The Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, a term coined in the 1960s, refers to the outdated idea that monosodium glutamate (MSG) is to be blamed for certain symptoms that people experienced after eating at a Chinese food joint. These symptoms included, but were not limited to, headaches, sweating and skin flushes. While the term has been done away with today, largely due to the racist overtone, the signs are still experienced by people, who have now started calling it the MSG symptom complex.
What is MSG?
An additive, MSG is often used to improve the taste of food. It is made up of free glutamic acid or glutamate, an amino acid found naturally in most foods. Just like wine and yogurt, the process of MSG involves fermenting of molasses, starch or sugarcane.
The US Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) considers MSG to be ‘generally recognised as safe’ or GRAS. While MSG is the proposed culprit, so much so that some restaurants carry disclaimers that they do not serve food with the ingredient, the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome seems closer to myth than reality.
It is said that people who experience the syndrome, show the following symptoms roughly two hours after consuming foods containing MSG — sweating, headache, flushing of skin, numbness or burning of the mouth and throat, nausea, fatigue, and sometimes life-threatening symptoms like breathlessness, chest pain, abnormal heartbeat, swelling in the face and throat.
However, the catch is, there have been no studies to validate claims that it is MSG that is causing illness. And in the absence of proof, it would be unfair to demonise it.
While MSG may or may not be an innocuous substance, it is advisable to get checked by a doctor for the aforementioned symptoms, which could be caused by other kinds of allergies.