In 1968, a letter was published in The New England Journal of Medicine from a physician who complained of a collection of symptoms after eating in Asian restaurants. He blamed the numbness, heart palpitations and headaches he was experiencing on the monosodium glutamate (MSG) that is often used by cooks in Asian restaurants.

Since then there has been a stigma around consuming MSG, a flavor enhancer and preservative used since the 1950s.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classified MSG under “generally recognized as safe” in 1959, but the ingredient continued to be tested after it caused so much controversy in the 1960s. All of the FDA’s studies found that MSG has no effect on the majority of the population when it is consumed at moderate levels.

“Looking at the research, there’s just not any kind of link between MSG consumption and health risks or disease,” said Minh-Hai Tran, a registered dietician who works in the Seattle area.

Despite evidence proving that MSG is safe, it is still widely viewed as an unhealthy additive that causes “Chinese restaurant syndrome,” the nickname for the symptoms some diners feel after eating at Asian restaurants.

Lisa Anton, a student at the University of Washington, said she feels sick after eating foods that contain large quantities of MSG.

“I get really dizzy and nauseous and feel like I’m going to throw up,” Anton said.

A cook makes stir fry at In the Bowl Bistro in Seattle. Photo credit: Sarah Elson.
A cook makes stir fry at In the Bowl Bistro in Seattle. Photo credit: Sarah Elson.

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, some people are very sensitive to food additives, so it is possible that MSG is causing Anton’s symptoms. But no studies have found a connection between MSG and “Chinese restaurant syndrome.”

“The studies just weren’t very conclusive,” Tran said. “Also, at Chinese restaurants people eat shellfish, and there’s alcohol served. There are other factors, so we just don’t know.”

But the stigma around MSG will not go away. In response to this, many Asian restaurants do not use MSG and make it clear to the public that their establishment is “MSG free.”

Fiat, a waitress at In the Bowl Bistro in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neigborhood, said their cooks do not use MSG because customers don’t like it.

“Customers ask a lot [whether we use MSG], so we say on the menu that we don’t use it,” Fiat said.

But cooks at some Asian restaurants aren’t leaving out MSG just to please customers. They, too, think it is unhealthy.

“We don’t use MSG at all,” said Tony Fok, manager at O’Asian Kitchen in downtown Seattle. “It’s really bad for your body.”

Fok also doesn’t think the cooks at his restaurant need to enhance the flavor of their food.

“If you have a good chef you don’t have to use MSG,” Fok reasons.

Other restaurants have no problem using MSG, but offer to leave it out to keep customers happy. Mabel Li, manager at Chiang’s Gourmet Restaurant in Seattle’s Lake City neighborhood, said customers can request that no MSG be added to their meal.

“If customers say they don’t want MSG, we put that on the ticket so there won’t be MSG in their food,” Li said.

Anton is selective about the Asian restaurants she eats at, and only goes to places where she is certain they do not use MSG.

“I’ll ask them, and sometimes they’ll tell me they do use MSG, but sometimes they’ll tell me no and they actually do use it,” Anton said. “So I avoid certain places now. I just avoid all the places I know I can’t eat at and only go to the ones I know I can order MSG free.”

Tran said she doesn’t think diners should be concerned about consuming MSG.

“I would put that low on the priority list,” Tran said. “I believe everybody is an expert of themselves and their own body, and nobody really knows how anybody else feels. But just looking at the research it doesn’t seem like it’s a concern.”

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