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  • Writer's pictureCourtney Heard

Yes, Your Aversion To MSG Might Be Racist



MSG

Shout out to all the other products of Crunchy Moms. Every week of my childhood, my mom was on some new health-shaped bandwagon. Things were fattening, eggs had too much cholesterol, and Diet Coke’s artificial sweeteners were literally a death sentence. As such, I grew up in a household in which MSG was strictly forbidden. I didn’t really know what MSG was, nor did I care as a child, but now, as a grown adult who consumes almost exclusively Asian cuisine, I’ve become a chaser of that next umami hit, and MSG can seriously deliver. When I ask my mom why she dislikes it, the answer is always different, but the logic resembles a pretzel every time. 



Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) has been a culinary staple for over a century, with its roots tracing back to Japan in 1908 when biochemist Kikunae Ikeda identified the unique savory flavor of kombu seaweed broth as umami, the fifth taste alongside sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. Ikeda's discovery led to the isolation and commercial production of MSG, a flavor enhancer that mimics this umami taste. Initially celebrated for its ability to enrich and deepen flavors without overpowering dishes, MSG quickly found its way into kitchens worldwide. That’s right, it’s not just in Asian food. I’m afraid, Karen, it’s in your fave beige food, too. From boosting the taste of soups and stews to being a secret ingredient in various sauces and processed foods, MSG's versatility has made it an indispensable tool in home cooking and the food industry. Despite its widespread use and natural occurrence in foods like tomatoes and cheese, MSG has been mired in controversy, often overshadowed by unfounded health claims and cultural biases, which is really just a polite way of saying MSG fear is based on racism. 


The controversy surrounding MSG is deeply entwined with issues of racism and xenophobia, particularly against Asian cuisine and culture. Originating in the late 1960s with reports of "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome," diners at Chinese establishments in the United States claimed to experience a series of adverse reactions, attributing these symptoms to MSG. Of course, there’s no way it could possibly have been caused by scarfing down a plate of deep-fried, Westernized “Chinese” food drowning in sugary sauces. No, they were sure it was the MSG. This led to a surge in research and media attention that cast MSG in a dubious light despite zero scientific evidence linking dosages of MSG consumed in food directly to the alleged health issues. The ensuing panic over MSG's safety was not just a health concern but also mirrored broader cultural biases, as the foods that white people consumed (which shall hereby be known as beige food) containing MSG did not receive the same level of scrutiny. This dual standard highlights how xenophobia influenced the discourse on MSG, contributing to a lasting stigma that affected not just the ingredient itself but also the reputation of Asian culinary practices, underscoring the undeniable intersections between food, culture, and prejudice.


What Is MSG?


MSG is, essentially, a sodium salt of glutamic acid, an amino acid naturally found in many foods, such as tomatoes, cheeses, and mushrooms, contributing to their umami or savory taste (I call it the YUM). In its commercial form, MSG is a white crystalline powder that dissolves easily in water, enhancing flavors by balancing and rounding the perception of other tastes. Its discovery as a flavor enhancer was a breakthrough in food science, allowing for the amplification of umami taste in cooking without adding significant amounts of sodium. Yes, that’s right, there is a health benefit to consuming MSG: it can allow you to lower your table salt intake without sacrificing taste. Over the years, MSG has been utilized in a ton of products, many of which are likely on your shelves right now, from snacks and canned goods to seasonings and frozen meals. It’s used for its ability to enrich flavor profiles and make dishes more satisfying. 


How is MSG made? 


This is where the hypocrisy of all the crunchy moms really shines through. Originally, MSG was made from seaweed. Today, MSG is manufactured through a fermentation process. Yes, the same fermentation process that produces the celebrated and imagined cure-all apple cider vinegar. This process is also responsible for things like yogurt, kombucha, beer, and even kimchi. All things you might find in your average crunchy mom’s pantry. 


Here's a very simplified explanation:


  1. Starting with a Source: The process begins with a natural source rich in protein, such as sugar cane, corn, beets, or tapioca. These are not the only sources, but they're commonly used because they're rich in starch.

  2. Fermentation: Similar to brewing beer, these sources are fermented by adding specific types of bacteria. The bacteria break down the sugars in these sources into various compounds, one of which is glutamic acid, a type of amino acid already present in your body (amino acids are the building blocks of proteins).

