For years, monosodium glutamate, a food additive known as MSG, has been branded as an unhealthy processed ingredient mainly found in Chinese food, despite a lack of supporting scientific evidence.
In a video released by Ajinomoto, several Asian American figures, restaurateurs, and medical professionals spoke out against the misconceptions surrounding MSG and Chinese food.
“Calling it Chinese restaurant syndrome is really ignorant,” said restaurateur Eddie Huang, whose memoir was adapted into the hit sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat.” In the video, he pointed out that MSG is not only delicious — but found in practically all processed foods, from ranch dressing to Doritos.
The campaign proposed a new definition for “Chinese restaurant syndrome” in the Merriam-Webster — “an outdated term that falsely blamed Chinese food containing MSG, or monosodium glutamate, for a group of symptoms.”
“We’re constantly in the process of updating as usage and attitudes evolve, so we’re grateful when readers can point us toward a definition that needs attention,” said the company.
What MSG is — and isn’t
First off: what is MSG?
Chances are, you’ve eaten it. It’s a common amino acid naturally found in foods like tomatoes and cheese, which people then figured out how to extract and ferment — a process similar to how we make yogurt and wine.
This fermented MSG is now used to flavor lots of different foods like stews or chicken stock. It’s so widely used because it taps into our fifth basic taste: umami (pronounced oo-maa-mee). Umami is less well known than the other tastes like saltiness or sweetness, but it’s everywhere — it’s the complex, savory taste you find in mushrooms or Parmesan cheese.
Still, it was too late to contain public fear and anxiety. MSG had effectively been vilified in the American imagination, and was shunned for decades afterward. Even now, a quick Google search for MSG turns up countless pages that ask: is MSG harmful?
Besides, many said, if MSG was so dangerous, masses of people would have fallen sick in countries that cook with the additive, like China and Japan — something that simply hasn’t happened.
The fight for Asian food in America
As the Ajinomoto campaign points out, the public scare over MSG unfairly placed the blame on Chinese food — and is partly why many in the United States still think of Chinese food as processed, unclean, or unhealthy.
Almost immediately, the internet was in uproar. Members of the Asian and Asian American community accused the owner of not just appropriating another culture’s cuisine, but doing it with an offensive rather than appreciative approach.
She apologized more explicitly in an interview with The New York Times — but still, critics argued that her original post had reinforced negative and false stereotypes around Chinese food instead of exploring what it actually is.
The controversy sparked a broader discussion on the racially-driven lines drawn around which foods are “clean” and “sophisticated.” Why, for instance, is Italian or French cuisine — both foreign to the US — seen as high-class fine dining, while Chinese or Thai food is still often regarded as quick, cheap, and low quality?
Some also pointed out that “ethnic” foods — a controversy in itself, because what is “ethnic” anyway? — hold stories that have been erased or unacknowledged completely. For many, “Americanized” Chinese food was born from desperation and adapted for American tastes — a way for immigrant families to survive in a society that demanded assimilation. To have that food, and its history of immigrant struggle, dismissed as “icky” or “oily” felt like a slap in the face for many in the Asian American community.
Then there’s Ajinomoto, one of the biggest voices in the MSG market and the leader of the Redefine CRS campaign. You can find Ajinomoto’s MSG seasoning packets and spice mixes in many American supermarkets, and it has been working for years to raise awareness about both the safety of consuming MSG and the ways it can be used to add flavor to dishes.
“You know what causes Chinese restaurant syndrome?” he added as he walked through the streets of Sichuan. “Racism.”