MSG in Chinese food isn't unhealthy -- you're just racist, activists say | CNN (2023)

MSG in Chinese food isn't unhealthy -- you're just racist, activists say | CNN (1)

A jar of Ajinomoto MSG (monosodium glutamate) seasoning.


If you’ve heard of the term “MSG,” you might have also heard of its common – but inaccurate – connotations.

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.

This perception, which activists argue is outdated and racist, is so widespread that the Merriam-Webster dictionary has an entry for the term “Chinese restaurant syndrome” – a type of condition that allegedly affects people eating “Chinese food heavily seasoned with monosodium glutamate,” with symptoms like dizziness and palpitations.

Now, activists have launched a campaign called “Redefine CRS.” Headed by Japanese food and seasoning company Ajinomoto, the online campaign urges Merriam-Webster to change its entry to reflect the scientific consensus on MSG – and the impact of misinformation on the American public’s perception of Asian cuisine.

MSG in Chinese food isn't unhealthy -- you're just racist, activists say | CNN (2)

Japanese company Ajinomoto produces MSG seasoning and spice mixes.

“To this day, the myth around MSG is ingrained in America’s consciousness, with Asian food and culture still receiving unfair blame,” said the company in its campaign website. “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome isn’t just scientifically false — it’s xenophobic.”

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The campaign proposed a new definition for “Chinese restaurant syndrome” in the Merriam-Webster – “an outdated term that falsely blamed Chinese food containing MSG, or monosodium glutamate, for a group of symptoms.”

In response, Merriam-Webster tweeted on Wednesday that it would be “reviewing the term and revising accordingly.”

“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.

MSG in Chinese food isn't unhealthy -- you're just racist, activists say | CNN (3)

MSG is used as a food additive in dishes like stews, canned soups, and stocks.

People have consumed MSG throughout history, according to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – but the debate over its health effects began in 1968, when a man wrote a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine, complaining of numbness after eating at Chinese restaurants.

The idea that Chinese food was dangerous spread quickly, and was lent legitimacy by some medical professionals at the time. A 1969 scientific paper identified MSG as “the cause of the Chinese restaurant syndrome,” and warned that it caused “burning sensations, facial pressure, and chest pain.”

Photo Illustration/Thinkstock 'Healthy' foods have most of us confused, survey finds

That’s not to say it was scientifically proven. A 1986 paper in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology argued that a decade of research had “failed to reveal any objective sign” that MSG was dangerous, and that the very idea of “Chinese restaurant syndrome” was “questionable.”

The FDA even set up an independent inquiry into MSG in the 1990s – which ultimately concluded that MSG is safe.

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?

Many regulatory bodies and scientific groups have answered this definitively: No. The addition of MSG in foods is “generally recognized as safe,” says the FDA site.

MSG in Chinese food isn't unhealthy -- you're just racist, activists say | CNN (5)

MSG is found in Chinese cuisine -- but also in tomatoes, cheese, canned soup, and a range of foods.

A joint study by the World Health Organization and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization “failed to confirm an involvement of MSG in ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’,” and noted that the syndrome itself was based on “anecdotal” evidence rather than any scientific fact.

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.

This perception – and the growing movement to break down this stereotype – made national headlines in the spring of 2019, when a white woman opened a Chinese restaurant called Lucky Lee’s in New York. The restaurant would serve “clean” Chinese food, she wrote in a now-deleted Instagram post – food that wasn’t “too oily,” and that wouldn’t make people feel “bloated and icky” afterward.

MSG in Chinese food isn't unhealthy -- you're just racist, activists say | CNN (6)

The Lucky Lee's restaurant in New York, on April 11, 2019.

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.

The owner responded shortly after the backlash, acknowledging in an Instagram post that Chinese food had “health benefits” and promising to “always listen and reflect accordingly.” The restaurant closed in December 2019 – just eight months after opening.

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.

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 10: Gordon Ramsay attends an intimate dinner hosted by Gordon Ramsay to preview his highly-anticipated new Mayfair restaurant Lucky Cat, opening this summer, on April 10, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Gordon Ramsay Restaurants) David M. Benett/Getty Images for Gordon Ramsay Restaurants Gordon Ramsay's new 'authentic Asian' restaurant kicks off cultural appropriation dispute

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.

MSG in Chinese food isn't unhealthy -- you're just racist, activists say | CNN (8)

A Chinese restaurant menu stating "No MSG" in Danville, California, December 25, 2019.

For years, Chinese restaurants in the US often had signs inside that announced “No MSG used,” in an attempt to distance themselves from the stigma. Now, some are reclaiming and openly embracing the additive; Chinese restaurant chain Mission Chinese Food has salt shakers filled with MSG, and MSG margaritas with MSG crystals in the ice cubes.

