MSG’s fortunes began to go downhill in 1968 when a US doctor wrote a letter to a medical journal titled “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.”
In the document, he described symptoms like “numbness in the back of the neck,” “general weakness” and “palpitations.” He suspected MSG, along with other ingredients like cooking wine and high amounts of sodium, may have caused these symptoms.
MSG took the biggest hit, with the effects of that letter rippling on throughout the decades, all over the world.
The etymology is traced to a 1968 letter that appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine claiming that Chinese food brought forth ailments. The letter was uncovered to be a hoax, but the myth remains. The US Food and Drug Administration has long approved MSG for consumption, and studies have failed to show that the chemical causes the alleged “syndrome”.
Restaurants publicly swore off MSG. Food and beverage publicists begged not to be asked about it. Diners experiencing discomfort after a meal blamed it on MSG.
“Many didn’t know that MSG is plant-derived,” says Tia Rains, a Chicago-based nutrition scientist and Ajinomoto’s vice president of customer engagement and strategic development.
“Our process [of making MSG] is by fermentation, which is very similar to how beer is brewed or how yogurt is made.”
A number of celebrated chefs are now openly embracing MSG – some even going so far as to promote it on their menus. Here’s a look at the history behind this complicated flavor enhancer and how it got such a bad rap.