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The campaign to redefine ‘Chinese restaurant syndrome’

“We felt it was important to highlight the outdated definition of Chinese restaurant syndrome in light of the extensive human research proving MSG is not linked to such symptoms in food,” said Tia Rains, senior director of public relations for Ajinomoto, in an email.

Diners eat at a food stall in Taiwan.

Diners eat at a food stall in Taiwan.Credit:Bloomberg

After the term had been defined in the ’60s, food companies were quick to label the preservative, which adds umami flavor to a dish, as a toxin.

Chinese restaurants began displaying signs: “No MSG.” It was removed from baby food. A generation of American eaters grew up thinking MSG was dirty or dangerous.

But MSG isn’t bad for you.

And it’s not even Chinese-food specific — it’s added to ranch dressing, ramen and McDonald’s upcoming fried chicken sandwich. Glutamic acid occurs naturally in some tomatoes, mushrooms and cheese. Some doctors think the reported symptoms might be caused by sodium; others wonder if it’s just confirmation bias.

Ajinomoto approached Eddie Huang, the restaurateur and comedian, and Jeannie Mai, a television personality, to lead the #RedefineCRS campaign, in the hope they can change social perceptions about their product. Huang, Mai and Ajinomoto declined to answer questions about if, or how, the stars were compensated for their participation.

“I was shocked that Chinese restaurant syndrome was an actual term in a dictionary,” said Huang, whose autobiography was adapted for a sitcom, Fresh Off the Boat, in an email.

They are targeting a receptive publication. Merriam-Webster, which is the oldest dictionary publisher in the US, has recently earned a progressive reputation.

Its 2019 word of the year was “they”: a singular gender neutral pronoun for transgender and non-binary people. And, since at least the 2016 election, its Twitter account has had word nerds cackling at passive-aggressive posts of definitions of words used incorrectly by politicians.

“We record the language — we do not create, sanction or promote any specific words; the language’s speakers do this, and we provide a record of this use,” said Emily Brewster, a senior editor at Merriam-Webster, in an email.

Brewster said that the publisher had no record of anyone contacting them about the term until Tuesday morning and that they were “grateful” for the heads-up.

The stigma around MSG fuelled — or, perhaps, was fuelled by — long-held racist stereotypes.

When the United States lifted race-targeting immigration quotas in the 1965, many Chinese immigrants, fleeing the Cultural Revolution, settled in the US and opened restaurants, many of which used MSG.


“We eat Chinese food three times a day all year, and we never have headaches or numbness or anything else,” said Roy K.C. Chen, owner of the Mandarin Inn in Manhattan’s Chinatown, in a 1968 article by The New York Times about the controversy.

Even now, MSG is shunned in some circles. Lucky Lee’s, a widely criticised (and now shuttered) Chinese-inspired restaurant owned by a white health coach in Manhattan, advertised “clean” versions of the cuisine which, among other ingredients, would not be made with MSG.

“As soon as I heard the actual definition for Chinese restaurant syndrome, it hurt because I know it’s steeped in decades of xenophobia,” said Mai, who has a Vietnamese background, in an email.

Merriam-Webster only deletes an entry when the term is no longer in use, Brewster said. (They removed “air tourist,” which once referred to non-first-class airline travellers, and consolidated “threepenny bit” and “threepenny piece” into a single entry.) It labels slurs as “offensive” or “obscene” within the definition, documenting the historical past and cultural function.

“Were we to ignore certain words on the grounds that they are offensive we would be negligent in our duty as lexicographers,” Brewster said in the email.

“That said,” she continued, “we certainly aim to be mindful of the inevitable shifts in language, and we regularly update both definitions and usage labels to reflect changes.”

The New York Times

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