50 years ago, people thought MSG caused ‘Chinese restaurant syndrome’

Excerpt from the March 8, 1969 issue of Science News

Chinese food

CHOW DOWN  Chinese food once had a bad rap in the United States because of a common ingredient — monosodium glutamate, or MSG. But earlier claims that the flavor-enhancing compound made people sick have been debunked.

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March 8, 1969 coverChinese Restaurant syndrome varies —

Twenty thousand tons of monosodium L-glutamate are manufactured annually in the United States…. But, according to researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, “MSG is not a wholly innocuous substance.” … In the Feb. 21 Science, [researchers] report “evidence that it (MSG) causes headache, as well as symptoms of acute Chinese Restaurant disease–burning sensations, facial pressure and chest pain.” — Science NewsMarch 8, 1969


Studies have consistently failed to validate claims that MSG causes illness. A 1995 report ordered by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration suggested that some people can get symptoms like headaches or drowsiness from eating three grams or more of MSG on an empty stomach. But since the average adult consumes only 0.55 grams of added MSG per day, the FDA deemed it safe. MSG remains popular in Chinese cuisine and in products like potato chips and salad dressing. MSG’s flavor, umami, is even a taste category with its own tongue receptors (SN: 4/6/02, p. 221).

Allie Wilkinson is a freelance science writer. She has a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies from Eckerd College and a master’s degree in journalism from Hofstra University.

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