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'Chinese restaurant syndrome' generating a different reaction

China Daily Global | Updated: 2020-01-25 06:37

A takeout order has been put in for the term "Chinese restaurant syndrome".

The Japanese multinational food and biotech company Ajinomoto — which since 1909 has been making monosodium glutamate (MSG), a food additive that for nearly 50 years has been blamed for the "syndrome" — has launched a campaign arguing that the term is discriminatory and needs to be revised in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

MSG is a seasoning that combines sodium (as in table salt) with glutamate, an amino acid. (The ingredient is known as wei jing in China.)

On Jan 14, Tokyo-based Ajinomoto, whose name in Japanese means "essence of taste", rolled out the hash tag #RedefineCRS.

"We felt it was important to highlight the outdated definition of Chinese Restaurant Syndrome in light of the extensive human research proving MSG is not linked to such symptoms in food," Tia Rains, the senior director of public relations for Ajinomoto, told The New York Times.

Merriam-Webster, which has been around since 1828, describes the syndrome as "a group of symptoms (such as numbness of the neck, arms, and back with headache, dizziness, and palpitations) that is held to affect susceptible persons eating food and especially Chinese food heavily seasoned with monosodium glutamate".

There is even a medical term for the reaction: MSG symptom complex.

"To this day, the myth around MSG is ingrained in America's consciousness, with Asian food and culture still receiving unfair blame," Ajinomoto says on its website. "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome isn't just scientifically false — it's xenophobic."

Many US Chinese restaurants also still feel the need to post signs saying they don't use MSG.

Ajinomoto says that MSG is the purest form of umami, one of the five known tastes, along with sweet, salty, sour and bitter.

The company offered a proposed redefinition: "an outdated term that falsely blamed Chinese food containing MSG, or monosodium glutamate, for a group of symptoms (such as headaches, dizziness, and heart palpitations)".

The company has enlisted two Asian Americans, Eddie Huang, a restaurateur and comedian, and TV host Jeannie Mai, who is of Chinese and Vietnamese descent, to lead the campaign. They decry MSG stereotypes in a minute-long video made for social media. The spot also features a medical doctor disputing claims about MSG, which can be found in a range of foods consumed by Americans, from ranch dressing to Parmesan cheese, from potato chips to ramen noodles.

"I was shocked that Chinese restaurant syndrome was an actual term in a dictionary," Huang, whose autobiography was adapted for the sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, told the Times.

Merriam-Webster, for its part, has developed a progressive reputation for its "wokeness". It chose "they" as the 2019 word of the year as a singular gender-neutral pronoun. The dictionary describes woke as "aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice)".

Emily Brewster, a senior editor at Merriam-Webster, told the Times: "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."

In response Jan 14 to a tweet by Huang, the dictionary's official Twitter page said: "Eddie, thank you for bringing this to our attention. We're constantly in the process of updating as usage and attitudes evolve, so we're grateful when readers can point us toward a definition that needs attention. We will be reviewing the term and revising accordingly."

The so-called syndrome was first "identified" in 1968 as the result of a letter sent to the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) by a supposed Dr Ho Man Kwok. The letter writer told the esteemed journal that after eating in some Chinese restaurants, he felt symptoms such as numbness and palpitations.

But a lengthy article in Colgate University's magazine in 2019 posited that the Kwok letter may have been a crock. Dr Howard Steel, a 1942 Colgate graduate and former trustee, called the NEJM in January 2018 and said: "Have I got a surprise for you. I am Dr Ho Man Kwok."

Steel, who died in September 2018 at the age of 97, said that in 1968, while he was an orthopedic surgeon at Shriner's Hospital and a professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, another doctor used to joke with him about his specialty, saying orthopedic surgeons couldn't get published in a journal as prestigious as the NEJM, so he bet Steel $10 that he couldn't.

Steel said he even signed his letter as from the National Biomedical Research Foundation in Silver Spring, Maryland, which doesn't exist. He said he contacted NEJM numerous times about his hoax but never got a response.

Others subsequently wrote to the journal to say they had similar reactions, so the editors dubbed the peculiar claims Chinese-Restaurant Syndrome, and over the years it persisted in the public consciousness, even though the "research" was rooted in ancient stereotypes and suspicions about Chinese food.

The US Food and Drug Administration considers MSG to be "generally recognized as safe".

If there is any reaction to MSG, it may be too much of the sodium part. I recall once eating two heavily salted street pretzels in New York, leaving me flush with a racing heart. But I kept it to myself.

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