Chef Eddie Huang is seen in New York filming a video for a campaign challenging Merriam-Webster’s dictionary entry of “Chinese restaurant syndrome.” (Associated Press)

Chef Eddie Huang is seen in New York filming a video for a campaign challenging Merriam-Webster’s dictionary entry of “Chinese restaurant syndrome.” (Associated Press)

Asians cringe at ‘Chinese restaurant syndrome’ in dictionary

So entrenched is the notion in American culture, Merriam-Webster.com defines it as a real illness.

  • Wednesday, February 12, 2020 1:30am
  • Life

By Terry Tang / Associated Press

A social media campaign backed by a Japanese seasonings company is targeting the persistent idea that Chinese food is packed with MSG and can make you sick.

So entrenched is the notion in American culture, it shows up in the dictionary: Merriam-Webster.com lists ” Chinese restaurant syndrome ” as a real illness that has been around since 1968. But much of the mythology around the idea has been debunked: monosodium glutamate, also known as MSG, shows up in many foods from tomatoes to breast milk, and there’s no evidence to link it to illness.

“For me, it’s another thing to point to other people and say ‘Look, if you think racism toward Asians doesn’t exist in this country, like here it is,’” said restaurateur Eddie Huang. “I know how white people see us. ‘They’re cool, they’re acceptable, they’re non-threatening. But they’re weird, their food.’”

Huang, a New York City-based chef and author (his memoir inspired the ABC sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat”), and TV’s “The Real” co-host Jeannie Mai have launched a social media effort with Ajinomoto, the longtime Japanese producer of MSG seasonings. They’re using the hashtag #RedefineCRS to challenge Merriam-Webster to rewrite the definition.

When reached for comment, Merriam-Webster said it had not received complaints before about “Chinese restaurant syndrome” but would reconsider the term.

“Our aim is always to provide accurate information about what words mean, which includes providing information about whether a use is offensive or dated,” senior editor Emily Brewster said in a statement. “We’ll be reviewing this particular entry and will revise it according to the evidence of the term in use.

Shifts in culture and attitudes put the dictionary in a constant state of revision, she added.

Before joining the effort, neither Huang nor Mai had any idea the phrase was in the dictionary.

“The dictionary I thought was a reputable kind of Bible that was fact-checked all the way through in order to get us information,” said Mai, who is Vietnamese and Chinese. “‘Chinese restaurant syndrome’ is truly an outdated, super racist term.”

The symptoms are listed as numbness of the neck, arms, and back as well as headaches, dizziness, and palpitations. It affects people eating food but “especially Chinese food heavily seasoned with monosodium glutamate.”

The campaign isn’t looking to wipe the phrase out, but update it.

“I actually think it’d be interesting if they just kept it and just noted this is an outdated, antiquated thing,” Huang said. “I do think these things are important to remember and point to.”

Huang and Mai said the campaign is not about trying to help boost sales at Ajinomoto, which was founded in 1908 after a Japanese professor figured out how to isolate glutamate from a seaweed broth.

“They’re already selling tons of their products. They don’t really need my help to be honest,” Huang said.

So, how did the myth endure for more than five decades?

It started with a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine in 1968, according to Robert Ku, author of “Dubious Gastronomy: The Cultural Politics of Eating Asian in the USA.” Dr. Ho Man Kwok, who was Chinese American, wrote a letter speculating that some Chinese restaurants left him feeling numbness and other symptoms. Other readers, doctors themselves, then wrote in saying they experienced something similar. Some researchers claimed that MSG was the source, Ku said. The journal’s editors decided to call it “Chinese restaurant syndrome.”

“For a long time, Chinese restaurant syndrome was considered a legitimate ailment that the medical community seemed to back,” Ku said.

The New York Times picked up on the debate. Chinese restaurants everywhere were putting up signs and menus that said “No MSG” because of the backlash.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that specialists doing more research began disproving the syndrome, Ku said. They found MSG was in just about every processed food.

“It made no sense that only Chinese food that has MSG causes these ill effects but you can’t get it from Campbell’s Soup,” Ku said.

MSG comes from glutamate, a common amino acid or protein building block found in food, according to Julie Stefanski, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics. Glutamate is present in foods like ham and some cheeses.

The Food and Drug Administration says MSG is generally recognized as a safe addition to food. In previous studies with people identifying as sensitive to MSG, researchers found that neither MSG nor a placebo caused consistent reactions, the agency said.

At a Chinese restaurant in Phoenix, some patrons had never even heard of the term.

Linda Saldana is bothered by one culture’s food getting singled out.

“I’m obviously not Asian,” said Saldana, who was having lunch with her husband, son and two nieces. “But if that was to be said about Mexican food, I’d feel a little offended because how could food cause all that?”

Talk to us

More in Life

A course of traffic-cone slaloms is one way to help teens improve their driving skills. (Jennifer Bardsley)
Her teen is putting pedal to the metal for accident avoidance

She signed the new driver up for an advanced collision avoidance class taught by Defensive Driving School.

Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, now a symbol of peace and reunification. (Rick Steves’ Europe)
Rick Steves: Today’s Berlin is freedom’s victory dance

Checkpoint Charlie is now a capitalist sideshow. You’ll be sold fake bits of the wall, WWII gas masks and DDR medals.

Snohomish Historical Preservation Commission member Fred Cruger with his dog, Duffy, in Arlington along one of the history walk sections at Centennial Trail. The event will be up through September. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Discover local history as you walk the Centennial Trail

Take a smartphone quiz as you stroll the trail. If you answer every question correctly, you’ll win a prize.

We need to make suicide prevention a public health priority

The pandemic has impacted our mental well-being. Be on the lookout for suicidal behavior.

The Sauk River rushes by near a popular boat launch area close to White Chuck Mountain off the Mountain Loop Highway, just outside of Darrington. (Daniella Beccaria / Herald file)
Outdoors classes and activities around Snohomish County

The listings include Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest updates and REI Lynnwood workshops.

The “Fluffy” arborvitae has the ability to light up a Northwest landscape with its golden needles. (Proven Winners)
Gold tones of ‘Fluffy’ conifers make the landscape sparkle

It’s a new variety of Thuja plicata, native to the Pacific coast, known as western arborvitae.

Blue leadwort is a low-growing perennial that acts as a colorful groundcover for the garden. (Getty Images)
A few perennial gems to help brighten up the fall garden

He can’t help but find new treasures to plant each time he visits the nursery. Here are four he added recently.

The double-flowered autumn crocus has large lavender-pink blooms that resemble waterlilies. (Richie Steffen)
Great Plant Pick: Colchicum ‘Waterlily,’ double-flowered autumn crocus

This bulb features large double lavender-pink blooms that resemble waterlilies in the fall.

This French window bench was in style the last half of the 18th century. Although it was made to use by a window, it is popular with decorators today as a hall bench or a seat at the end of a bed. This bench sold for about $1,600 at an auction. (Cowles Syndicate Inc.)
French window bench in style the last half of the 18th century

This Provincial Louis XVI fruitwood window seat was sold at a New Orleans auction for $1,625.

Most Read