  3. Isolation and Conversion: After fermentation, the glutamic acid is isolated from the mix. It's then stabilized by adding sodium, creating monosodium glutamate—MSG. This is a crystalline powder that looks a bit like salt or sugar granules.

  4. Purification and Packaging: Finally, the MSG is purified and packaged up to be used as the flavor enhancer we know.


MSG is made through a natural fermentation process from plant-based ingredients. It's a way to add that umami taste to food, making it more flavorful without adding a lot of other seasonings, including salt. It's like a magic sprinkle that can make a wide range of foods taste even better.



Foods that contain MSG


MSG is more prevalent in beige food than many realize, often hidden in plain sight within various processed and packaged foods. Its ability to enhance flavors without contributing a distinct taste of its own makes it a favorite among food manufacturers. Some common Western foods that contain MSG include:


  • Packaged Snacks: Doritos, Cheetos, and Pringles are just a handful of the many snacks that contain MSG. 

  • Processed Meats: Cured meats, sausages, hot dogs, jerky, and canned meats tend to contain MSG to enhance their umami flavor. Oscar Mayer, Johnsonville brats, Ball Park hotdogs, Slim Jim, and almost every brand of cured meat you can think of.

  • Soups and Broths: Many canned soups, bouillon cubes, and dehydrated soup mixes use MSG to deepen their flavor profiles. Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup is one example. Many claim not to have added MSG, but still contain glutamate as a naturally occurring compound in many soup ingredients.

  • Frozen and Convenience Foods: Frozen dinners, pizza, and prepared meals frequently include MSG to improve taste after reheating. Bagel Bites, Tater Tots, Pizza Pops, Hungry Man, Hot Pockets, and almost every frozen food brand you can think of all contain MSG.

  • Condiments and Sauces: Salad dressings, barbecue sauces, ketchup, and mayonnaise may contain MSG to amplify their flavors. Sriracha, Bull’s Eye, Olive Garden Salad Dressings, and many more all contain added or naturally occurring glutamate.

  • Seasoning Mixes: Taco, chili, and other seasoning packets often have added MSG to enrich the dish's overall taste.

  • Fast Food: Several fast-food chains and restaurants add MSG to certain menu items, from fried chicken to fries and burgers, for an extra flavor kick. KFC, Popeye’s, McDonald’s, Chick-fil-A, and more all have menu items that contain MSG. 

  • Salty Snacks: MSG is a common ingredient in flavored popcorn, pretzels, and nuts to enhance their savory appeal.


Foods containing MSG will often list the ingredient as “natural flavors” or “spices,” and “no added MSG” does not mean the food product contains no glutamate. If you are, in fact, sensitive to MSG, you will have similar reactions to tomatoes, beets, seaweed, miso, Parmigiano Reggiano, and other cheeses with deep umami flavors, edamame, garlic, sweet corn, and so much more. If you’re not having reactions to these foods, you do not have a sensitivity to MSG.


The MSG Controversy


Back in the 1960s, a rather intriguing letter made its way into the pages of the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), bearing the headline “Chinese-Restaurant Syndrome.” It’s important to note that this was a letter to the editor and not a paper. The author's claims were not supported by evidence. The author of this letter introduced himself as Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok. He shared an account of experiencing some odd symptoms, including numbness and palpitations, all of which occurred after indulging in meals at Chinese restaurants.


Dr. Kwok pointed his finger at a common ingredient in Chinese cooking: monosodium glutamate, or MSG, suggesting it could be the villain behind these mysterious symptoms.


This revelation ignited a firestorm of controversy. Suddenly, MSG was in the spotlight, blamed for a host of health issues by people far and wide. The narrative around MSG took a dramatic turn, painting it as a harmful additive that diners should avoid at all costs.


But then, a Shyamalanian twist emerged: Dr. Kwok may not have been exactly the person he claimed to be.  A Ph.D. student named Jennifer LeMesurier, who was interested in race and food discourse, researched his letter and wrote about it. Surprisingly, she later received a voicemail from Howard Steel, claiming he authored the letter under Kwok's name as a prank, which led her to question the narrative she had believed.


