MSG and racism

I know there’s a lot of noise on the internet about how bad people consider Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) to be, and then there’s also a fair bit of discussion about how those claims are overblown; this is fairly typical for any widespread claims about horrible health effects relating to a singular foodstuff or ingredient. We’ve seen it before with salt, fats, soy, red meat, carbohydrates etc, etc…

But some of the MSG backlash contingent is claiming that the distrust of MSG was based on racism, because it was linked to something people were calling ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’ (alleged adverse effects related to high levels of MSG in food, supposedly common in relation to Chinese restaurant/takeaway dishes containing higher levels of MSG)

Is this really racism? It feels like a bit of a stretch to me - I guess because to me, it seems at worst, the subject of the attack (if indeed it was an attack at all) is a specific category of food, not a specific race of people.
I’m not convinced that racism really was the motivation here - it looks like just another case of common-or-garden food-fad-ism, and the term ‘Chinese’ is collateral - coincidental.

But I might be wrong, and if I am wrong, I would like to be corrected - hence this thread.

When I was a kid I had never heard of MSG until the media and TV shows started talking about in relation to Chinses food. Never had Chinese food as a kid so I just thought it was something that came from China and that good old American food was better. Come to fine out that MSG is the major ingredient in the flavoring Accent, which was in just about every kitchen at the time.

The story of “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” is a wild and crooked tail.

A large part of it isn’t necessarily racism, but some placebo/confirmation-bias effect. Chick-fil-A sandwiches and chicken has a lot of MSG, if I am not mistaken, yet customers rarely complain, because they don’t mentally associate Chinese-restaurant symptoms with Chick-fil-A.

It seems like more than a bit of a stretch to me to claim that all distrust of MSG is based on racism. But it seems reasonable to me that some people’s distrust of MSG has been at least partly based on xenophobia.

What timeframe are we talking about?

Back in the 1960s Chinese food was not common in the USA. Out on the west coast where I grew up it was much more available.

At that time Chinese food was “known” to be:

  1. Not real filling (eat it and you’re hungry again an hour later).
  2. Full of this weird foreign “MSG” stuff that no US or European cookery used, that often triggered headaches.
  3. Further at that time almost no food additives were widely known by acronyms; that made it scary and chemically, not like good old natural salt or pepper. Only a culture that didn’t prize food safety would have such a thing.
  4. served with lots of rice and very little else because rice is poor people food and all Chinese, even those in the USA, are poor.

So yeah, pretty thoroughly racist, or at least culturist, from one end to the other. It may have been exotic and fun food for a change of pace, but nothing about it held a candle to real food as eaten by real humans like whitebread American food and whitebread American people.

Fast forward to today, and the kids raised in that milieu are in now age 60-ish… Still plenty active in 2020 culture, 2020 zeitgeist, and 2020 social media. Plus of course depending on when Chinese food first became widespread in their part of the US people may have first learned these same ideas a lot later than 1960.

Have some folks since grown out of these ignorant shallow ideas? Sure. Have they all? Of course not; not even close.

It’s interesting to me, because it makes me wonder if all of this took place somewhere else from me, or whether it happened here in the UK too and I was completely oblivious to it.

We had the thing about feeling very full, then hungry a short time later, which is sort of true of takeaway foods in general, but especially salty foods, which Cantonese styled takeaway tends to be. It never occurred to me that this was anything other than an observation about the food.

And there was racism, and racist jokes about pretty much all races, nationalities and cultures - I wouldn’t dream of arguing that we didn’t (or don’t) have racism here in the UK.

But I only heard about the MSG / racism thing in complete retrospect.

Xenophobia and ethnocentrism rather than racism I would say. What LSLGuy said pretty much describes the MSG experience in Australia also.

These days Asian/Australian fusion (whateverthehell that means) is The Trendy Thing and only dinosaurs would diss Asian food.

There’s a strip mall takeout Chinese place in every town in America big enough to have a name and every neighborhood of every city. You get a Chinese place before you even get a McDonalds. It’s about the least exotic cuisine imaginable. But even stereotypically “American” foods like McDonalds are the subject of bizarre urban legends.

