The food additive monosodium glutamate, better known as MSG, has been immersed in misinformation since the 1960s. The myth of unhealthiness is largely due to racism and ignorance, and has continued to circulate throughout the 21st century. Many people to this day let the fear of MSG influence their eating decisions, even though the myths have been debunked. Up until recently, I also thought MSG had negative health effects. It was a vague fear that I associated with Asian cuisine, even though I myself am Asian. When someone I knew told me that the fear of MSG in Chinese food had racist undertones, I was baffled. It was a slap in the face to realize how little I knew about the ingredient, along with how readily I’d accepted the lie.
This common misconception originated from a single letter that was published in 1968 in the New England Journal of Medicine. The letter was not based on studies, but on the speculation of one person. And now, despite significant data that has proven MSG to be safe, there is still a strong distrust of MSG in Chinese American cuisine. Journalists have coined the term “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” specifically connecting health suspicions to race. What most people don’t know is that MSG is also in Campbell’s Soup, Cheetos, Doritos, Pringles, KFC, Chick-Fil-A, and many other widely-accepted foods.
The real problem was never in asking whether or not MSG was safe to eat. The issue came when the harmful theory was thoroughly disproved, and yet many continued to hold a double standard that specifically targeted Chinese cuisine.
MSG is Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS), according to the FDA, and has been for over 60 years. Alongside MSG’s health effects, it’s very important to understand what MSG means chemically, especially because so many people claim to have an allergy or sensitivity to it, or worry that it is an unhealthy additive. MSG, is a molecule composed of one sodium ion (basically a type of salt), and glutamate, which is very similar to glutamic acid. Glutamic acid is an amino acid that is naturally found in our bodies and other common foods such as tomatoes, cheeses, and shrimp. “Your body can’t tell the difference between naturally occurring glutamic acid vs the glutamate found in MSG,” wrote a chemistry teacher at Franklin, Merritt Sansom. This means you cannot have an allergy to MSG.
I spoke with Olivia Hougham, a student at the University of Oregon who took a course on the relationship between food and colonialism. “Asian Americans were used as the scapegoat [for MSG],” Hougham explained, talking about people’s internalized biases against Asian people, and how they contribute to the narrative that was shaped, both with MSG and currently with COVID-19. Hougham identified similarities in the ways people have reacted both to MSG and to COVID-19. In both, a racist name went viral, associating fear of the thing itself with an entire group of marginalized people. A racist lens can influence perception of food, or the way blame is distributed during a pandemic. Hougham mentioned the increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans after racist rhetoric surrounding COVID-19: “people can really shift a narrative… We just need to be more aware of… who’s controlling this narrative,” she stated.
Many Chinese restaurants in America still have signs advertising that they don’t use MSG in their food, so as not to scare away customers. Often their consumers are ignorant to the reality of MSG, but sadly, these signs contribute to the myth that MSG is harmful.
On a lighter note, Wesley Dubbs, Professor of Biology at PCC, told me about a pseudoscience awareness project that he does with his students. In this lesson, the students examine the falsities they’ve been told and accepted. While the assignment is amusing, with students exploring topics like whether pickles purify the blood, if eating bread crusts can cause the hair to curl, and whether cracking knuckles leads to arthritis, Dubbs is teaching his students critical thinking skills. “Be skeptical, and try to find good sources of information from trustable individuals or entities,” he advised.
Dr. Sahnzi Moyers, a Biology teacher at Franklin, spoke about the ways in which overcoming ignorance around food can contribute to a family’s ability to make a living, the parallels between the racist labels of “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” and “China Virus” and the double standard and ignorance that disproportionately and consistently affects people of color. “It cost so many people their lives during this pandemic,” she remarked, on the topic of pseudoscience. “It’s dangerous and people’s lives are at stake.” Moyers also shared why she teaches science, saying, “I think it’s so important for everyone to be science literate, even if you don’t want to be a scientist or work in [a] STEM field.” She spoke on how critical it is for people to be thoughtful and intentional about the decisions they make, so that they aren’t operating from a place of ignorance. “Science literacy helps us make informed decisions about our own lives,” she finished.
It is our job as citizens to continue examining the things we ingest, both literally, but also through the information we accept as truth. We must continue asking questions and continue being dissatisfied with simple answers, so that we can move towards a more fair and honest world.