Weird History

Chinese Restaurant Syndrome - The Fear Of MSG - Is Based On A Pile Of Lies And Pranks  

Zach Seemayer

In 1907, a Japanese scientist named Kikunae Ikeda was struck by inspiration - by his enjoyment of a bowl of seaweed soup - and ended up successfully synthesizing a food additive known as glutamate. The crystaline powder, which he managed to produce through a process of dehydrating and Article Imageevaporating a chemical compound in seaweed, excited a very specific and previously intangible sense of taste which Ikeda later coined "umami," rooted in the Japanese word for delicious, umai.

Ikeda began mass-producing the powdered MSG under the brand name Ajinomoto, which means "essence of taste," and the company that produced it, also called Ajinomoto, began selling the additive all over Asia, where it enjoyed enormous success. The product eventually made its way to the United States, becoming a wildly popular seasoning in America, as well.

Then, with the rise of widespread anti-Chinese sentiment and questionable scientific studies, MSG suffered a backlash that lasted decades. The additive was painted in a seriously negative light, leading many to believe that its harmful to eat despite no real conclusive evidence that proves it is. 

To this day, the three little letters still carry a lot of baggage, and the backstory behind its fall from grace is jam-packed with misinformation, baffling pranks perpetrated by respected doctors, and a heaping helping of xenophobia. 

A Letter Is Published In 'The New England Journal of Medicine'

In the 1950s, MSG was a popular condiment freely added to foods in the form of a white powder that, though it has little to no flavor of its own, brings out the natural zest of various meals. But everything changed in 1968, when one man wrote a letter to the editors of The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM).

Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok, who said he was part of the National Biomedical Research Foundation, wrote in with claims of something the journal later referred to as "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome." Kwok claimed he found himself feeling bizarrely ill only after eating specific types of Chinese cuisine.

"For several years since I have been in this country, I have experienced a strange syndrome whenever I have eaten out in a Chinese restaurant," Kwok explained. "The syndrome, which usually begins 15 to 20 minutes after I have eaten the first dish, lasts for about two hours without any hangover effect. The most prominent symptoms are numbness at the back of the neck."

Additional symptoms he claimed to have experienced included fever, palpitations, and headaches. Among the possible causes for these conditions, Kwok speculated it could be tied to cooking wine, soy sauce, or MSG.

"Others have suggested that it may be caused by the monosodium glutamate seasoning used to a great extent for seasoning in Chinese restaurants," he wrote, unwittingly condemning the seasoning to decades of bad press supported by thinly veiled xenophobic sentiment.

Despite the damning effects this letter had for MSG, there were claims that the letter had dubious origins. Decades after the letter was published by the NEJM, Professor Jennifer LeMesurier of Colgate University wrote an essay about the spread of the MSG fear in an article in Poroi: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Rhetorical Analysis and Invention.

In January 2018, months after the article was published, LeMesurier got a surprising phone call from a man named Dr. Howard Steel, a former Colgate trustee and alumnus who claimed the entire letter to the journal was written by him, not Kwok, and that it all started as a semi-drunken bet.

According to Steel, an orthopedic surgeon, he'd gone out drinking with his friend and colleague, Bill Hanson. After eating at a Chinese restaurant the pair frequented regularly, Hanson ribbed Steel, claiming doctors of his specialty were "too stupid" to get writings published in prestigious medical journals.

So, Steel said he went home and drafted the letter to the NEJM in an attempt to prove his friend wrong. He invented the symptoms, he invented the reasons for them, and to put the cherry on top, Steel said he also invented the name Dr. Ho Man Kwok, as well as the institute he worked for.

"It was a breakdown of a not-nice word we used when someone was a jerk," Steel said in an interview conducted shortly before he passed at the age of 97. "We called them a human crock of you-know-what." According to Steel, "Ho Man Kwok" is a play on "human crock."

As for the National Biomedical Research Foundation, Steel said, "It doesn't exist." It was yet another fabrication in a letter that Steel said he later regretted getting published. He claimed that he called the NEJM many times to try to have them retract his letter, only to get completely brushed off and ignored by the publication.

Article ImageAfter Steel passed, however, reporter Michael Blanding - who originally interviewed Steel regarding the letter - did a little digging and discovered that the National Biomedical Research Foundation of Silver Springs, Maryland, does exist. 

Furthermore, the foundation did employ a man named Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok at the time the letter was submitted. Is it possible that Steel coincidentally invented a research facility and a fake doctor, both of which happened to really exist without Steel's knowledge? If the real Ho Man Kwok wasn't the author of the letter, why did he never raise that point over the decades of public fervor and media scrutiny crediting him with the start of the MSG fear campaign?

