If you’ve heard of the term “MSG,” you might have also heard of its common – but inaccurate – connotations.
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This perception, which activists argue is outdated and racist, is so widespread that the Merriam-Webster dictionary has an entry for the term “Chinese restaurant syndrome” – a type of condition that allegedly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The campaign proposed a new definition for “Chinese restaurant syndrome” in the Merriam-Webster – “an outdated term that falsely blamed Chinese food containing MSG, or monosodium glutamate, for a group of symptoms.”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.
What MSG is – and isn’t
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.
A joint study by the World Health Organization and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization “failed to confirm an involvement of MSG in ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’,” and noted that the syndrome itself was based on “anecdotal” evidence rather than any scientific fact.
Besides, many said, if MSG was so dangerous, masses of people would have fallen sick in countries that cook with the additive, like China and Japan – something that simply hasn’t happened.
The fight for Asian food in America
As the Ajinomoto campaign points out, the public scare over MSG unfairly placed the blame on Chinese food – and is partly why many in the United States still think of Chinese food as processed, unclean, or unhealthy.
This perception – and the growing movement to break down this stereotype – made national headlines in the spring of 2019, when a white woman opened a Chinese restaurant called Lucky Lee’s in New York. The restaurant would serve “clean” Chinese food, she wrote in a now-deleted Instagram post – food that wasn’t “too oily,” and that wouldn’t make people feel “bloated and icky” afterward.
Almost immediately, the internet was in uproar. Members of the Asian and Asian American community accused the owner of not just appropriating another culture’s cuisine, but doing it with an offensive rather than appreciative approach.
The owner responded shortly after the backlash, acknowledging in an Instagram post that Chinese food had “health benefits” and promising to “always listen and reflect accordingly.” The restaurant closed in December 2019 – just eight months after opening.
She apologized more explicitly in an interview with The New York Times – but still, critics argued that her original post had reinforced negative and false stereotypes around Chinese food instead of exploring what it actually is.
The controversy sparked a broader discussion on the racially-driven lines drawn around which foods are “clean” and “sophisticated.” Why, for instance, is Italian or French cuisine – both foreign to the US – seen as high-class fine dining, while Chinese or Thai food is still often regarded as quick, cheap, and low quality?
Some also pointed out that “ethnic” foods – a controversy in itself, because what is “ethnic” anyway? – hold stories that have been erased or unacknowledged completely. For many, “Americanized” Chinese food was born from desperation and adapted for American tastes – a way for immigrant families to survive in a society that demanded assimilation. To have that food, and its history of immigrant struggle, dismissed as “icky” or “oily” felt like a slap in the face for many in the Asian American community.
For years, Chinese restaurants in the US often had signs inside that announced “No MSG used,” in an attempt to distance themselves from the stigma. Now, some are reclaiming and openly embracing the additive; Chinese restaurant chain Mission Chinese Food has salt shakers filled with MSG, and MSG margaritas with MSG crystals in the ice cubes.
Then there’s Ajinomoto, one of the biggest voices in the MSG market and the leader of the Redefine CRS campaign. You can find Ajinomoto’s MSG seasoning packets and spice mixes in many American supermarkets, and it has been working for years to raise awareness about both the safety of consuming MSG and the ways it can be used to add flavor to dishes.
Amid all the hullabaloo, restaurateurs like celebrity chef David Chang, who produced and starred in the Netflix series “Ugly Delicious,” and Anthony Bourdain, the late host of CNN’s award-winning series “Parts Unknown,” have worked to change public perception.