Monosodium Glutamate: History, the Media’s Impact, Xenophobia, & Blatant Misinformation

Maria El Hage
Lundi 21 février 2022

Now that we are two years into a global pandemic, one would think that we are over the rapid spread of misinformation about Sars-Cov-2 by now. Well…

If you read the news and Internet users’ posts, you can easily find faulty thoughts or claims ranging all the way from “we don’t know what is in the vaccine” to “drinking your own urine can be effective against Covid-19.”

One main issue with those claims is that they are problematic, especially that there are many impressionable generations who easily take in information and adopt them as a belief. Even more than that, such claims can influence anyone of any age, and could significantly impact our health, a community, or even an entire culture.

What is happening today amidst the pandemic can be compared to what happened back in 1968, when Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok felt sick after eating at a Chinese restaurant. Kwok then presented an entire letter to a medical journal, claiming his symptoms were caused by the consumption of Monosodium Glutamate (MSG).


Put simply, MSG is a flavor enhancer composed of two substances: sodium and glutamate. The former has been defined as essential for the human diet, and the latter is a common amino acid in many animal and plant proteins that plays an important role in digestion, muscle function, immunity, and brain function.

Although glutamate is sufficiently produced by our brains in order to regulate all those processes, it is also usually found in the food we eat. In fact, it is responsible for the savory flavor typically found in mushrooms, cheeses, and broth.

After the isolation of high quantities of glutamate in 1908 by Dr. Kikunae Ikeda, it was combined with another flavor enhancer (sodium) to create a savory seasoning: monosodium glutamate.

What MSG does is that it enhances “umami”, which is classified nowadays as the fifth basic taste, alongside sweet, bitter, salty, and sour. And by the 1930s, MSG became a “kitchen essential” across Asia.

Now that you know all of this, let’s go back to our story. At the time Kwok sent his letter, MSG wasn’t tested for toxicity yet – which makes people’s outrage somewhat understandable. However, this anger was more of a reaction to the title of the letter: “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.”

Despite the use of MSG in various cuisines, there was an overall prejudice in the United States against Asian food practices, labeling the foods as unusual and hazardous. Thus, such a story has sparked years of biased and xenophobic journalism which alleged that eating at a Chinese restaurant will result in illness.

Moreover, studies done on MSG claimed that consumption of this seasoning leads to brain damage, which was later proven to be faulty; the brain damage resulted from a glutamate imbalance inside the brain, not from the MSG ingested. For years, it was not just bigotry in headlines, but also doctors who considered “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” an actual illness.

Fortunately, modern research on MSG has debunked this discriminatory view of the seasoning and, on the contrary, highlights the role MSG has on metabolism. In some consumers, ingesting large amounts of MSG could lead to unpleasant symptoms, but isn’t it equally the case for high consumptions of spices, sugar, and/or salt?

Henceforth, remain aware of what is presented and portrayed in the media. A lot of what people allege stems from intolerance, ignorance, and desire to have their name on the news. Not everyone who declares being a professional or an academic really is, and not everyone who has a big following knows what they’re talking about. Always fact-check your information and ask a professional in the corresponding field.