Daniel Soar wrote about the origins and racist vilification of monosodium glutamate (MSG), an umami-rich flavour additive created by Ajinomoto Co., Japan’s biggest producer of condiments and seasonings. It grew in popularity for the first half of the 20th century but that success came crashing down thanks to a medical journal article:
In 1968 the New England Journal of Medicine published a letter from Robert Ho Man Kwok of the US National Biomedical Research Foundation. ‘For several years since I have been in this country,’ he wrote, ‘I have experienced a strange syndrome whenever I have eaten out in a Chinese restaurant.’ Fifteen minutes or so after finishing a meal he would experience a range of unpleasant symptoms: ‘numbness in the back of the neck, gradually radiating to both arms and the back, general weakness, and palpitation’. Kwok narrowed down the cause to the MSG so popular in the Chinese eateries now spreading across America. The journal began referring to the effect as Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, and reports from sufferers abounded. The following year John Olney of Washington University set out to confirm these findings under laboratory conditions. His experiment involved injecting newborn mice with monosodium glutamate, and the results were alarming: the effects on the mice culminated in acute neural necrosis – aka brain damage. A few biochemists questioned Olney’s methodology and conclusions: unlike his mice, people tended to eat glutamate rather than inject themselves with it; human infants, unlike infant mice, have an effective blood-brain barrier that prevents ingested glutamate from reaching the brain; and the doses Olney applied were big enough to floor a horse. But amid the roar of noise about the dangers of eating Chinese food these dissenting voices were barely heard.
Classic case of culinary racism, right? Well, yes but that wasn’t where the story ended. I won’t spoil the plot twist—and it’s a doozy—but I will say it doesn’t detract from how powerful the West can be when it comes to tearing down cultures outside their own.
Anyway, enjoy your MSG unless it has been absolutely proven to make you ill (somehow), in which case that has nothing to do with Far East Asian cuisine. Speaking of which, here are some articles about food and drink from Japan, China, and beyond you might be interested in: