It seems like the pro-MSG camp is really ramping up their Discourse again lately, and it’s getting really frustrating.
Yes, it is deeply unfortunate1 that MSG sensitivity was labeled “Chinese restaurant syndrome.” Yes, it is probably the case that a lot of supposed MSG sensitivity was psychosomatic and due specifically to that name. And yes, glutamic acid does exist in a lot of things naturally and does in fact contribute to the “umami” flavor. I don’t disagree with any of those things.
What I do disagree with, however, is the mischaracterization that everyone who has an MSG sensitivity is just faking it or being racist, with the same strawman “gotchas” like “Did you know it’s also in Pringles and Doritos?!” (Yes, I do. It was Doritos which first gave me a reaction, for that matter. Long before I’d ever heard of MSG or “Chinese restaurant syndrome.”)
It turns out that there’s a high correlation between MSG sensitivity and fibromyalgia. And like many things that cause fibro problems, it’s not a single isolated incident that causes problems, but an accumulation of issues. If I have something with a low-ish amount of MSG on its own, I probably won’t have a problem. But if I have something with a lot of it, or if I’ve had it several times over the course of a week, I will have a problem and it will ruin the rest of my day.
And yes, glutamic acid occurs in a lot of things, but (generally) not bound to sodium and not in the high quantities that it occurs in with processed foods!
Several studies have shown MSG to be safe for the general population. And I do not doubt that it is. But these studies don’t include people with nerve disorders like fibromyalgia or epilepsy, or with a general history of migraines or the like. MSG actively amplifies the action of the pleasure centers in the brain. Fibromyalgia’s main issue is an inability to downregulate nerve receptors. Can you possibly see how this might cause a problem for some?
These fucking thinkpieces completely ignore the very real problems that a lot of people encounter, and also encourage people to actively put MSG into their food and not disclose it to be a “gotcha” for people with problems.
It’s like putting gluten into the food of someone who has celiac disease because of the backlash against fad gluten-free diets.
It’s like giving someone sugar-based Coke when they ask for diet, because they think it’s funny. Or giving someone diet Coke when they ask for normal, because they think they should “lose some weight.” Both are disastrous for diabetics who have planned their glucose intake for the day. (And incidentally, artificial sweeteners are also a major migraine trigger for me.)
It’s like “testing” someone’s stated food allergy by putting that thing in on purpose. Or not worrying about cross-contamination, or thinking, “Oh, it’s only a little bit.” Which can cause people to die or at least have a very bad time.
Don’t FUCKING do that.
Generally: if someone has a food sensitivity, believe them. Even if you think it’s made up, there’s no harm in believing them, while pretending you know better than them for their own issue can be incredibly harmful. Even fatal.
May 2020 Update: I have been rightfully taken to task for my original phrasing here. I absolutely do not mean to downplay the many, many problems with racism and xenophobia especially as they apply to the many troublesome ways that it affects Asians in many spaces, culinary and otherwise. I am aware of several of the ways that Asian food, Chinese especially, gets downplayed as being "cheap" or low-quality or disposable, and this is absolutely a big concern, which "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome" plays a not-insignificant part of. My rant is solely aimed at those who are assuming that all MSG sensitivity is rooted in racism, and who are dismissing my own related health issues on that basis. ↩