‘Chinese kitchens are dirty and MSG is bad for you’: how racism persists in the West, despite evidence to the contrary

  • Peter Kammerer says widespread concern about MSG – despite all evidence – is rooted in distrust of Chinese and shows how easy it is for mistaken ideas to take hold. Racism, like inhibitions about food, is something that has to be unlearned
PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 December, 2018, 3:15pm
UPDATED : Monday, 17 December, 2018, 7:38pm

Racism can be so deep-seated that it can affect what we eat. I had no idea that my almost lifelong belief that MSG, the popular name for the flavouring additive monosodium glutamate, was bad for health, was the result of anti-Chinese bias. Stay away from Chinese restaurants unless they have a sign in the window saying, “We don’t use MSG”, became the mantra and I stuck religiously to it.

Only recently did I learn that there is no evidence proving the claim and that the chemical abounds in a lot of food as a taste-enhancer. 

Japanese scientist Kikinae Ikeda created MSG in 1908 as a result of searching for what made the country’s kitchen staple, seaweed, so flavourful. He isolated glutamate, found naturally in a wide variety of food including potatoes, tomatoes, mushrooms, peas and grapes, and mixed it with water and table salt to stabilise it, creating an ingredient he described the taste of as umami, Japanese for “savoury”.

Others in the country, in China, and elsewhere in Asia and the world, also thought so and the company he set up to produce and market MSG remains the global leader. The white crystals are used in a wide variety of packaged and processed products including crisps, frozen meals, sauces and gravies – yet, no one complains of ill-effects to their health when they consume them.

For those Chinese food claims about MSG, blame Dr Robert Ho Man Kwok, a Chinese immigrant to the United States. In a letter he wrote to the respected New England Journal of Medicine in 1968, he complained of “a numbness at the back of the neck, gradually radiating to both arms and the back, and general weakness and palpitation” after eating at “certain Chinese food restaurants”.

He speculated that MSG may have been to blame and his letter, published under the headline “Chinese restaurant syndrome”, quickly attracted an avalanche of similar correspondence that sparked studies concluding that they were right.

We all have a responsibility to call out racism when we see it

The problem was that research back then wasn’t as balanced as now, and participants were often told beforehand which food being tested contained MSG. What is known as the “nocebo” effect kicked in; suggesting to someone that something can cause a negative reaction often induces those self-same physical symptoms, even if they don’t exist. Subsequent research has shown that all but a small number of people who are sensitive to glutamate have no reaction to MSG when not told of its presence.

MSG makes food so tasty, so why shouldn't we eat it?

Never mind that people had been eating at Chinese restaurants for years without complaint. But, from personal experience, I had grown up being falsely told that Asians didn’t maintain the same hygiene standards of Westerners and that their kitchens were often dirty, making their food unsafe. The claim that MSG was unhealthy neatly coupled with the racist perceptions and the idea became so pervasive in the West that it persists today, despite three decades of evidence to the contrary. Online travel forums are still bulging with messages seeking recommendations for restaurants that don’t add MSG to food.

Unscientific research around the office proved the point; all but a handful of people asked believed MSG should be avoided. A few even insisted that they could detect it in their food and that they suffered ill-effects such as headaches and feeling bloated after eating. The telltale sign was always food that was “too tasty”. Of course, no additive in excess is healthy, even MSG.

Centre for Food Safety must up its game

But changing thinking isn’t that easy when we grow up believing the opposite. No matter how often my fitness-conscious sons tell me milk, butter and eggs are good for me, I subconsciously still avoid them due to years of being told about the evils of fat and cholesterol. False conclusions aren’t easily corrected by our brain, regardless of how much information to the contrary we feed it. Layer on label-reading in search of particular chemicals and other additives in the name of healthy living, trends such as veganism, culture and the politics of the day, and unfounded prejudices are bound to get into the mix.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post