According to Kwok's children and his former colleagues, Steel didn't write the letter. A reporter for NPR's This American Life spoke with Kwok's daughter, who said her father definitely wrote the letter and was proud of it. In fact, learning that Steel had been going around claiming to be the real author, and claiming that he'd made up her father's existence, was troubling.

The same reporter later reached out to Steel's daughter, who seemed unfazed by the possibility that her father's real prank wasn't writing a letter about a fake medical syndrome, but rather taking credit for having written a letter about the syndrome.

"I don't think anybody who knew him and loved him would be surprised. It's just one more thing in the life of my dad," Anna Steel told This American Life. "I'm not angry, but I just want to say, 'You owe everybody a huge apology. What is wrong with you?' And he would just start laughing, I'm sure. And he would have a big, mischievous grin, and he'd say something like, 'I don't owe anybody an apology. You all should have had your heads screwed on straight to figure out this was a joke.'"

Despite No Hard Evidence, Anti-MSG Sentiments Begin To Snowball

While Kwok's letter to the NEJM was the first to suggest that MSG may cause unpleasant side effects, the theory didn't really become a trend until dozens of other medical professionals began writing into the journal claiming to have had similar reactions to Chinese food. Many of these letters were written as tongue-in-cheek, winking jokes that simply perpetuated anti-Chinese stereotypes in an attempt to be funny, while others may have been earnest attempts to share legitimate anecdotal evidence.

Either way, newspapers started picking up the story with an angle that framed MSG as a strange, exotic, and dangerous new food additive from the Orient that may be causing problems for diners across the country.

Some of the first medical professionals to conduct experiments on so-called Chinese Restaurant Syndrome were the same who wrote joking letters to the NEJM about the supposed condition. Pharmacologist Herbert Schaumburg tested MSG in large doses on around 70 people, and from this small selection determined that the syndrome was real in 1969.

Another study conducted by J.W. Olney claimed that injections of MSG into newborn mice led to the formation of "acute neuronal necrosis," otherwise known as brain lesions, along with other symptoms as the mice grew older.

"As adults, treated animals showed stunted skeletal development, marked obesity, and female sterility," according to a paper Olney published on the study in Science in 1969. "Pathological changes were also found in several organs associated with endocrine function."

It has been noted, however, that very few of these early experiments were conducted as double-blind tests or used control groups. In the years since, using more rigorous standards, scientists have not found that MSG has any discernible negative effects when used in reasonable amounts and not taken intravenously. Additionally, further studies have not been able to replicate the specific impact MSG supposedly had on mice.

MSG Hatred Gets Linked To Chinese Food

When MSG was initially synthesized in Japan at the turn of the century, it quickly took Asia by storm for its impressive ability to enhance the natural flavors of food. Soon after, it became a massive hit in the United States. However, according to a theory proposed by researcher Thomas Article ImageGermain, a national fear of communist China that developed in the early 1950s allowed people to galvanize around a fear of things perceived as foreign, including MSG.

"Things changed when Chairman Mao seized control of China in 1949. Suddenly, our perception of the Chinese changed, and they were more than just foreign and confusing," Germain wrote in his paper "A Racist Little Hat: The MSG Debate and American Culture," published in 2017 in the Columbia Undergraduate Research Journal. "There was something legitimately scary about them in the eyes of mid-century Americans: they were communists."

"The association between Chinese food and health problems was an easy connection for Americans to make because the Chinese were threatening. In order for Americans to justify their fears, they latched onto MSG," Germain added. "Moreover, 'scientific' was no longer an appealing attribute; it made MSG seem strange. Just like the Chinese."

Additionally, Germain argued the modern trend of rejecting anti-MSG rhetoric and embracing the additive lies in a desire to reject the prejudiced attitudes of past generations that happily latched onto hating MSG as a way of subtly hating China and all things Chinese. 

As the fear of MSG spread rapidly, different groups, organizations, and institutions began looking into MSG, and found one hurdle that detractors had to overcome was why the symptoms only apparently occurred after eating Chinese food. After all, monosodium glutamate occurs naturally in a variety of foods and was added to all types of cuisine.

According to historian Ian Mosby, there was a common assumption among scientists at the time that, "While MSG was a common food additive, it was more likely to be misused by Chinese cooks."

"Both the press and many of the scientists investigating MSG regularly repeated claims that 'large,' 'liberal' or 'lavish' amounts of MSG were being used in Chinese restaurants," Mosby wrote. "This was despite the fact that almost no studies bothered to test the comparative MSG content of Chinese and non-Chinese foods."