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.

Amid all the hullabaloo, restaurateurs like celebrity chef David Chang, who produced and starred in the Netflix series “Ugly Delicious,” and Anthony Bourdain, the late host of CNN’s award-winning series “Parts Unknown,” have worked to change public perception.

The fears surrounding MSG were just a “psychosomatic myth,” Chang said in a tweet. In another post, he shared how he uses MSG in his daily life, adding it as seasoning to snacks like popcorn.

Bourdain, who traveled the world and showcased an extraordinary diversity of cultures and cuisines, was more explicit. “I think (MSG) is good stuff,” he said in a 2016 episode of “Parts Unknown” filmed in China. “I don’t react to it – nobody does. It’s a lie.”

“You know what causes Chinese restaurant syndrome?” he added as he walked through the streets of Sichuan. “Racism.”


Is Chinese food considered unhealthy? ›

Chinese food is a favorite cuisine among many people around the world, including myself. However, most Chinese dishes have high amounts of fat, sugar, carbohydrates, and sodium, which are terrible for your heart and general health. Look closer at the menu to find some healthier options, or indulge on special occasions!

Do Chinese restaurants still use MSG? ›

There are very few Chinese eateries that give you the option of opting out of MSG, and fewer that leave it out altogether. MSG is one of the chemical sources of umami, a word that was coined by Kikunae Ikeda in 1908 when he linked it to the amino acid glutamate.

What does MSG do to your brain? ›

MSG has been shown to cause lesions on the brain especially in children. These lesions cause cognitive, endocrinological and emotional abnormalities. In children, excess glutamate affects the growth cones on neurons.

Where does the fear of MSG come from? ›

The start of the MSG controversy began with Dr Ho Man Kwok's 1968 letter to the New England Journal of Medicine, which described a mélange of symptoms that he experienced after consuming Chinese food in the United States.

Does healthy Chinese food exist? ›

Healthier choices include steamed brown rice, sautéed or steamed vegetables, spring rolls, or soups like egg drop soup or hot and sour soup. Veggie-based items like edamame, lettuce wraps, braised bamboo shoots, or cucumber salad are a few other great options you can try.

What is the most unhealthy Chinese food dish? ›

Worst: Lo Mein

The noodles are made from white flour, which raises your blood sugar faster than fiber-rich whole grains. Plus, they're cooked with oil and soy sauce, so you get extra fat and sodium.

Does Chick-fil-A use MSG? ›

MSG is present in some of our menu offerings as a flavor enhancer, but we also offer a variety of options which do not contain added MSG. To help our customers make informed decisions, we provide comprehensive nutrition facts and ingredient lists on our Nutrition and Allergens page.

Did Chick-fil-A use MSG? ›

Actually, Chick-Fil-A is tricking you. Chick-Fil-A's grilled chicken has the additive “Yeast Extract”, which contains free glutamic acid, the main component of MSG.

Does McDonald's use MSG? ›

It also has an equally familiar-sounding ingredient: monosodium glutamate, or MSG. McDonald's doesn't currently use MSG in the other items that compose its regular, nationally available menu—but both Chick-fil-A and Popeyes list it as an ingredient in their own chicken sandwiches and chicken filets.

Does MSG give you Alzheimer's? ›

Glutamate excitotoxicity has long been related to Alzheimer's disease (AD) pathophysiology, and it has been shown to affect the major AD-related hallmarks, amyloid-β peptide (Aβ) accumulation and tau phosphorylation (p-tau).

Can MSG cause mental problems? ›

Emerging evidence suggests that MSG may directly influence glutamatergic neurotransmission, which underlies the pathophysiology of mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, and depressive disorders (8). Chemically, glutamic acid is an amino acid necessary for the biosynthesis of glutamate, a key neurotransmitter.

Is MSG worse than salt? ›

Here's the good news: MSG contains two-thirds less the amount of sodium compared to table salt, so if you're looking to lower your sodium intake, reaching for MSG to flavor your food can help you eat less sodium.

Why is America afraid of MSG? ›

The trepidation associated with the chemical called MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is ingrained in Americans' consciousness — a fear that the flavor enhancer is the cause of health issues like headaches (maybe), breathing issues (only, maybe, in those allergic to it), obesity in giant doses (in rats).

Which country eats the most MSG? ›

Mainland China is largely responsible for the recent increases in world production and consumption of MSG. Currently, mainland China is the world's largest MSG producer and consumer. In 2021, mainland Chinese production and consumption accounted for the majority of both world production and consumption.

What MSG does to your body? ›

MSG has been linked with obesity, metabolic disorders, Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, neurotoxic effects and detrimental effects on the reproductive organs.