However, upon further investigation, including interviews with Kwok's family and colleagues, it was confirmed that Dr. Kwok may have indeed written the letter, casting doubt on Steel's claim. This revelation suggested that Steel's confession was the actual prank, complicating the story further. You can listen to the very entertaining segment on This American Life here.



What The Science Says


Despite the initial panic, subsequent scientific investigations have painted a more nuanced picture. Researchers have dedicated considerable effort to unraveling the truth about MSG, conducting numerous studies to determine its actual impact on our health.


What they've found is that MSG is perfectly safe when consumed in typical amounts found in foods. The symptoms once attributed to MSG in the so-called "Chinese-Restaurant Syndrome" haven't been consistently linked to MSG consumption in controlled studies. While there may be a small fraction of the population with a sensitivity to MSG, leading to mild and temporary symptoms, there's no evidence to support the claim that MSG causes widespread or serious health issues. Further, this sensitivity was only noticeable after participants consumed MSG alone (not added to food) and in uncommonly high doses not found in food.


In essence, the MSG controversy is a tale of misunderstanding and misinformation that spiraled out of control. It underscores the importance of basing dietary fears and food safety concerns on solid scientific evidence rather than anecdotes or unverified claims.


The Latest Findings


Research comparing older and more recent findings on the health effects of MSG makes this subject even more interesting. Healthline has put together a wonderful piece, complete with citations here. What that piece outlines is that historically, MSG has been implicated in various health issues, including obesity, metabolic disorders, and potential brain toxicity. However, the latest research offers a more complex understanding of these concerns. Here’s a quick point-form review:


Effect of MSG on Energy Intake:


  • Older studies: MSG improves food taste, potentially disrupting leptin signaling and increasing calorie intake.

  • Current findings: Mixed results on appetite and overeating; some studies say it increases your caloric intake, and others say it reduces it. Clearly, more research is needed.


Obesity and Metabolic Disorders and MSG:


  • Historical data: Animal studies link MSG to insulin resistance and high blood sugar.

  • Recent evidence: Contradictory, with some studies indicating anti-obesity effects. More human studies are required.


Brain Health:


  • Past claims: MSG may cause brain toxicity by overstimulating nerve cells.

  • Modern understanding: MSG is metabolized in the gut without breaking the brain barrier or altering brain chemistry.


Sensitivity to MSG:


  • A small fraction of the population may experience MSG symptom complex, with symptoms like headache and numbness, typically at doses over 3 grams without food—a much higher amount than found in typical servings.


The Fallout


The fear of MSG has, in no uncertain terms, cast a shadow over Chinese and, more broadly, Asian restaurants and their culinary practices. This association between MSG and adverse health effects became a convenient scapegoat for prejudices, reinforcing stereotypes about "foreign" foods being unhealthy, gross, or dangerous compared to Western counterparts. MSG is just as prevalent in takeout beige food like KFC and Popeye’s, but no one ever claimed to have “Kentucky Fried Chicken Syndrome,” although, I am sure I have suffered from that at least once or twice. 



Think of that old Americanized Chinese buffet found in every town. You know the one: it’s got ginger beef, chicken chow mein, spring rolls, and fried rice. We’ve all scarfed down a plate of sweet and sour pork or deep-fried chicken balls smothered in a neon pink sauce with more sugar than Willy Wonka. We’ve all piled our plates high with lemon chicken, BBQ pork, and General Tso’s chicken. In the moment, it’s delicious, but there’s a very distinct wall in front of you, and if you’re not careful, you will hit it head-on. If you don’t put down the chopsticks, hun, you’ll feel pain. You are not alone in feeling like shit after a plate full of fried food. This is not some revelatory discovery. My friend, my love, my sweet summer child, it is not the MSG. It’s because you just crammed 1300 calories worth of syrup and fried chicken down your gullet, okay? It doesn’t matter if you do that at a Chinese buffet, a Popeye’s, or a combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell: you are going to feel like Hell, and any expectation otherwise is as deluded as the dudes with cans at the Church of Scientology. 


Only racist people could inhale a thousand calories of fried food, feel like ass and then blame China.




