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The Fear of MSG: A Consequence of Xenophobic Information Cascade

On April 4, 1968, a biomedical researcher published an article on the New England Journal of Medicine that would forever change how America eats. In the article, Robert Kwok described a peculiar illness he contracted at Chinese restaurants. His self-diagnosed cause? Monosodium glutamate, or MSG for short. Since the white powdery chemical’s discovery in 1907, MSG has been synonymous with delicious and flavorful. When the chemical is added to foods, it enhances the dish’s umami, a fifth taste which translates from Japanese as “tasty” and can be experienced through full-bodied tastes such as parmesan and mushrooms. By the mid-1900s, MSG was commonly found in foods across the United States from packaged snacks to baby formula.

Following Kwok’s article, however, a sudden and widespread fear for the seemingly harmless white powder ensued. Stirring headlines such as “Chinese foods make you crazy? MSG is No. 1 Suspect” by the Chicago Tribune and other suspecting articles quickly hit news outlets, abruptly altering the savory image of MSG with one of bitter resentment. Scientists and consumer advocates have argued since Kwok’s article that MSG causes health problems ranging from the unpleasant to the life threatening. The science is difficult to navigate, because for every study that finds that MSG is dangerous, another says it is perfectly safe. But those who argue against MSG insist that their challengers are nothing more than corporate shills, propagating misinformation to protect the bottom lines of huge corporations. Whether the case, a clear consequence emerged. Reader responses of these studies began to pour in with similar complaints as the ones highlighted in Kwok’s piece and the “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” was started. From the 1960s to 1980s Chinese food was considered a legitimate health concern by many medical professionals.

However, modern research has proven that MSG is in fact safe for consumers and that past findings were inherently flawed and obfuscated by xenophobia. A 2009 paper in Social History of Medicine by researcher Ian Mosby illustrates how early studies of MSG were skewed by the widespread fear about the chemical. When researchers revisited the studies, essential flaws, including the fact that participants knew whether or not they were consuming MSG. Additionally, the paper states that the fear of MSG in Chinese food is part of the United States’ long history of deeming the “exotic” dishes of Asia as threatening and dirty. The rampant fear of MSG following Kwok’s article is a clear example of a negative information cascade. At the time of publishing, MSG was a commonly accepted chemical additive and one author’s response resonated with readers throughout the country. Fearing that the widespread chemical was dangerous, consumers pinned the blame on the cuisine that introduced them to MSG: Chinese food. Now, various researchers and scientists have debunked the myth that MSG consumption is detrimental to health. But, the fear and misconception of MSG still exist today. While the false connections are fairly innocuous for most consumers, some still claim that they feel negative effects after consuming dishes including MSG.

We all make choices about how we eat — some prefer organic produce and others avoid high fat foods. When it comes to food, there is no right or wrong choice, but it is useful to understand the origins of those choices. For MSG, the choices appear to have been less influenced by science and more by the culture and politics of the day. So, the next time you see a piping hot bowl of ramen or fragrant bowl of fried rice, take a bite and determine its flavor for yourself. Judge the dish on its presentation, smell, and taste; not on its inclusion of MSG.




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