MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is a flavor additive similar to salt that comes from the non-essential amino oil, acid glutamate. Glutamic acid is one of the most abundant amino acids to exist naturally and because it serves various bodily functions, the common belief that MSG is harmful and unhealthy to consume has no basis. Under the guise of health concerns, the real fear stems from anti-Chinese sentiment that existed, which resulted in the manifested in western culture as fear of MSG.
Why People Think It’s Harmful
In 1968, false evidence against the seasoning MSG gave it a bad reputation that still lasts to this day. Fortunately, more people have access to the truth about MSG through scientific evidence and know that it’s actually not harmful for you at all. This idea came when after eating several meals at Chinese restaurants, Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok wrote to the New England Journal of Medicine about several symptoms he developed that he attributed from what he ate. Chinese restaurants put up signs and noted in their menus that there was “NO MSG ADDED” in their food to reassure people that their food was safe to eat.
The False Accusations of MSG
Kwok’s article titled “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” spread anxiety and fear of the unknown additive and its three ominous letters. Many still believed that MSG negatively affected the body and caused symptoms like sweating, headaches, and nausea. It was also believed that because of its toxicity, it “overexcited” brain cells leading to brain damage.
In reality, there was no evidence to prove such accusations because after a study trying to prove these theories by injecting high doses of MSG into the brains of mice, nothing happened because MSG does not cross the blood-brain barrier. The fear driving the intense effort to prove this causal fallacy wasn’t really based in food.
MSG’s Unfair History
What was actually happening was that the “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” was the manifestation of anti-Chinese sentiment and the idea that their food was exotic, dirty, and dangerous. The misrepresentation of MSG was furthered in the media with salacious headlines found in the Chicago Tribute, ‘Chinese food make you crazy? MSG is No. 1 Suspect’, books published titled, ‘Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills’, and even a 60-minutes segment. Although MSG actually originated from Japan, denigrating MSG was a way of legitimizing western paranoia and disdain for China’s communist state.
The Truth about MSG
MSG can be harmful in large doses in the same way that consuming high doses of salt affects your blood pressure. MSG, just like everything else, is toxic when ingested in excess. Unlike the many other artificial flavoring like aspartame and sucralose, which are found in most processed foods, MSG occurs naturally in the body.
Kwok probably did have the symptoms he claimed to experience at the same time that he had eaten from Chinese restaurants. However, there hasn’t proof that a relation exists between the two. What was merely just a coincidence became a long-lasting myth.