The Current Consensus


The current consensus among major health and food safety organizations worldwide, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, is that monosodium glutamate (MSG) is generally safe for consumption at customary levels found in foods.


U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA): The FDA classifies MSG as "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS), indicating that it is considered safe under the conditions of its intended use. The FDA's stance is based on extensive research, including studies assessing the additive's safety and potential health effects. Although the FDA acknowledges that a small percentage of people may experience short-term reactions to consuming large amounts of MSG, such as headache or nausea, these symptoms are not generally considered to pose a significant health risk and only occur after consuming dosages of MSG far beyond what would ever be found in a single serving of food.


World Health Organization (WHO) and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO): Both the WHO and the FAO have evaluated MSG through their joint expert committee on food additives, the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA). In 1987, JECFA concluded that MSG is safe for the general population when consumed at usual levels, and it did not establish a specific limit for daily intake (an "acceptable daily intake" or ADI) because of its safety. This position has been reaffirmed consistently in evaluations since then.


Other Health and Food Safety Organizations: Similar positions have been adopted by other health and food safety authorities around the world. For instance, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has also reviewed MSG and found it to be safe for consumption, aligning with the views of the FDA, WHO, and FAO.  


Overall, the consensus among leading health and food safety organizations is that MSG is a safe food additive when consumed at levels found in foods, and it does not pose a significant health risk to the general population.


The Contemporary Take


In recent years, the culinary landscape has seen a notable shift in how MSG is perceived and utilized by contemporary chefs and food enthusiasts. This is thanks to personalities like Chef David Chang, YouTube’s Joshua Weissman, and, of course, Uncle Roger. Once embroiled in controversy, MSG is now embraced for its ability to enhance flavor and bring out the umami present in various foods.


I once posted on XChan that, after reviewing the available science, I discovered that MSG is safe. A long stream of hatred, anger, and complete meltdowns ensued for days on end. I hope that we’ve come some way since then and that people are able to look inward and ask themselves why it is that they are so sure that MSG is bad for them despite the fact that none of the science agrees. How have you eliminated all other possible explanations for your “sensitivity” to MSG, including eating a plate full of deep-fried food, cause hun, we all have a sensitivity to that? What was your methodology for arriving at the conclusion that MSG is harming your well-being? Are you being skeptical, applying critical thought, and incorporating the findings of scientists? 



The application of MSG extends far beyond Asian cuisine, where it has been a staple for decades. Its global presence is undeniable, with chefs around the world using it to enhance the flavors of a wide array of dishes. In Latin American cuisine, for example, MSG can be found in savory stews and meat dishes, offering a depth of flavor that complements the rich, spicy profiles characteristic of the region's culinary traditions. Similarly, in European kitchens, MSG is sometimes added to sauces and gravies to round out their flavors, demonstrating its versatility across different culinary contexts.


My friend, you have likely ingested MSG today without your knowledge. You've consumed glutamate even if you’ve only eaten plant-based, non-processed foods. Your body already contains it. No, Chinese chefs are not trying to poison you. There is no Asian conspiracy to give white people headaches. Yer gonna be fine, babes. 




Ready To Try Cooking with MSG? 


You won’t regret it, friend. I use the Aji-No-Moto brand MSG on the recommendation of Uncle Roger, and I have been extremely pleased with its performance.





Here are some of the best ways to use a little sprinkle of these little miracle flakes: 


  • Soup - this is the best application, especially ramen

  • Stew

  • Meats, whether grilled, pan-seared, sous-vide, or roasted. 

  • Condiments - Joshua Weissman makes an insanely good butter with it.

  • Fried chicken

  • Salad dressings


And basically, anywhere you’re looking for an enhanced umami profile to the dish. 


Here are some of my fave people talking about MSG: 







"You know what causes Chinese restaurant syndrome? Racism. 'Ooh I have a headache; it must have been the Chinese guy.'” - Anthony Bourdain



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2 Comments


Rob Maguire
Rob Maguire
Feb 23

Another superb myth busting fact check from the Queen of Reality...

Thorough, balanced and credibly sourced facts.

It's scary to consider what drives the thoughts, opinions and motivations of the majority populace...

Great read...

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Courtney Heard
Courtney Heard
Feb 24
Replying to

Thank you so much! I am so glad you liked it.

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