Coming from a lower-to-middle class town where the Asian population is few and far between, it was difficult to find authentic Asian food of any kind in Jackson, New Jersey. There was maybe one Chinese buffet and a handful of other small Chinese takeout places. As I progressed through public school, I would often hear the other students say that these more-or-less innocent establishments were causing people to be sick or serving cat or rat meat in certain dishes. I didn’t want to believe those rumors, so I asked my parents about it. They told me that those rumors were, of course, false and rooted in deeper societal problems. People would often eat at such restaurants, but then talk about how dirty the food was or how their favorite orange chicken dish contained mysterious ingredients. One huge concern was the prevalence of headaches and sickness people observed after eating at Chinese restaurants. Many began to attribute these symptoms to the use of MSG in cooking these particular foods. As a result, society viewed the ingredient as harmful and connected it to the making of Chinese food. In reality, the fears surrounding MSG come from ignorance and unsubstantiated rumor rather than scientific fact.
Originally, MSG was created by a Japanese chemist named Kikunae Ikeda in 1909 as he tried to find the savory flavor that he desired from his wife’s seaweed broth. The result was monosodium glutamate, or MSG, and it produced the umami flavor. American companies such as Campbell’s Soup and Heinz began to import huge amounts of MSG beginning in the 1930s to put in their soups and sauces. The seasoning was a household item by the 1950s by the brand name of Accent. MSG was marketed by the Third Shaker campaign to be as ubiquitous in households as salt and pepper, hence the third shaker. So why and how, then, did this once popular and harmless ingredient become so feared and stigmatized?
In 1968, a Chinese American doctor wrote a letter to the New England journal of medicine discussing how he developed headaches, numbness, and other symptoms as a result of eating at several Chinese American restaurants and the term “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” was born. Subsequently, faulty experiments were conducted under the assumption that MSG was the culprit of the symptoms. In these experiments, not only were unnaturally high doses of MSG were used, but also inappropriate forms of testing such as directly injecting high doses of pure dissolved MSG into the skin of mice. Society began to fear the ingredient and directly tied its “harmfulness” to the Chinese restaurants that were already considered to be dirty and unusual. However, this fear stemmed from a more insidious origin: xenophobic ignorance.
In the 1800s, when Asian immigrants worked en masse on American railroads and mines, they were seen as an economic threat to Irish and American workers due to their hard work and willingness to take lower pays. Propaganda was spread declaring Chinese workers as parasites and described their culture, behavior, and food as revolting. Chinese immigrants who tried to stay in the railroad industry were unjustly shot or lynched, making for a deadly occupation for them to continue working in. Those who left created their own restaurants and laundromats to make an income. The Chinese were allowed to continue those businesses because these industries were associated with women’s work, and so the Irish and American laborers were not as threatened. However, the xenophobic and racist atmosphere still permeated society as publications such as the New York Times published articles in the late 1800s detailing Chinese consumption of rats, cats, and dogs in their food. In addition, passing the Chinese Exclusion Act (the first law significantly restricting immigration) drove a greater wedge between cultures. Discrimination and fear of the Chinese ran rampant. Under the exclusion act, Chinese cooks were banned from working in the U.S.A until the G.I Bride act of 1945. Nonetheless, fears persisted and began to center around MSG, as Americans were told by news and the media that eating Chinese food, and by association many other kinds of Asian cuisine, caused headaches, dizziness, and a host of other symptoms. Even though statistics show that instances of food poisoning from European and American food are about the same as that of Asian food, Western society places no blames on Eurocentric cuisines.
What’s truly astonishing is the prevalence of MSG in general and not just in Chinese and Asian cuisine. MSG naturally exists in many of the foods we eat besides Chinese takeout. It’s in breast milk, tomatoes, parmesan cheese, soups, and all kinds of snack foods like Doritos and Pringles. Chain restaurants such as Chili’s and Applebees use MSG in most of their dishes. The seasoning is usually referred to as autolyzed yeast extract instead of MSG to make people think it isn’t being used. Our bodies also naturally generate large amounts compared to how much we intake from foods (50 grams per day vs. 1 gram on average from foods). If MSG really is so harmful, shouldn’t it be banned from all foods? Clearly it isn’t, yet the stigma of this ingredient is tied to only Asian food— more specifically, Chinese food.
With modern research, MSG is, scientifically speaking, entirely safe to consume for most people. Although some people have a sensitivity to it which may result in light headaches or stomach discomfort, the ingredient is not largely harmful or deadly. It seems that the stigma associated with MSG is founded upon little to no evidence, and fears surrounding it originate from generations of ignorance and xenophobic tendencies. People make no complaints about getting sick from Doritos and tomato soup but will be quick to make false accusations about the “unusual” and “questionable” quality of Asian food. In reality, that bowl of fried rice isn’t going to cause headaches as much as the preconceived fears of the cultures and people behind the cuisine.