Chinese Restaurant Syndrome
Background and History
MSG (monosodium glutamate) is a compound molecule that was first identified by Professor Kikunae at the University of Tokyo in 1908. MSG is made up of sodium and glutamic acid (an amino acid). It is used by cooks as a flavor enhancer; improving the taste of almost any food. It is categorized as an “umami” flavor, just like soy sauce. Chinese cuisine in Western countries and China frequently uses MSG to enhance their dishes.
The term “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” was first coined by Robert Ho Man Kwok in 1968. He wrote a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine describing symptoms of general weakness, numbness on multiple body parts, and palpitations after eating Chinese food. His symptoms began fifteen to twenty minutes after eating his first dish, and they continued to last for two hours. Kwok's letter provoked a stream of letters from people who believed that they also had this disease and the list of symptoms stacked up. The conclusion reached was that these symptoms were a result of monosodium glutamate (MSG), a food additive used to improve the taste of food put in many Chinese dishes but at the same time, it has not been proved to be the actual cause. In 1969, there were nineteen restaurants that reported cases of Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. Of those nineteen, six of them were in New York and two were outside of the U.S. In 1972, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention classified Chinese Restaurant Syndrome as an outbreak with three reported cases. As the commotion of the CRS grew, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took some actions. In 1987, the World Health Organization placed MSG in the safest category of food along with other condiments such as salt and vinegar. In 1995, the FDA classified MSG as “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS). And since then, there has been continuous reviews of the intake amount of MSG to verify safety level of consumption.
Effects of Chinese Restaurant Syndrome
People have reported a list of different effects after consuming MSG, including chest pain, abnormal heartbeat, flushing, headache, numbness, sense of facial pressure or swelling and sweating. A specific account came from Ed Victor, a London publisher, who claimed to have started yawning compulsively after eating wonton soup. He found his heart pounding rapidly after the ambulance arrived. Not only did people claim to experience these effects, they intentionally tried MSG to test its’ effects.
Herbert Schaumburg, from Albert Einstein College of Medicine, gave doses of MSG to volunteers in order to study the pharmacology of MSG. He found that volunteers who ate less than three grams experienced symptoms. Schaumburg claims that when one is eating MSG with a full stomach, then the substance will be absorbed too slowly; however, when one drinks soup on an empty stomach they feel the effects strongly.
As the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome became more well known, despite the FDA declaring MSG safe to eat, many still believe in its harmful effects today. We can see this negative impact on Yelp and Amazon reviews where people make comments about the symptoms they experience after eating at a certain Chinese restaurant or buying a certain product. When researching how the concept of CRS has impacted Chinese restaurants, there are only bits and pieces of information, while the majority of articles still focus on arguing about whether it is a myth or a reality. And last but not least, many Chinese restaurants have taken measures to declare on their name plates or menus that they do not include MSG in their food in order to attract more customers. However, it is important to point out that Chinese restaurants are not the only businesses using MSG. Popular food items such as Doritos, KFC fried chicken, flavored Pringles, and Campbell’s chicken noodle soup also use this flavor enhancer.
Arguments against Chinese Restaurant Syndrome
Despite all the claims about Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, there has been many counterarguments and rebuttals towards it. A food writer, Jeffrey Steingarten, wrote an article titled Why Doesn’t Everyone in China Have a Headache? For Vogue Magazine in 1999. In the article, he questioned six employees of the hotel he stayed at in Shanghai. He found that none of them experienced headaches after eating Chinese food. Along with Jeffrey, many other publications came to MSG’s defense including Times, Epicurious, and Bon Appetit.
In China, MSG doesn’t bring up the same images that Westerners have. Chinese people claimed to have seen positive health effects such as increasing mental alertness and fighting childhood constipation. In 2000, China produced 650,000 tons of MSG and most of it was sold domestically to use for cooking.
Chinese Restaurant Syndrome was never scientifically proven to be a real syndrome. Scientists have failed to find a relationship between MSG consumption and the symptoms of the syndrome. There is also no concrete clinical data that supports MSG is a trigger for headaches.
What could have stemmed this entire thing could be something more than just physical symptoms that people reported. As Anthony Bourdain said on an episode of his show Parts Unknown, “You know what causes Chinese Restaurant Syndrome? Racism.” Ian Mosby, a food historian, also wrote that “fear of MSG in Chinese food is part of the U.S.’s long history of viewing the “exotic” cuisine of Asia as dangerous or dirty.” With the signing of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, these fears grew to their peak. The portrayal of Chinese cooking in the media as “exotic” and “unclean” confirmed exiting ideas of Chinese immigrants’ lack of ability to assimilate, leading to more frequent targeting of Chinese businesses by journalists and public health authorities. After all the negativity that Chinese cuisine and MSG went through, it still remains one of the most popular cuisines in America today. With chains such as Panda Express, P.F. Changs, and a Chinatown in almost every major city in the U.S.; it is safe to say that Chinese food and MSG is not harmful to the human body.
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