Salt of the earth: The socio-political-economic impacts of monosodium glutamate and its ties to anti-Asian sentiment

[Editor’s note: Once a year, an essay competition is held at Cal State University, Northridge, amongst Asian American Studies and Education majors, as part of an endowment set up by the columnist, Prosy Abarquez-Delacruz, for her deceased mother, Asuncion Castro Abarquez and her deceased sister, Rosalinda Abarquez Alcantara to provide a scholarship grant to deserving students. The essays are vetted by a committee headed by Dr. Tomo Hattori, and with active participation of Dr. Philip Hutchinson and Dr. Kimberly Teaman Carroll and oversight from Dept. Chair Eunai Shrake. This year’s winning essay is from Miguel Forteza.]

Amidst a global pandemic, we as a society were quick to point fingers at what we think was to blame, especially when all sense of control was lost. Americans were quick to coin terms, such as “Wuhan Virus” or “Kung-flu,” that satisfy a tendency to control that targeted Asian Americans as a scapegoat for our collective struggles. Those who adopted these terms did so haphazardly without considering the repercussions of how it could negatively impact others, and can be directly correlated to the recent rise of anti-Asian and Asian American sentiment, blamed for our current health crisis.

In reality, it should not have to be said that COVID-19 has no nationality, and does not discriminate between our socially constructed notion of race. Asians and Asian Americans have received the short end of stick, and seem to have always been the low-hanging fruit of scapegoating issues which, unfortunately, have resurfaced with recent events. Historically, the negative stigma towards Asian cuisine and food culture as perceived by others might be attributed as a factor in the feeling of alienation of Asians and Asian Americans. This has allowed for racial othering to take place between whites and Asian Americans, creating a divide between “normal” western foods and “exotic” Asian cuisine as justification for their racism as seen through history.

We Asian Americans have constantly been wrongfully accused of eating strange foods throughout our history, from the outlandish and stereotypical claims of cats and dogs to the universal blame of COVID-19 originating from eating bats. Stereotypes such as these are used to perpetuate xenophobic and specifically anti-Asian sentiment, and is particularly evident in the case of “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.” Chinese Restaurant Syndrome is the term used to describe the ill feeling an individual may experience after eating Chinese food, and has been blamed on the inclusion of Monosodium Glutamate as a food additive. This medical diagnosis manufactured a fear of Asian cuisine amongst white Americans, as physical ailments that could be attributed to virtually any foods were targeted towards our “exotic” Asian cuisine and ingredients. Nevertheless, just as there is no such thing as the “Chinese Flu,” Chinese Restaurant Syndrome does not exist either, as it has been debunked, and its racially biased origins made visible, from further research.
Monosodium glutamate — more commonly abbreviated as MSG — is a popular food additive in Asian cuisine is naturally found in many savory foods and used as a flavor enhancer in its salt form.

Unfortunately, its place in the culinary world has been met with tremendous negativity. Despite its natural abundance in the foods we eat, and the FDA regarding it as “generally safe”, it is still thought of as harmful by 40% of Americans according to a study conducted by the International Food Information Council in 2018 (Dewey).  As concerns of public health rise, so does an ideology, which targets Asian Americans and our food as the cause of health ailments. This unnecessary stigmatization that MSG has received is an example of how Asians, Asian Americans, and Asian foods have been used as a scapegoat for racist and xenophobic attacks, and eventual socioeconomic disenfranchisement, and to some compulsory Anglo-conformity.

The term Chinese Restaurant Syndrome was coined in 1968 when an unknown Dr. Ho Man Kwok wrote a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine describing the adverse effects to the body after a Chinese meal. This “Post-Sino-Cibal-Syndrome,” later named Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, caused “burning, pressure, tightness in the face and upper back, dizziness, flushing, sweating, bitemporal constricting headache, infraorbital tightness, lightheadedness, weakness, palpitation, nausea and vomiting” after a Chinese meal (Asnes 705). Dr. Kwok concludes his letter with a throwaway sentence claiming that it might be the food additive Monosodium Glutamate. This caught the attention of the Editor-In-chief Franz J. Ingelfinger who decided to publish Kwok’s letter without review, possibly in the name of attracting buzz for the medical journal, or even worse, with an anti-Asian racial bias.

Covered in an episode of the Chicago radio podcast “This American Life,” Professor Jennifer Lemesurier of Colgate University conducted research in 2017 where she discovered that Dr. Ho Man Kwok never existed in the first place. Piqued by her own preconceived negative notions against MSG, she proceeded to write a paper about the mystery of Dr. Ho Man Kwok and the myths of the food additive, and had her work published in an academic journal. In 2018, she received a voicemail from Dr. Robert Steele, who happens to also be a Colgate Alumni and Trustee of the University. In this voicemail, Steele confesses to Lemesurier that he is the man behind the mysterious Dr. Ho Man Kwok. Dr. Steele explains in a phone interview later that year that he submitted the controversial letter to the New England Journal of Medicine for a bet of $10 that he could get an article posted in a medical journal while drunk with friends after dinner at a Chinese restaurant they frequented once a week. He created the pseudonym “Ho Man Kwok” as wordplay from the term “Human Crock,” an insult popular in the 1960s used to describe con-men. Steele was sure that his phony name would raise some alarms, but the letter was published soon after it was sent.

“As soon as it came out”, Steel recalls, “I called the Journal editor and told him that it was a bunch of bunk, that it was all fake, it was all made up. And he hung up on me” (WBEZ 668). From then on, Chinese Restaurant Syndrome became a household term, enabling and perpetuating a system of anti-Asian racism medically backed by doctors and their patients alike while Asian restaurants began to see a decline in patronage.

