Don't Believe This Myth About MSG

Chinese food ranks quite high up there on the list of great takeout foods. However, there's an age-old tale that Chinese food, in America at least, contains MSG, and MSG is the cause of everything bad — headaches, asthma, brain damage, weight gain, you name it (via Healthline). The Merriam-Webster dictionary even has a term for it. They call it the "Chinese restaurant syndrome," used to define bad reactions that people get from eating foods with a high amount of MSG.

MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is a food additive that enhances the savory and umami flavors in foods. MSG comes from glutamic acid, a kind of amino acid that is common in nature. In an interview with Bustle, chef and dietician Tessa Nguyen says that, unlike its artificial-chemical-like name, MSG occurs naturally in many foods like cheese, tomatoes, and mushrooms. Besides, the use of MSG is not limited to Chinese foods. Bloomberg reports that Chick-fil-A and Popeyes both use MSG to enhance the flavor of their chicken, and in January 2020, McDonald's, too, rolled out two test chicken sandwiches that contained MSG for trial out of their outlets in Knoxville, Tennessee and Houston, Texas.

Although popular myths would have you believe that MSG can cause headaches, brain damage, and other harmful side effects, FDA deems MSG as GRAS — "generally recognized as safe." Despite the FDA's stance on the consumption of MSG being pretty clear, myths about MSG as a chemical unsafe to eat are still common.

Origin of the myth

Business Insider explains that due to their Asian origin, the myths about MSG have racial undertones. MSG was developed by a Japanese scientist who was trying to weed out the umami flavor of seaweed. When he finally figured it out in 1908 by adding sodium to the mix, MSG quickly became popular in Asia as the magical powder that made everything thing taste more umami and generally better.

In 1968, Robert Ho Man Kwok, a senior research investigator, wrote a letter for the New England Journal of Medicine titled "Chinese restaurant Syndrome" claiming to have experienced various symptoms every time he ate at a Chinese restaurant (via Colgate Magazine from Colgate University). He reported numbness, palpitations, and weakness, and speculated that soy sauce, cooking wine, and foods high in sodium could be possible culprits. His speculation included suggestions from outside sources claiming that MSG could be the cause of his symptoms, a seasoning generously used in Chinese restaurants, according to his letter.

Dr. John W. Olney, a researcher at Washington University, tested Kwok's claims by injecting large doses of MSG into newborn mice as well as infant monkeys and did find harmful side effects of dead brain tissue and obesity (via BBC). However, 19 other studies conducted on monkeys as well as independent human studies found no such evidence. Finally, a study commissioned by FDA reported that unless humans were given large doses of MSG under precise conditions, or an individual was particularly sensitive to MSG, it would not cause negative side effects in healthy individuals.