Can American-Chinese food be healthy? ›

American-Chinese food is one of the United States' most beloved cuisines and includes lots of healthy options. Insider spoke with dieticians about what to order. Simple modifications like adding brown rice or ordering a side of vegetables are easy ways to make meals from any cuisine more nutritious.

Why are Asians so healthy? ›

Nutrition Facts

High in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, the Asian diet is also low in saturated and total fat. It is this combination that many health professionals believe protects against many chronic diseases, such as heart disease and cancer. The Asian diet is relatively low in meat and dairy foods.

What is the unhealthiest dish in the world? ›

Some of the most unhealthy foods in the world include high-sugar cereals, sugary coffee drinks, canned soup, margarine, soda, processed lunch meats, ice cream and frozen french fries.

Why is American Chinese food so unhealthy? ›

Oftentimes, many of American-Chinese dishes are based on fried foods with heavy sauces high in fat, sodium and sugar. Think about it. It's cream cheese and a tiny amount of crab meat (is there even any crab in there?) that is breaded and deep fried and then served with a sugar-laden sweet and sour sauce.

Is lo mein healthier than fried rice? ›

So what's the healthier order, fried rice or lo mein? Short answer: lo mein. Yes, both dishes usually come slathered in sauce, but the rice offers the unfortunate double-whammy of being fried in oil first.

Does KFC use MSG in USA? ›

MSG is also used by franchises like Kentucky Fried Chicken and Chick-fil-A to enhance the flavor of foods. For example, Chick-fil-A's Chicken Sandwich and Kentucky Fried Chicken's Extra Crispy Chicken Breast are just some of the menu items that contain MSG (8, 9).

Does Popeyes use MSG? ›

MSG Is More Common in Your Food Than You Probably Realize. The new chicken sandwiches at McDonald's, Popeyes, and Chick-fil-A all contain the MSG flavor enhancement chemical. Experts say MSG can enhance the so-called umami flavor of a food.

Does Panda Express use MSG? ›

Panda Express does not have any vegetarian or gluten free dishes. No MSG added except for that naturally occurring in certain ingredients.

Does Burger King use MSG? ›

With it, the chain is announcing that more than 90 percent of food ingredients at Burger King are now free from artificial colors, flavors and preservatives, and that 100 percent of ingredients are free of MSG and high-fructose corn syrup.

Does Wendy's use MSG? ›

Does Wendy's use MSG? While Wendy's chicken has always been MSG free, Wendy's also removed artificial flavors, preservatives and colors from artificial sources. Wendy's created one of the industry's first Animal Welfare Advisory Councils in 2001 to review and strengthen animal care standards by suppliers.

Does Taco Bell meat have MSG? ›

Taco Bell's Real Beef

Our team at Taco Bell is pleased to report that we produce 100% USDA-inspected, premium, real beef that does not contain MSG. A small amount of soy is added as a thickener, and we also use moisture-maintaining hydrolyzed vegetables to make our seasoned beef.

Does mayonnaise have MSG in it? ›

Condiments like ketchup, mayonnaise, barbecue sauce, soy sauce, mustard, and salad dressings have been known to contain MSG to boost flavor. Many types of chips and related snacks include MSG to enhance the salty, savory flavors that they're known for.

Do potato chips have MSG? ›

MSG enhances the savory and contrasting flavors of many chips. It's also why your chips may taste a little saltier, aside from sodium content. Many types of corn and potato chips may contain MSG, but snack mixes, like trail mix, may also list it as an ingredient on the label.

Does Coca Cola have MSG? ›

FALSE: There are rumours that Coke added MSG to their secret recipe because it creates an aphrodisiac. Coca-Cola holds firm that the flavour enhancer is not in the drink, and also that Coke is in no way an aphrodisiac. Smell expert Dr.

What foods cause dementia thoughts? ›

Many foods in the Western diet have been identified as risk factors for dementia and Alzheimer's, including red and processed meats, refined grains, sweets, and desserts. Excess alcohol intake, saturated fatty acids, and foods with a high number of calories are also risk factors for Alzheimer's.

Can MSG affect your memory? ›

Other brain areas including cerebral cortex and hippocampus did not show any pathological changes. These findings suggest that systemic administration of MSG or ASP could impair memory retention and damage hypothalamic neurons in adult mice.

Can MSG cross the blood brain barrier? ›

Hence, almost no ingested glutamate/MSG passes from gut into blood, and essentially none transits placenta from maternal to fetal circulation, or crosses the blood-brain barrier. Dietary MSG, therefore, does not gain access to brain.

Do eggs have MSG? ›

It's a big part of protein-rich foods like meat, eggs and cheese, but is also found in fruits and vegetables. And, it is what's responsible for giving foods the umami (savory) flavor that makes them taste delicious.

