The Rise and Fall and Rise Again of MSG

You probably know monosodium glutamate from its link to so-called ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’ — and that’s precisely the problem

I’m a casualty of the MSG subterfuge. I was fooled more than a decade ago — when I was still an impressionable high school student in the suburbs of L.A. In “the valley,” the main street — Ventura Boulevard — was beset by sushi spots, weed dispensaries, and of course, a bevy of Chinese restaurants. 

Some of these were hiding in strip malls behind beige signs and tinted windows, while others stood alone, clear, beneath the glow of a neon-lit sign, one of its letters sometimes burned out — an easy tell that the food was worth the wait. My favorite, The Plum Tree Inn, boasted an aquatic experience in the form of a tank that housed lobsters that could be delivered to your table — all you had to do was order the special. I loved it there. 

Until, that is, the anti-monosodium glutamate lobby told me that if I loved myself, I shouldn’t love those places anymore.

For the uninitiated, monosodium glutamate, more commonly (and ominously) known as MSG, is a chemical compound often used to enhance the flavor of food. It’s kind of like salt, only supercharged. “In 2002, the discovery of the umami taste receptor officially established umami as the fifth basic taste,” explains Taylor Wallace, a food scientist at George Mason University. “MSG combines sodium (like that in table salt) with glutamate, the most abundant amino acid in nature and one that provides umami, a savory taste.”

So despite its unsettlingly scientific moniker, MSG is nothing more than sodium mixed with one of the 20 amino acids crucial to the human body. “MSG is glutamic acid, which is an amino acid that, when it forms a salt with sodium, changes to glutamate instead of glutamic acid,” says Wallace. “And so, if you think about it, your body is made up of many essential amino acids, one of which is glutamic acid.” As per John Mahoney’s 2013 BuzzFeed article on MSG, we consume this substance in three different ways: Through proteins that contain glutamic acid; foods like Parmesan cheese, tomatoes, seaweed or soy sauce; and lastly through MSG itself — “of which the FDA estimates that most of us eat a little over a half a gram of every day,” according to Mahoney’s article.

But the decades-long hysteria around MSG has largely ignored the facts above, and indeed its history, which — though easy enough to uncover — isn’t widely known. The substance was originally discovered by Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda in 1907, after he noticed a common flavor between foods like asparagus, tomatoes and the broth his wife made with seaweed. “Ikeda was as enterprising as he was curious, so soon after his discovery, he refined and patented a way to produce pure glutamic acid, stabilizing it with a salt ion to create what we now know as monosodium glutamate,” reports Mahoney. “He called the company he founded to produce MSG Ajinomoto (‘the essence of taste’), thus forever linking umami, the taste, with glutamic acid, the chemical. It remains one of the largest producers of MSG in the world today.”

But despite being created by a Japanese chemist, MSG would, as we all know, gain notoriety in the U.S. due to its association with Chinese-American cuisine. “A lot of it has to do with political, social and cultural trends that were happening in the 1960s,” says journalist Thomas Germain, who has previously written about the MSG debate for the Columbia Undergraduate Research Journal. “So at the beginning of the 1960s, a writer named Rachel Carson published a book called Silent Spring, which is about the dangers of pesticides and chemical companies.” Carson’s book, says Germain, spurred an idea “that became really popular in the U.S.” — namely, that chemicals and additives that are made artificially are inherently dangerous and able to harm you in mysterious ways. “You don’t even realize it’s happening,” Germain says in summary of the book’s main takeaway about pesticides. “It can be invisible, almost.”

Germain continues to say that just a few years later, in 1968, Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok — a then-recent Chinese immigrant — wrote a letter to the editors of the New England Journal of Medicine, stating that he got headaches when he ate in Chinese restaurants, but didn’t get them with his own home cooking, reasoning that the culprit might be MSG. “Almost immediately, this idea caught on and it just exploded,” says Germain.

Compounding this, Germain notes in his article on MSG that, in 1969, a different study showed a “causal link” between MSG, headaches and CRS [Chinese Restaurant Syndrome]. “That same year, Washington University’s Dr. John Olney published an article in Science which found that mice dosed with MSG developed brain lesions, stunted skeletal growth, obesity and female sterility,” writes Germain. “A few years later, Olney published a new study that found similar defects in infant primates.”

As Wallace points out, though, these rat studies were highly medically problematic, with rats being given an IV injection of MSG at levels far above those you’d ever experience with your food. Even had those studies been more realistic, he adds, they still wouldn’t necessarily be relevant. “We do a lot of rat studies at George Mason, but the bad thing about rat studies is, it’s only about 10 percent of the time they translate to what actually happens in humans,” he says. “It’s kind of like how chocolate is a neurotoxin in dogs, but we can all eat chocolate and we’re just fine. It’s the same thing with rats.”