This says plenty about the morals and ethics of the New England Journal of Medicine as the editors in charge then, used this as an opportunity to gain press with a phony medical claim. Newspapers with headlines such as “Chinese Chow Numbs Some”, “Kwok’s Quease”, and “Chinese Food Make You Crazy?”, all of which poke fun at an Asian accent, spread across America as the medical journal refused to acknowledge the phony publication. Potentially racially-biased doctors and physicians now had access to a false diagnosis for patients with these symptoms, and could get away with their aversive anti-Asian racism thanks to the fraudulent letter and the editor’s refusal to correct it. Even worse, Chinese Restaurant Syndrome and Dr. Kwok’s bogus medical findings have even been cited as recently as 2017 by medical journals in the US National Library of Medicine — the same year Chinese Restaurant Syndrome was debunked by Lemesurier (Bawaskar).

This media hysteria manifested in real-life consequences, primarily with the food industry and Asian American business owners. Restaurants of all Asian cuisines began to market themselves as MSG-free, and those who did not, received negative reception and a decline in business. American food manufacturers reacted quickly to brand themselves as “MSG-free” and still do to this day despite their products containing other flavor enhancers such as cultured whey, yeast, and soy extracts; all of which are ingredients high in MSG or, quite literally, other ways to say monosodium glutamate (Frito-Lay), which in itself may lead to even worse allergic symptoms from those with soy, gluten, or dairy allergies. The money spent rebranding and reformulating recipes away from MSG might as well be identified as the potential business and income stolen from Asian businesses as the fear of MSG began to loom across the food industry.

There also seems to be a double standard that exists in the culinary world: Asian foods are thought to be healthy since they generally use more fresh ingredients and vegetables, but we should also avoid them because the inclusion of strange ingredients and MSG makes it potentially unsafe and unhealthy. The former is only true when convenient for whites in the context of westernized Asian foods and capitalizing on American-Chinese cuisine a la Panda Express, and the latter is only true when tradition is preferred over assimilation and inconvenient for the majority-white market. When corporations can profit off of American-Chinese food in the freezer aisle, for example, they will do so by advertising fresh large-cut vegetables to emphasize its nutrition, real 100% chicken breast to emphasize that the meat used is unquestionable, and big, bright letters spelling out “No MSG!”

By advertising products this way, food manufacturers answer every question that the skeptical consumer could hold of their food and pander to those who still believe in the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome myth. In instances where it is not convenient to turn profits in the interest of the corporate food industry, i.e. Chinese Restaurant Syndrome and COVID-19, we are eating cats, dogs, bats, and poisonous MSG; a manufactured fear that scares away patrons from Asian businesses.

Despite this, there has been recent advocacy for the use of MSG in recent years. Korean-American celebrity chef David Chang has been leading the pro-MSG movement, proudly advocating for the use of MSG as an ingredient by using it himself in his many Asian-inspired restaurants across America. “You shouldn’t be afraid of making your food taste good,” Chang declared during a pro-MSG lecture given at the 2012 MAD Symposium, a conference of food industry professionals held annually in Copenhagen, Sweden. It was Chang’s arguments for the destigmatization of MSG that blossomed an interest in Professor Jennifer Lemesurie, the individual responsible for debunking the entire myth behind Dr. Ho Man Kwok, the New England Journal of Medicine and his phony letter condemning the ingredient. Despite countless studies debunking the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome myth, it takes an Asian American lecturing a room full of white people to advocate for the destigmatization of a food ingredient and cuisine with a reputation destroyed by a white man pretending to be Asian.

While Chang’s activism in the destigmatization of monosodium glutamate works to undo the racial biases set forth by Dr. Kwok and the New England Journal of Medicine, as all things in life, we should still continue to consume in moderation. The consumption of MSG can, in fact, cause slight discomfort, hypertension, and metabolic syndromes in large quantities comparable to the effects of high levels of sodium and other food additives, and should be treated as such as discussed in a Thailand-based medical journal (Insawang).

The difference between this medical journal and Dr. Kwok’s letter is the refrain from blaming these symptoms on an ethnic group, and instead on high levels of MSG itself.
With our current situation regarding COVID-19 and the increase of Asian American violence, simply pointing fingers is no longer a nonviolent act, as it has been the catalyst for the catastrophic effects that have negatively affected the mental, physical, and socioeconomic well-being of the ones being pointed at. The recent unfortunate events targeting Asian Americans may just be the latest culmination of the same anti-Asian racism that inspired the creation of Dr. Ho Man Kwok and what his fraudulent letter had to say about monosodium glutamate in the first place.

Just as Dr. Robert Steele saw fit to create an Asian pseudonym and phony medical diagnosis to win a measly $10 bet over fifty years ago, us Asian Americans, our names, our food, and our culture are still being taken for granted. In the case of both MSG and COVID-19, our history and position as a minority in this country has been, and will continue to be, taken for granted as those in power will purposefully exploit and take advantage of our culture, food, and labor. As to the future of MSG in America, let us take inspiration from David Chang. If we are to survive a global pandemic, certainly we should not be afraid to have our favorite Asian foods and have them taste good too.

Miguel Forteza is a first-generation Filipino American student double-majoring in Anthropology and Asian American Studies. He is a Resident Advisor in Student Housing, Co-Founder & Social Media Manager of the API Advocates Campus Affinity Group, and a mentee in the Ethnic Studies Education Pathways Project, focusing on the development of Ethnic Studies education for K-12 students.

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