Restaurants in the West have thoroughly embraced the organic food trend. American soup-and-salad mega-chain Panera Bread, for example, recently announced that it would remove all food additives from its recipes. Meanwhile, Chinese cooks on the streets of Beijing are continuing happily with their MSG usage.
“We use a little MSG,” a cook tells us as he grills chuan’r in a hutong shop just off Dongzhimen. The shop owner promptly intervenes.
“No, we don’t use any MSG. None at all,” she says, casting a sour glance at my notebook.
It appears MSG hysteria has worked its way east. While Moka Bros and Tribe will glady share their anti-additive stances, Western-style joints aren’t the only ones championing the anti-MSG cause. Local favorites Mr. Shi’s Dumplings and Baihe Vegetarian also pride themselves on avoiding the artificial additive.
But what is this thing we’re scared of, and why are we so scared of it? Just how bad is it? Are we all going to die?
We are all going to die, but probably not from MSG, says Dr Adam Williams, a doctor and allergist who has published findings on the substance in the medical journal Clinical and Experimental Allergy.
“I think there is unnecessary hysteria among many that MSG is unhealthy or causes adverse health effects in people,” he says.
MSG is an acronym for monosodium glutamate, but in Chinese, it’s known as wei jing, or “essence of flavor.” To break it down – literally, into molecules – MSG is the salt form (hence the white powder) of glutamate, a naturally-occurring type of non-essential amino acid commonly found in items such as tomatoes.
In 1908, Japanese scientist Ikeda Kikunae became the first person to isolate the substance and later market it – sparking a food revolution whose impact we still feel, and taste today (or some of us, at least).
Here’s how it works: The flavor enhancement doesn’t take place in the cooking. Rather, it takes place on our tongues. MSG makes our taste receptors extra sensitive to umami, a name for the fifth taste – after salty, sweet, sour and bitter – coined by Kikunae in reference to the meaty deliciousness found in seaweed. As such, MSG first made it big in Japan, where cooks and housewives added it to ramen broth. The additive soon spread to China and, not long after, the West. In the 1940s, the US government used it to enhance meals for soldiers fighting in World War II. MSG, officials reasoned, could boost morale.
Yet it was Westerners who first became wary of the foreign substance. In 1968, Chinese-American doctor Robert Ho Man Kwok wrote a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine, linking MSG to a range of allergic reactions. According to Dr Kwok, eating out in MSG-friendly Chinese restaurants led to headaches, palpitations and dizziness, later leading to the term “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.”
As absurd as it sounds, this “syndrome” is still listed on the US National Institute of Health’s directory of diseases, even though repeated scientific studies have failed to conclude that it’s MSG that causes these reactions. Food scholars have since argued that 60s-era anti-MSG sentiment in the US had more to do with ethnocentrism and wariness toward foreign cuisines than scientific concern. Today, the anti-MSG movement is more of a health-food marketing ploy – and it’s working.
Xin Baoguo, head chef at Xi’an Mingchi, a Shaanxi-style noodle-and-roujiamou restaurant in Beijing, has witnessed these changes in public attitude up close.
“From the media, people have heard it’s bad,” he says. “But we’ve been using it for years and nothing’s happened.”
Ma Yingping, a chef at a Xinjiang-style restaurant down the road from Xin’s, also defends the additive.
“As long as it’s a controlled amount of MSG, it’s not going to hurt your body whatsoever,” she says.
Experiments on MSG have yielded mixed results, and therefore, science has not been able to definitively mark the additive as bad. Even after President Richard Nixon ordered the US Food and Drug Administration to officially review all food additives, nothing of medical concern was found.
At the bottom of the National Institute of Health’s Chinese Restaurant Syndrome page, it reads: “There have been many studies since then that have failed to show a connection between MSG and the symptoms some people describe.”
Dr Williams is the author of one such study. While he believes there is “sufficient evidence” that there are certain “sensitive people who may experience headaches, migraine attacks, flushing reactions, or abdominal symptoms after eating MSG,” he says most of us have little reason to worry.
“For the rest of us who seem to tolerate MSG without these reactions,” he says, “I do not see any convincing evidence that there are serious hidden consequences or long-term risks from the occasional consumption of MSG in moderation.”
So, is this public hysteria all bullshit? Some defenders of our magical flavor powder say that if MSG is indeed bad for our health, then we’d feel its affects after eating other umami-rich foods like tomatoes, cheese and seaweed. Even a mother’s breast milk contains high levels of umami.
But in China, MSG is more than an issue of nutrition. Just a few years before Dr Kwok first complained about Chinese food in America, China was in the midst of crippling famine. MSG was seen as a way to make the food that people could find more palatable.
“Before, people didn’t earn that much, so they didn’t get to choose whether or not to be healthy,” says Head Chef of Huakai Vegetarian Restaurant, Zhang Caoyou.
Now, it’s different. “We focus on ingredients, not MSG,” he says proudly, pointing a to plaque that reads “Beijing Healthy Lifestyle Restaurant.”
Xin, on the other hand, disagrees.
“To all kinds of Chinese food, MSG is essential,” he says as he whips up a bowl of biangbiang noodles. “It’s essential, it’s crucial, it’s not to be missed!”
Today, the choice is ours. Science has failed to make a consistent link between MSG and sickness, although there has been anecdotal evidence that certain people may react to it.
Out of all this controversy and rumor, there’s really one thing we can conclude for sure: Xin’s noodles are damn good.
>For more by this author, follow @n_mateer on Twitter. Images by Holly Li