According to Mosby, it was the unspoken but widely accepted belief among many Americans that "Chinese culture and practices were somehow unclean, excessive, or inscrutable," which tainted early efforts to accurately study MSG, its impact, and why it was almost exclusively associated with Chinese cuisine as opposed to its commercial use in many pre-packaged foods such as corn chips and even baby food.

While the initial medical investigations into Chinese Restaurant Syndrome are believed to be somewhat biased today, initial researchers were largely limiting the claims they were making about MSG's effects to those originally proposed in Kwok's letter. That began to change as the public sentiment toward the additive continued to turn sour.

In 1978,  American psychologist Dr. Arthur Coleman told the Toronto Star his wife became "profoundly depressed" for two weeks after eating Chinese food, and that her condition included, "Motor slowing, doubt-ridden, gloomy fantasies and occasional unprecipitated outbursts of rage."

Coleman later claimed after putting his family on an MSG-free diet, his wife's symptoms never returned and his 9-year-old son's "hyperactivity" was allegedly cured. No actual evidence was provided to support this anecdotal evidence. By the early 1980s, MSG - both in Chinese food and in all other additive forms - was blamed for a wide variety of conditions including diarrhea, depression, mental detachment, and a false "sense of fullness after a limited amount of food."

The Public Questions Any Study Claiming MSG Is Safe

There has been an immense amount of scientific research into MSG, both by those who set out to prove its potential for causing harm and by those who want to call the initial studies into question, and it seems neither side is willing to give credence to each others' findings.

The FDA deemed MSG safe for human consumption based on a study conducted by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, which was funded by the government agency.

"FDA considers the addition of MSG to foods to be 'generally recognized as safe' (GRAS)," the agency explains on its website. "Although many people identify themselves as sensitive to MSG, in studies with such individuals given MSG or a placebo, scientists have not been able to consistently trigger reactions."

However, in her 1999 essay "A Study in Suppression of Information," Adrienne Samuels argued that all the studies that seemed to show that MSG is harmless were backed by the Glutamate Association, a group believed to be financed by the food company Ajinomoto, who first produced and sold MSG commercially.

Furthermore, J.W. Olney - the scientist who claimed that injections of MSG caused brain lesions in mice - alleged the FDA was in cahoots with the Glutamate Association and that the agency deemed the additive safe to protect the interests of massive food conglomerates.

However, as pointed out by reporter Anna Maria Barry-Jester in an article for FiveThirtyEight, "While nearly all the U.S. research that has suggested MSG is safe has been funded by companies that have a stake in MSG’s success, researchers think the science that underlies them is sound."

Samuel Wang, an associate professor of molecular biology and neuroscience at Princeton University, seconded this notion, arguing that while pro-MSG groups may have commissioned the studies, the corporations don't have the power to influence results. Wang explained these groups are "not in a position to send tentacles into the entire scientific establishment and bend all our minds to its will."

Despite Being Closely Related To MSG, Umami Becomes Highly Desirable In High-End Restaurants

To this day, MSG still gets a bad rap. One of the leading brands of MSG that can be purchased in grocery stores is called Accent. It's referred to as a flavor enhancer on the packaging and includes as few references to MSG and monosodium glutamate as possible. Chinese restaurants the world over still advertise "No MSG" on their menus and in signs in their windows.Article Image

However, one of the biggest food trends in recent years has been the increased emphasis on "umami," otherwise known as the fifth sense of taste after bitter, salty, sour, and sweet. Celebrity chefs espouse the merits and culinary joy of umami, while restaurants like Umami Burger literally include the term in their names.

What's important to realize is that MSG and umami are inextricably linked. As Natasha Geiling explained in a Smithsonian article, "What few people understand is that the hated MSG and the adored umami are chemically related: umami is tasted by the very receptors that MSG targets."

While umami is culturally desired, the lasting stigma of Chinese Restaurant Syndrome still hangs over MSG, and the racial connotations of that fear are hard to ignore.

The FDA's official stance on MSG exemplifies the middle ground of the argument between both sides of the issue, detailing the possible effects while explaining why those effects are nothing to really worry about.

"The FASEB report identified some short-term, transient, and generally mild symptoms, such as headache, numbness, flushing, tingling, palpitations, and drowsiness that may occur in some sensitive individuals who consume 3 grams or more of MSG without food," the FDA explains. "However, a typical serving of a food with added MSG contains less than 0.5 grams of MSG. Consuming more than 3 grams of MSG without food at one time is unlikely."