A similar example, according to Wallace, occurs in studies on saccharin. “If you drink 20,000 Diet Cokes a day for 15 years, maybe it’s detrimental, but who’s going to consume that level of it?” he says. “And when you have an intravenous injection, that’s completely different than what happens when you digest something and it’s broken down and then absorbed.”

Beyond the dubious nature of these studies, there’s also the simple fact that MSG isn’t unique to Chinese food — it’s in everything from Campbell’s soup to Doritos to Ranch dressing, not to mention that it’s naturally found in, for example, kelp. So why, then, did Chinese restaurants shoulder the brunt of the MSG hysteria? 

“At the base of it, it’s really xenophobia that’s been passed down,” says food and travel journalist Kristie Hang. “MSG is found in so many food items, but no one complains or even thinks twice about it until they set foot in a Chinese restaurant.” Germain agrees, telling me that the anti-MSG narrative plays into a long history of anti-Chinese racism in the U.S. “Part of that has to do with the fact that this was happening at the height of the Cold War,” he says. “So the idea that the Chinese were doing something that was sneaky and harmful with chemicals was just a very easy idea to believe for a lot of Americans. It was just this confluence of all these different ideas that hit at once that made it the perfect storm to strike fear in the hearts and stomachs of America.”

According to Wallace, in spite of the fact that you’ve probably heard someone tell you that they have an “MSG intolerance,” or that they’re “allergic to Chinese food” because of the MSG, the truth is, that’s physiologically impossible, considering “seven pounds of your body weight is actually made up of glutamic acid.” For those reasons, Wallace says that even though there’s been plenty of pressure advocating for an MSG ban, it’s always remained on the FDA’s “generally recognized as safe” food list

It should be noted that some researchers believe there are those who’ve shown signs of genuine MSG sensitivity. “In my research on the effects of MSG in individuals with irritable bowel syndrome and the chronic pain condition fibromyalgia, I observed headache (including migraine), diarrhea, gastrointestinal pain and bloating, extreme fatigue, muscle pain and cognitive dysfunction — all of which improved when subjects were put on a diet low in free glutamate, and which returned with re-introduction of MSG,” writes Kathleen Holton, a professor in the School of Education, Teaching and Health and the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience at American University, for Live Science

Interestingly, Hang tells me that it’s not just non-Chinese people who share the anti-MSG opinion. “Chinese and Chinese-Americans have thought very lowly of their own food as well,” she says. “It’s a cultural perception, unfortunately.” 

But as is often the case with the winds of food trends, the direction appears to be changing. Thanks in large part to chefs like David Chang, who have worked to rewrite the narrative around Asian cuisine being considered “cheap food,” MSG is no longer the universal food ingredient pariah it once was. 

As per Mahoney’s BuzzFeed article, one of the focuses of Chang’s Momofuku research and development lab in New York’s East Village is to find different ways to achieve the much-sought after umami flavor provided by MSG. And although technically speaking, what they’re developing there is done via a natural fermentation process, the final product is chemically identical to the much maligned non-essential amino acid. “It just so happens that inside that tin of MSG is the exact molecule Chang and his chefs have worked so hard for the last three years to tease out of pots of fermenting beans and nuts,” writes Mahoney. “It’s pure glutamic acid, crystallized with a single sodium ion to stabilize it; five pounds of uncut, un-stepped-on umami, made from fermented corn in a factory in Iowa.” 

In addition to Chang’s reinvestment in MSG as a viable, non-hazardous flavor enhancer, researchers are also actively working to dispel the unfounded and racist MSG narrative. Most recently, Wallace and his team at George Mason found that glutamates like MSG can actually help reduce America’s sodium intake. “MSG contains about 12 percent sodium, which is two-thirds less than that contained in table salt, and data shows a 25 to 40 percent reduction in sodium is possible in specific product categories when MSG is substituted for some salt,” Wallace told Eureka Alert. “As Americans begin to understand that MSG is completely safe, I think we’ll see a shift toward using the ingredient as a replacement for some salt to improve health outcomes.”

Which brings us back to my decade-long abandonment of an entire nation’s cuisine, all because of a three-lettered ingredient I was brainwashed to believe was no good for me. The Plum Tree Inn, my favorite Chinese restaurant in the valley, has since shuttered its doors, and as such, I will never eat there again. This, I accept as my deserved punishment for a decade of ignorance. But as anyone who lives in any American city knows, Chinese restaurants are plentiful, and never have I been more excited to get some MSG — by way of a giant helping of sesame chicken — back in my belly.