Monosodium glutamate, also known as MSG, is a flavor enhancer generally recognized as safe by the FDA. However, food that contains it—particularly Asian food, as David Chang points out—has long been inaccurately stigmatized for being unhealthy.
Merriam-Webster even includes the term “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” which describes health symptoms supposedly associated with eating dishes that contain MSG. This week, a new campaign aims to address some of these long-held misconceptions.
Ajinomoto, a Japanese company that produces MSG, sweeteners, frozen foods, and other products, released a video on Tuesday featuring chef and author Eddie Huang, TV personality Jeannie Mai, and Dr. Billy Goldberg, a licensed M.D., reacting to the dictionary’s definition. Huang tweeted the clip and wrote “'Chinese Restaurant Syndrome?' NAH, chill Merriam. Retweet this and ask @merriamwebster to #RedefineCRS.”
The video starts with Huang, Mai, and Goldberg sitting down to read the current definition of Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, which is written as “a group of symptoms (such as numbness of the neck, arms, and back with headache, dizziness, and palpitations) that is held to affect susceptible persons eating food and especially Chinese food heavily seasoned with monosodium glutamate.”
The three grow increasingly exasperated and frustrated with each word. “They might as well just call it Oriental Restaurant Syndrome,” Huang says in disbelief, and continues, “First of all, MSG is delicious. Second of all, calling it Chinese Restaurant Syndrome is really ignorant.”
Goldberg says that the provided definition is false, reiterating that MSG has repeatedly been proven safe, and explains that glutamate is found in everything from tomatoes to Parmesan cheese—even breast milk. (And, as Huang adds, ranch dressing). Per the FDA’s website, the glutamate in MSG is also chemically indistinguishable from glutamate in food proteins, and our bodies metabolize them the same way.
“You know what gives me a headache?” Mai asks. “Racism.”
Their new proposed definition would read “an outdated term that falsely blamed Chinese food containing MSG, or monosodium glutamate, for a group of symptoms (such as headaches, dizziness, and heart palpitations).”
In response to Huang’s tweet, Merriam-Webster wrote “Eddie, thank you for bringing this to our attention. We’re constantly in the process of updating as usage and attitudes evolve, so we’re grateful when readers can point us toward a definition that needs attention. We will be reviewing the term and revising accordingly.”
It remains to be seen if the dictionary will accept the proposed revision.