Chinese Restaurant Syndrome

By Anupum Pant

Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) is a salt of Glutamic acid and is common among natural products like tomatoes, potatoes and mushrooms. MSG is also a popular flavour enhancer used to enhance the umami spectrum of a particular dish. In it’s artificial powder form MSG looks like a bunch of white crystals (powder). Also, like Gluten, everybody is scared of MSG.

The scare has been around for a long time and almost everybody knows this. It’s called “monosodium glutamate symptom complex” or the “Chinese restaurant syndrome”. This term, actually an elaborate public cry, comes from a single letter that was sent to the New England Journal of Medicine by a man named Robert Ho Man Kwok. He wrote:

I have experienced a strange syndrome whenever I have eaten out in a Chinese restaurant, especially one that served northern Chinese food. The syndrome, which usually begins 15 to 20 minutes after I have eaten the first dish, lasts for about two hours, without hangover effect. The most prominent symptoms are numbness at the back of the neck, gradually radiating to both arms and the back, general weakness and palpitations.

Even though it is popularly believed that MSG in food gives people weird symptoms, it has actually never been demonstrated under rigorously controlled conditions. All of it originated from the letter above! The US FDA has given MSG a generally recognized as safe designation.

There’s an interesting experiment which went like this. To a group of people that had adverse affects from MSG, researchers gave them two meals. One of the meals was Chinese food without MSG in it. And the other was an Italian meal with huge amounts of MSG in it. The “MSG symptoms” were reported by most of them after they had the chinese meal, and the italian meal was apparently all good, caused no symptoms.

Artificially made powder MSG can be absorbed by the GI tract very quickly (unlike glutamic acid-containing proteins in naturally occurring foods), it can create a spike in the blood plasma levels. Theoretically this could cause mild damage to some areas of the brain and kinds of chronic diseases could result from this neurotoxicity. Also, this.

But again, it has been given a green flag by the FDA. So the scare that is going around, has not been proved scientifically.

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