When you think of MSG, what are the first thoughts that come to mind? Probably that MSG is bad for you and that it is used in Chinese food. But have you ever wondered where this belief came from? Have you ever really researched MSG and its relation to Chinese food?
A recent episode of Adam Ruins Everything (one of the best shows on TV) tackled this issue. Even though I live in China and have written about Chinese food quite a bit, I never gave MSG much thought. It can’t be avoided over here, so even though I believed it was an unhealthy food additive, I didn’t worry about it much. (Between the annual milk scandals and cancer-causing rice and water here in China, MSG has been a pretty low-order concern). But I remember when living in the US, everyone seems to know a Chinese restaurant that must be avoided because they used the dreaded MSG.
However, the shocking truth is that this fear of MSG is far more rooted in racism than concern for public health. As Adam Conover explains in “Adam Ruins Spa Day“, MSG was discovered and created by Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda in 1907. The seasoning caught on, not just in East Asia, but around the world. By the 1950s, every restaurant and chef in the world was using it, and it was a staple in most American kitchens.
“In 1968, the New England Journal of Medicine published a letter from a doctor complaining about radiating pain in his arms, weakness and heart palpitations after eating at Chinese restaurants. He mused that cooking wine, MSG or excessive salt might be to blame. Reader responses poured in with similar complaints, and scientists jumped to research the phenomenon. “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” was born.”
So even though MSG was used by almost everyone at the time, this doctor only pointed the finger at Chinese restaurants, inexorably linking MSG to Chinese restaurants and Chinese food ever since.
And lest you doubt the racial component here, have you ever heard anyone complain about MSG in Doritos? Or Campbell’s Soup? No. The only times I have ever heard anyone complain about MSG is in relation to Chinese food.
But is there a reason to worry about MSG in your food? No. No study has ever found a link between MSG and supposed “side effects.” In fact, MSG is naturally occurring in your own body and you would die without it.
The history of MSG, the xenophobic reactions to it, and the extreme ways chefs are trying to recreate MSG without the negative stigma is all pretty fascinating and I encourage you read more about it and check out Adam Ruins Everything.