Monosodium glutamate, commonly known as MSG, is a topic of much debate in the food world. Historically, many people have been led to believe - incorrectly - that MSG is bad for you, causes headaches, inflammation, bloating, or other symptoms. In reality, MSG is harmless and it provides an excellent source of umami - also known as "deliciousness" to foods.
To make it perfectly clear: "In the case of monosodium glutamate, or MSG, there is no clear scientific consensus that this substance is hazardous to one’s health" (LeMesurier 2017).
So why has MSG received so much negative attention? The short answer is that one small piece of misinformation was allowed to spread widely, fueled by anti-Chinese racism and xenophobia.
The history of MSG and its reputation in America is inextricably linked to anti-Asian racism, and more specifically, anti-Chinese racism and xenophobia. It's imperative to situate any discussion of MSG within this context, and it’s particularly imperative in light of the increase in anti-Asian hate crimes and discrimination over the past year.
Go take a look at the nutrition facts for your favorite savory snacks - you might be surprised to find monosodium glutamate as an ingredient in foods like Doritos, KFC, Top the Tater, and other highly processed foods. It also naturally occurs in tomatoes, cheese, and seaweed. MSG has been manufactured in the United States for over 100 years and has been included as an ingredient in frozen meals, baby food, sauces and seasonings, cereal, and soup (Mosby 2009).
People have been enjoying umami-rich foods for thousands of years around the world. MSG as we know it has been used in cooking for over a century. MSG was first isolated as a substance by Professor Kikunae Ikeda (the chemist who discovered the scientific basis of umami) in 1908, when he extracted it from kombu, the seaweed used to make dashi.
Public perception of MSG in the United States has a long and complicated history. There are many great articles that document it in great detail, but I'll summarize some of the key ideas here. If you don't like reading, David Chang sums it up in his MAD Symposium video, which is included below.
In the 1960s, the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) published a letter attributed to a Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok in which the author reported experiencing various symptoms after eating in American Chinese restaurants (which he said could be from a variety of factors, including cooking wine, MSG, sodium, or simply over-eating). Fueled by anti-Chinese racism and xenophobia - which in years prior to this had already perpetuated the stereotype of Chinese food as unclean or containing questionable ingredients, and in some cases labeled Chinese restaurants as “dangerous” - people ran with this and the concept "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome" surfaced to describe this vague set of "symptoms." Dr. Kwok's letter triggered others to write letters to the NEJM sharing their own experiences with this alleged "syndrome." However, these were all letters - anecdotal accounts of individual experiences and perceptions, not studies. Further, these may have been due to what is called a "nocebo" effect - similar to a placebo, in which someone mentally experiences symptoms that didn't have a physical cause (Mosby 2009).
But wait, it gets more complex. This American Life did a deep dive into the impact of Dr. Kwok's letter, and found that it's quite possible that Dr. Kwok's letter was in fact written by a Dr. Howard Steel as a satirical prank that, whether intentional or not, capitalized on stereotypes and perpetuated racism and othering toward Chinese Americans and Chinese food. It's a long saga I won't fully recount here, but the podcast is definitely worth a listen and you can read about it here.
Regardless, the letter had massive implications.
During the 1970s, scientists studied MSG quite a bit, but results from these studies were all over the place. Some studies seemed to find that MSG led to various symptoms and others found no evidence of symptoms. Few of these studies explored MSG as it was actually used in food - as a seasoning in relatively small amounts. For example, one study found that injecting MSG directly into a mouse's brain had adverse effects on the mouse. While of course that presents clear evidence that MSG should not be injected directly into a mouse's brain, that cannot be used to say that MSG should not be used to season food for humans. Further, it's important to note that the "syndrome" was only noticed in America, not China or other countries that have a long history of using MSG in food, nor was the “syndrome” noticed after eating non-Chinese food that contained MSG. This infographic summarizes much of the scientific research that has been conducted on MSG.
I started doing research for this post a while ago, before the horrific and heartbreaking attack in Atlanta in which a white male murdered 8 people, 6 of whom were Asian American women. This hate crime is a particularly violent and glaring example of the long history of anti-Asian racism in America, which has existed for a very long time. It has been reported that anti-Asian hate crimes are at a high due to anti-Asian rhetoric surrounding the pandemic. It's also important to remember that until recently, these hate crimes were not tracked as carefully due to the erasure of anti-Asian racism and the model minority myth - so while we've certainly seen a spike in hate crimes and media coverage of said hate crimes, anti-Asian racism is intricately woven into our country's history and culture, and has been for a long time. The vilification of MSG is just one element of this discrimination, which also shows up through microaggressions, violent attacks, public policy, and popular culture.
This is not and never will be a food blog that removes food or recipes from their social and historical context. My whiteness allows me to cook with MSG without fear of repercussions or judgement - and MSG is becoming more and more “trendy” among many white cooks. Meanwhile, most of the Chinese restaurants I frequent still need to state on signage and menus "NO MSG" to appease (mostly white) people who haven't learned that MSG is harmless and delicious, and whose opinions have been shaped by anti-Asian rhetoric which is pervasive - but often obscured - in our society.
I hope that if you have any reservations about MSG in food, the information I shared here will help to change your mind and that if you find yourself in a position where you can advocate and dispel misinformation rooted in white supremacy, you'll choose to do so. Learning for Justice has a great resource with ways to respond to and intervene when you witness racism. It's focused on covid-related racism, but the principles can easily apply to other topics.
As evidenced through the history of MSG, it's really easy for misinformation to spread, particularly when it is fueled by racist, xenophobic, and discriminatory stereotypes. And that misinformation, even about a simple cooking ingredient, contributes to much broader systems of discrimination and oppression. When we have conceptions like the idea that "MSG is bad" or that someone is "allergic" to MSG, we need to examine where those ideas come from and the impact they may have. Plentiful scientific evidence shows us that MSG is not harmful. I encourage you to stay critical and to examine where your ideas on topics like this come from - whose voices get heard and shared, who controls the narrative, and how do social and cultural factors influence our ideas or opinions?
(Of course, this can easily go too far, so please don't run with the idea that no information is reliable and become a flat-earther.)
David Chang on MSG: