4 Apr: Chinese Restaurant Syndrome

MSG, the umami seasoning frequently added to Chinese cuisine, came under fire on 4th April, 1968 – when Dr Robert Ho Man Kwok wrote a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine musing about the possible causes of a ‘syndrome’ he experienced whenever he ate at Chinese restaurants in the US.  

“The most prominent symptoms are numbness at the back of the neck, gradually radiating to both arms in the back, general weakness and palpitation”, he wrote, in a letter that soon attracted multiple responses from other clinicians – and spawned an unscientific panic about monosodium glutamate which still persists to this day.

In this episode, Arion, Rebecca and Olly investigate which foods contain naturally-occurring MSG; ask why 1960s America was especially susceptible to scepticism about chemical additives; and consider the racist undertones to the definitions of the ‘syndrome’ in the modern-day dictionary… 

Further Reading:

• Is MSG as bad as it’s made out to be? (BBC Future, 2015): https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20151106-is-msg-as-bad-as-its-made-out-to-be

• The Campaign to Redefine ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’ (The New York Times, 2020): https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/16/dining/msg-chinese-restaurant-syndrome-merriam-webster-dictionary.html

• ‘Korean chef talk about MSG myth – Uncle Roger is RIGHT? WRONG?’ (Goodchoi’s Kitchen, 2020):

Enjoyed this episode? There’s over FIVE MINUTES more material, cut-for-time from today’s show and exclusively available to our podcast’s supporters, available right now – in which The Retrospectors investigate Ken Hom’s MSG-criticism; Tesco’s international websites; and whether pizza causes ‘sexual incontinence’…

Discover this bonus bit – and similar extra content every single week – by supporting the show via Patreon* or clicking ‘Subscribe’ on Apple Podcasts.

* top two tiers only – https://patreon.com/retrospectors