It seems improbable that racism played no part at all in American culture making assumptions about something “Chinese” in 1955, of course.

I don’t like MSG. It gives me a “furry” mouth feeling.

I have eaten a LOT of Chinese food. First starting with American Chinese in California in the 1970’s when I was a dishwasher in a Chinese restaurant in California. To 20+ years eating “authentic” Chinese food in China, HK, Taiwan, and at home. I think MSG is nasty and dislike when I eat it. I read the labels in China and don’t buy products if MSG is listed. I also tell restaurants in China to not use MSG. (Don’t know how many times the chef has come out to ask if I’m serious and really do NOT want MSG in the food.)

There may be a confirmation bias, but can’t talk to Chick Fil T as I boycott their homophobic fundamentalist shit.

Yep, they do.

But some people insist that MSG causes Migraines- but several double blind studies have shown it doesnt.

However, Migraines can be triggered if you think they will be.

So if you think there is MSG and you think you get a migraine from MSG- you certainly can get one.

They are not as bad anymore but they do have a deep history of that.

That’s certainly true today. Exotic it’s not. That doesn’t prevent the same ethnocentric BS from being spouted by the usual suspects. Just not so many and not so loud as would have been true 20 or 40 years ago.

Sure, it’s confirmation bias, but where did that confirmation bias come from? When people eat at a Chinese restaurant and then get a headache later, they’re more likely to associate that with the food than when they eat at a “normal American” restaurant and get a headache later. Why would that be? I mean, I suppose that you can call it xenophobia rather than, strictly speaking, racism, but xenophobia and racism are at least closely related.

It’s not just Chick Fil A; that was merely brought up as an example. Many if not most American fast food and processed foods contain MSG, if not explicitly, as one of its analogues. Popeyes, for instance, lists MSG as the second ingredient on their chicken coating, after salt. McD’s chicken sandwich also has MSG. If you’re eating that genre of food, it gets hard to avoid.

Sorry, the McDs info seems to be debatable for the chicken sandwich — there was an article in January that they were thinking about adding it to their sandwich, but it doesn’t seem they have, so far as I can tell. Their official ingredients list doesn’t seems to list it, but on their FAQ type page, it does say traces of it are found as a “sub ingredient” in their McChicken and Spicy Chicken sandwiches.

And while we’re at it KFC is just loaded with it. So it’s not a particularly Chick Fil A thing.

I wonder if there is some behavioural bias in this too. I think I am more likely to over-eat Chinese food than some other types of food, because (at least in the case of Cantonese-style food offered here), it’s usually presented in small pieces, in a sauce, and that makes it very easy to shovel into my face quickly (whereas with a steak or a burger or a pizza, cutting it up or taking bites that need more chewing reduces the rate of eating it)

And when I over-eat, I often feel unwell for a while afterwards.

Yes, Chinese food (like Mexican food) has gone from exotic and foreign (at least in many parts of the US) in the mid-20th century to ubiquitous and everyday nowadays. But, in my (admittedly limited) experience, many of those “strip mall takeout Chinese places” are still operated and staffed by people from China. Which maybe makes it harder for the more xenophobic Americans to trust them.

I’m not sure that’s true. I’m too young to remember much of the 60’s, but our little midwestern town of 10,000 had two Chinese restaurants in the early 70’s.

Oh certainly they could have gotten headaches from eating Chinese food. Chinese food has a lot of unfamiliar ingredients and spices. But it aint the MSG.

Is MSG safe?

Absolutely. Scientists have not been able to confirm MSG causes any of the reported effects (e.g., headache, nausea, etc). There is no limitation for use of MSG in foods because international scientific and regulatory bodies have failed again and again to identify any harm from consumption of MSG.

In 1968, an American doctor wrote a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine claiming to have experience symptoms of numbness in the back of neck and a feeling of pressure in the fact and upper chest muscles, which he coined as “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.” He suggested this was caused by MSG because of its widespread use in Chinese restaurants, without any study, data or proof. While the term Chinese Restaurant Syndrome caught on in the U.S., study after study has failed to show any consistent effects among individuals who claim to be “MSG-sensitive” when blindly exposed to fairly high levels of MSG.