Taking a closer look at MSG in the wake of Asian American hate crimes

Photo of foods such as SPAM and Ramen with MSG in them
Momoka Sasaki/Staff

MSG, short for monosodium glutamate, is well known in the culinary world as a flavor enhancer that accentuates savory dishes. Its use greatly improves the taste of food by triggering a mouth-watering feeling and coating your palate with that taste that makes you think, “What’s in this?”

However, the general American public has long viewed MSG as a health concern, despite an overwhelming abundance of evidence to the contrary. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration classifies it as “generally recognized as safe” — the same label given to food additives we encounter on a regular basis, such as artificial food coloring and certain spices and seasonings. For many years, MSG was deemed the culprit of “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” a term first coined in academic literature in 1968 when an arguably racist hoax letter to the New England Journal of Medicine claimed that eating Chinese food causes body aches, dizziness and heart palpitations. The public soon caught on, and “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” subsequently justified racist stereotypes about Chinese food — and consequently, Chinese people — being unhygienic and dangerous. 

Glutamate naturally occurs in some of the most savory and delicious foods such as soy sauce, fish sauce, meats, tomatoes and mushrooms. People throughout East Asia consume these glutamate-containing foods regularly without the widespread incidence of headaches, flushing, sweating and nausea that are reported by some to be triggered by consuming MSG. Yet MSG remains simply the salt form of this same glutamate.

In the wake of recent hate crimes against the Asian-American community, it’s important for all of us to take a step back and examine the basis of unfounded beliefs we may hold to be true, both in the culinary world and in other aspects of our lives. It’s clear that the media can easily blur the lines between opinions and facts, leaving it up to us as consumers to educate ourselves and make decisions based upon what we’ve learned and our own personal beliefs. Consider the source from where you may have heard bad things about MSG, do your research and elevate your home cooking by including this miracle molecule in your spice cabinet.

Contact Abhi Varma at [email protected].