRS." Headed by Japanese food and seasoning company Ajinomoto, the online campaign urges Merriam-Webster to change its entry to reflect the scientific consensus on MSG -- and the impact of misinformation on the American public's perception of Asian cuisine.
"To this day, the myth around MSG is ingrained in America's consciousness, with Asian food and culture still receiving unfair blame," said the company in its campaign website. "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome isn't just scientifically false — it's xenophobic."
In a video released by Ajinomoto, several Asian American figures, restaurateurs, and medical professionals spoke out against the misconceptions surrounding MSG and Chinese food.
"Calling it Chinese restaurant syndrome is really ignorant," said restaurateur Eddie Huang, whose memoir was adapted into the hit sitcom "Fresh Off the Boat." In the video, he pointed out that MSG is not only delicious -- but found in practically all processed foods, from ranch dressing to Doritos.
The campaign proposed a new definition for "Chinese restaurant syndrome" in the Merriam-Webster -- "an outdated term that falsely blamed Chinese food containing MSG, or monosodium glutamate, for a group of symptoms."
In response, Merriam-Webster tweeted on Wednesday that it would be "reviewing the term and revising accordingly."
"We're constantly in the process of updating as usage and attitudes evolve, so we're grateful when readers can point us toward a definition that needs attention," said the company.
First off: what is MSG?
Chances are, you've eaten it. It's a common amino acid naturally found in foods like tomatoes and cheese, which people then figured out how to extract and ferment -- a process similar to how we make yogurt and wine.
This fermented MSG is now used to flavor lots of different foods like stews or chicken stock. It's so widely used because it taps into our fifth basic taste: umami (pronounced oo-maa-mee). Umami is less well known than the other tastes like saltiness or sweetness, but it's everywhere -- it's the complex, savory taste you find in mushrooms or Parmesan cheese.
People have consumed MSG throughout history, according to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) -- but the debate over its health effects began in 1968, when a man wrote a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine, complaining of numbness after eating at Chinese restaurants.
The idea that Chinese food was dangerous spread quickly, and was lent legitimacy by some medical professionals at the time. A 1969 scientific paper identified MSG as "the cause of the Chinese restaurant syndrome," and warned that it caused "burning sensations, facial pressure, and chest pain."
That's not to say it was scientifically proven. A 1986 paper in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology argued that a decade of research had "failed to reveal any objective sign" that MSG was dangerous, and that the very idea of "Chinese restaurant syndrome" was "questionable."
The FDA even set up an independent inquiry into MSG in the 1990s -- which ultimately concluded that MSG is safe.
Still, it was too late to contain public fear and anxiety. MSG had effectively been vilified in the American imagination, and was shunned for decades afterward. Even now, a quick Google search for MSG turns up countless pages that ask: is MSG harmful?
Many regulatory bodies and scientific groups have answered this definitively: No. The addition of MSG in foods is "generally recognized as safe," says the FDA site.