How do you remove glutamate from your brain? ›

Nutrients that help to lower glutamate levels include vitamin C, magnesium, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids. However, supplements that come in capsules typically contain gelatin, which should be avoided. Opt for real food sources or liquid supplements.

How do you detox from MSG? ›

Drinking several glasses of water may help flush the MSG out of your system and shorten the duration of your symptoms.

Is MSG toxic to liver? ›

MSG may have acted as toxins to the hepatocytes, thereby affecting their cellular integrity and causing defect in membrane permeability and cell volume homeostasis. The atrophic and degenerative changes observed in this experiment may have been caused by the cytotoxic effect of MSG on the liver.

Does MSG cause diabetes? ›

MSG has been associated with an increased risk of metabolic disorders, primarily due to animal studies that have linked the additive to insulin resistance, high blood sugar levels, and diabetes ( 2 , 7 ).

What foods contain MSG naturally? ›

However, MSG occurs naturally in ingredients such as hydrolyzed vegetable protein, autolyzed yeast, hydrolyzed yeast, yeast extract, soy extracts, and protein isolate, as well as in tomatoes and cheeses.

Is Chinese food healthier than American food? ›

Indeed, the traditional Chinese diet is far healthier than the traditional American diet, which often features meat as the focus of the meal, says T. Colin Campbell, PhD, professor of nutritional biochemistry at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. But you don't have to travel to rural parts of China to eat healthy.

Is Chinese food heart healthy? ›

Asian menus typically contain many heart-friendly ingredients. But the preparation may be high in fat and include not-so-healthy additives. Try these tips for health-conscious ordering: Opt for steamed dumplings instead of ordering egg rolls and fried dumplings.

What foods do Chinese avoid? ›

What Food Chinese People DON'T Eat?
  • Milk Products. If you are a big fan of milk products, you may feel a bit disappointed if you choose to live in China. ...
  • Bread. Unlike people from most western countries, Chinese rarely eat bread for breakfast because its taste is described as “mediocre” by many Chinese people. ...
  • Hot Dogs.
Jul 16, 2020

Which is healthier Chinese food or Japanese food? ›

Generally, Japanese foods are considered healthier and more nutritious than Chinese meals. The reason lies in the use of fats, carbs, and proteins. Japanese cuisine uses a lot of proteins, and the primary source is seafood. Usually, the Japanese serve raw seafood.

What is the number one food that causes high blood pressure? ›

Salt or sodium

Salt, or specifically the sodium in salt, is a major contributor to high blood pressure and heart disease. This is because of how it affects fluid balance in the blood. Table salt is around 40 percent sodium. Some amount of salt is important for health, but it's easy to eat too much.

Can American Chinese food be healthy? ›

American-Chinese food is one of the United States' most beloved cuisines and includes lots of healthy options. Insider spoke with dieticians about what to order. Simple modifications like adding brown rice or ordering a side of vegetables are easy ways to make meals from any cuisine more nutritious.

Is chicken and broccoli from Chinese healthy? ›

Chicken and broccoli is a delicious, healthy choice when ordering take-out at a Chinese restaurant. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a roasted chicken breast without the skin contains only 170 calories and 7 grams of fat; that's only 10 percent of your recommended daily fat intake.

Why is there no cheese in Chinese food? ›

Livestock was too busy for dairy

Which makes sense. But the biggest reason Asian cultures don't regularly incorporate cheese into their cooking is probably because so many East Asians are lactose intolerant. In fact, they're drastically more likely to be lactose intolerant than Westerners.

What food do Chinese eat everyday? ›

Rice and noodles are a very important part in the Chinese diet. Rice and noodles are equivalent to potato and pasta in the western diet. Handfuls of bite-sized meat and vegetables accompany the rice and noodles. Almost every meal uses rice.

Do Chinese eat more rice or noodles? ›

Rice as a staple food

In China, both rice and noodles are staple foods, but the consumption patterns depend on the region. Generally, rice is consumed more in the south while noodles are more popular in the north.

Which Chinese soup is healthiest? ›

Chicken and mushroom soup can be a healthy and nutrient-rich choice in Chinese restaurants. Aside from chicken's high-protein content, the mushrooms in the soup will be rich in minerals and vitamins.

Is fried rice good for you? ›

Fried rice has such a distinct flavor, and I think it's just as good the un-fried way. This is also a great way to use up any cooked brown rice you have leftover from other dishes. This dish is full of healthy fiber, protein, good fat, and good carbs, and is loaded with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.

Can a diabetic have Chinese food? ›

“When ordering Chinese, focus on dishes packed full of lean proteins and vegetables with limited rice and noodles,” advises Palinski-Wade, who suggests ordering steamed chicken and broccoli with the sauce on the side.


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