Back in the 1970s, when Chinese food was the go-to cheap ethnic cuisine that everyone seemed to adore, there existed one particular cautionary aspect of gorging yourself on Mu Shu Pork and that was something called “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.” This syndrome, with the horrendous name that was largely the product of rumor and speculation, struck fear into the heart of overeaters possessing sufficient chopstick skills. The list of symptoms was long and far reaching and consisted of everything from a mild headache to rectal bleeding and the culprit was monosodium glutamate (aka MSG). By the early 1980s diners would routinely ask their servers at their favorite Chinese restaurant whether MSG was included with their meal and restaurant owners soon learned that posting signs in windows (and on menus) stating “No MSG” was a sure-fire way to insure a reliable stream of customers.
Now a few decades on, with the compound MSG still quietly doing its thing on a few select menus, people are asking the question, “Is MSG really all that bad?” According to reputable food scientist Harold McGee, “In the case of MSG, the record is about as clear as it can be: there is no connection between consuming MSG in any form and the symptoms that are often called Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.” Seemingly, while some people have very real reactions/allergies to MSG, the majority of diners seem to be unnecessarily cautious about the glutamate. Some think the reactions of many people claiming to suffer from “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” were largely psychosomatic. While the MSG frequently used in Chinese restaurants came largely in the processed form (does anyone remember Accent?) the fact is that MSG is naturally occurring in several everyday foods, both of the processed and whole food varieties. MSG is found in packaged potato chips like Doritos, as well as chicken broth (sometimes labeled as natural flavoring) and soy sauce, but is also naturally found in seaweed, mushrooms, tomatoes, Parmesan cheese and basically anything fermented (including cheese, vinegar, and pickles).
Listen to an audio program on the subject of MSG here:
MSG is the sodium salt of glutamic acid, one of the most abundant amino acids in our diet. It has been used for more than a hundred years to enhance and balance the savory taste of food. It is most notable for enhancing the savory “umami” taste in food – also referred to as the “fifth taste.” Other than the rumor about MSG’s ill effects that started in the late 1960s, there has been no hard evidence that MSG (whether naturally occurring or as an additive) is a danger or an irritant to anyone. Still there are those who remain sensitive to glutamic acid of any sort and spend a great deal of time and energy avoiding it.
Consumers are slowly starting to open up to the idea of consuming MSG-rich foods, but I think we are likely a ways away from having a shaker of MSG on our dining tables alongside the salt and pepper.
What is your feeling about consuming MSG in any form? Have you ever had an adverse reaction? Do you believe in “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” or do you think it is all way overblown? After reading this, are you any more likely to introduce MSG into your diet?