by Art Li
MSG sits at an intersection between scientific and political understandings of food. Learn more about MSG and its history of use, and how both science and social factors influence to foods we consume.
January 9, 2016
Transcript and Annotations below:
MSG. What is it? What is used for? Is it dangerous..? And…what does it have to do with…racism?!?!? Let’s find out!
Hello! My name is Art. I like to eat things! Another thing I like to do is think about the things that I am putting in my body. There’s a lot of information (and sometimes misinformation) about what we eat. Today, I’m going to be looking into an often maligned white powder that’s found in a surprisingly large amount of food – MSG.
Before we begin, a few disclaimers: First and foremost, I am by no means a scientific expert! I’m just a dude who thought science was pretty neat, and went to college to study it. With that said, I believe that not being an expert shouldn’t stop you from being interested in, learning about, and doing science! There’s a little bit of science in everyone! With that, let’s begin.
MSG stands for monosodium glutamate. This is what it looks like. Sodium is the chemical ion that is responsible for the taste of salt – table salt itself could also be called monosodium chloride. Glutamate, the other compound in MSG, is a naturally occurring amino acid responsible for the taste of umami, the fifth flavor. Umami is kind of hard to describe – it’s like eating a mushroom without the flavor or a mushroom, or tasting the heartiness of meat without the meat flavor. It’s the taste, or kind of aftertaste, that most people associate with rich savory foods. As a result, MSG has become a very common food additive to improve the flavor of things like chips, crackers, and soups.
BUT ISN’T MSG UNSAFE TO EAT?
There has been much debate around the substance prompted in the late 60s and early 70s by claims that the MSG found in Chinese restaurant food led to numbness, heart palpitations, and other health concerns . Further research found that highly concentrated injections of MSG could cause brain cell lesions in developing mice and rats . As a result of the association between MSG and Chinese food, the term “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” came into use as a derogatory name for MSG sensitivity. However, once the scientific community began to focus on human studies to address these possible dangers, the results started to become far less clear. Studies done by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health Organization, the Scientific Committee for Food (SCF) of the European Commission, and the Food and Drug Administration of the United States all concluded that food-based MSG was safe for adult human consumption. Some of the studies were even unable to produce brain damage in mice with high volumes of orally ingested MSG.
Why, then, is there still so much concern surrounding MSG? I believe that a lot of it has to do with how we perceive MSG – specifically, how we perceive it as a racialized food. When I say racialized, I’m referring to how MSG is heavily associated with Asian or cheap “Chinese” food. The concept of “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”, which kickstarted the controversy surrounding the food, is a pretty clear indicator of the how the food has been associated with racial stereotypes from its very introduction. The New York City Health Department at one point went as far as to target Chinese restaurants with warnings against the use of “excessive MSG”, despite MSG being found in tons of food that we would not immediately associate with Asian-ness.
These foods include parmesan cheese, mushrooms, and tomatoes, which can contain similar, if not larger, concentrations of MSG compared to many dishes served at Chinese restaurants. MSG’s flavor enhancing properties have also been capitalized on by the processed food industry to improve many snack foods. The flavor of umami has also recently become a food trend, with restaurants emphasizing the use of high-glutamate foods while not acknowledging MSG’s contentious and racial history.
I UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU’RE SAYING, BUT HOW CAN YOU EXPLAIN THE HEADACHES I GET AFTER EATING MSG?
Glad you asked! One possible consideration is the similarity of the effects of dehydration and the supposed symptoms of MSG consumption. Because the taste of umami works to mask the flavor of salt, foods containing MSG could have a higher-than normal amount of salt added to further improve flavor. This could cause the feelings of bloatedness, headache, and thirst that are often associated with MSG.
Beyond that, there is still fair reason to avoid MSG. None of the studies I cited were able to definitively rule out the existence of MSG sensitivity. As a result, if you suspect you are sensitive to MSG, there is little to no reason to not avoid consuming it, as it is not an essential part of our diet. It is important, however, to base your reasons for avoiding MSG in non-racist ways. Rather than merely avoiding what are perceived as cheap or low quality “asian” foods, people who believe they are MSG sensitive should take care to avoid most processed foods, parmesan, as well as products containing soy sauce and other traditionally “asian” foods.
Ultimately, it is important to understand scientific context behind the foods that we eat, in addition to the social and political contexts that influence how we perceive them. As the case of MSG shows, we can inadvertently demonize foods by leaving the issue of race unexamined, even if science shows otherwise. So the next time you decide to avoid certain foods, take the time to critically think about why it is you are avoiding them – and try not to avoid food just for racist reasons.
Kwok, RHM. (1968). Chinese restaurant syndrome. New England Journal of Medicine, 278(14):796
 Olney, JW. (1969). Brain Lesions, Obesity, and Other Disturbances in Mice Treated with Monosodium Glutamate. Science, 164(3880):719-721
 Walker, R. and Lupien, JR. (2000). The Safety Evaluation of Monosodium Glutamate. Journal of Nutrition, 130(4):1049S-1052S
 Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives. (1988). L-glutamic acid and its ammonium, calcium, monosodium and potassium salts. In: Toxicological Evaluation of Certain Food Additives and Contaminants. New York, Cambridge University Press, pp. 97–161
 Mosby, I. (2009). ‘That Wonton Soup Headache’: The Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, MSG, and the making of American food,1968-1980. Social History of Medicine, 22(1): 133-151
 Freeman, M. (2006). Reconsidering the effects of monosodium glutamate: A literature review. Journal of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners, 18(10):482–486
Art Li is a Chinese American ex-scientist who alternates between pondering the possibilities for science as a tool of liberation and eating a lot.