“How MSG Got A Bad Rap: Flawed Science And Xenophobia”

“That MSG isn’t the poison we’ve made it out to be has been well-established. News stories are written regularly about the lack of evidence tying MSG to negative health effects. (Read here and here, for example. Or here, here, here, here and here.) Still, Yelp reviews of Chinese restaurants tell tales of racing hearts, sleepless nights and tingling limbs from dishes “laden with MSG.” Even when the science is clear, it takes a lot to overwrite a stigma, especially when that stigma is about more than just food…
The fine, white powder was first sold in slender bottles meant to attract bourgeois housewives who were embracing science in the kitchen because it suggested hygiene and modernity, according to research by Jordan Sand, a professor of Japanese history at Georgetown University. In China, it was touted to Buddhists, who periodically abstained from eating meat, as a vegetarian way to improve flavor.
By the 1950s, MSG was found in packaged food across the U.S., from snacks to baby food… After the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and federal bans on sweeteners that the Food and Drug Administration deemed carcinogenic,3 consumers began to worry about chemical additives in their food. In 1968, the New England Journal of Medicine published a letter from a doctor complaining about radiating pain in his arms, weakness and heart palpitations after eating at Chinese restaurants. He mused that cooking wine, MSG or excessive salt might be to blame. Reader responses poured in with similar complaints, and scientists jumped to research the phenomenon. “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” was born…
That MSG causes health problems may have thrived on racially charged biases from the outset. Ian Mosby, a food historian, wrote in a 2009 paper titled “‘That Won-Ton Soup Headache’: The Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, MSG and the Making of American Food, 1968–1980” that fear of MSG in Chinese food is part of the U.S.’s long history of viewing the “exotic” cuisine of Asia as dangerous or dirty. As Sand put it: “It was the misfortune of Chinese cooks to be caught with the white powder by their stoves when the once-praised flavor enhancer suddenly became a chemical additive.””
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