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Thursday, January 29, 2009

No MSG

At one time in New York City, MSG and its avoidance were big dining concerns. In April 1968, Robert Ho Man Kwok wrote a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine, and coined the term "Chinese restaurant syndrome." In 1969, an article appeared in Science Magazine which linked the syndrome to MSG. Many symptoms were attributed to the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome like numbness, chest pain, headache, nausea, rapid heartbeat, drowsiness, and weakness. The whole issue is extremely contentious - glutamate is an amino acid which occurs naturally in many foods. Scientists are divided and no definitive studies have linked MSG specifically with these symptoms.
In NYC, we have the largest Chinatown in the USA and Chinese food has been one of New York City's most popular cuisines. So, understandably, amid all this, concern for MSG reached a fever pitch particularly when eating Chinese food - consumers were worried and waiters interrogated about the presence of MSG in meals. Restaurants responded and soon the phrase "No MSG" appeared on Chinese restaurant windows and menus everywhere, a counterpoint to the ubiquitous "No Radio" in automobile windows on the streets (see my story here).
But there is an unbridled audacity here in New York City and even with heightened sensitivity to many issues, many will act in opposition to prevailing attitudes and practices. I have seen a woman in a vegetarian restaurant wearing a full length fur. So I should not have been surprised, that even after 4 decades of anti-msg sentiment, I would walk into a store in Chinatown in 2009 and find a virtual MSG section. This store is apparently completely unfazed by any concerns about MSG. It was not a small inventory of a branded version like Accent or a few containers hidden discreetly. No, here at Tan Tin Hung at 121 Bowery, you could find a long shelf of the white powder in clear plastic bags with generic type in bright red prominently displayed in the first aisle. There were variants in granular size and bag weights. You can buy it by the pound here.
This is America, and although it is getting more difficult to poison ourselves and others, we still have the right to have headaches if we want :)

11 comments:

Terry B said...

A very funny post, Brian. It reminds me of New Orleans cuisine, in a way. I love the city and its food, but every time I seek out recipes--even from big name, legit chefs--the ingredient lists contain an appalling number of processed items. Onion powder, garlic powder, "Cajun seasonings"... all the kinds of things most chefs and home cooks eschew in favor of fresh, "real" ingredients. But all these powders and potions are apparently what make the real thing so darned tasty.

Lily Hydrangea said...

I got sick eating Pringles once. my weird feelings came on so suddenly I looked at the ingredients afterwards & was shocked to see Pringles had MSG in it. Now I read the ingredients before I eat anything. You can't always do that in a restaurant though.

naomid said...

I've read that sometimes MSG is listed as "Natural Flavoring" I've also read that MSG is often hidden this way in health food products like veggie burgers.

How else are you going to make an 80 calorie product, with 15 grams of protein, and 5 grams of fiber, and 0 grams of fat taste good?

ChickenUnderwear said...

30 or so years ago I was in a Chinese restaurant with my Family. I remember my Mother asked for no MSG. My Father asked them to put it on the side so he can dip. I laughed so hard an ice cube flew out my nose. Thanks for the memory!

oshiyay said...

The worst reaction to MSG I ever had was in a restaurant near NY Hospital many years ago (the 70's)called the Recovery Room. I became so ill that I kept away from all restaurants for several months.I still examined every ingredient on prepared foods before I buy them.

Rebecca said...

It's hard to know whether something has MSG in it, especially in a restaurant. People just need to be careful.

Sterl the Pearl's Daily Pics of Boulder said...

So interesting. I remember eating Chinese with my family as a child and getting so sick, I had to go out to the car in the parking lot and lie down. But you are right, its still around. I see it in Asian stores in Colorado too. And I am sure I have consumed mountains of it. Although, I go for other Asian cuisine often to avoid this issue. Cool pic, Thanks.

ryan said...

The bags of MSG are purchased not only by restaurants but also for family consumption. My mom occasionally uses it in certain dishes and apparently, when used in the appropriate amount, causes no harm. None of my Chinese-American siblings nor I (nor my friends) have ever experienced the so-called Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.

Milo Busbecq said...

There is no such thing as Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. MSG is every bit as natural and naturally occurring as salt, and it is a component of all foods that taste savory. If you eat meat, you cannot have "no MSG." Our tongues even have receptors just for it. As the Chinese and Japanese have known for ages, there are five basic flavors, not four.

Ming the Merciless said...

Actually NY Times did a story about a year ago about MSG. It is in EVERYTHING from Knorr chicken/beef bouillon cubes, onion soup mix, crackers and biscuits, etc.

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/05/dining/05glute.html

Annie said...

Well, funny story from chickenunderwear...but I do agree with both Lily Hydrangea and oshiyay...my daughter (who happens to live in NYC) drops like a fly when she partakes of MSG...very scarey! So I am sorry to disagree with some of your commenters!

(She made hamburgers with a packet ingredient that had been safe for her, when we were visiting Washington once, and then discovered after collapsing in the street (where to find a toilet..begging a lady at the info center Pleease...)..when we finally got back to the apartment, they had changed the ingredients in the "new improved" packet...guess what...now contained msg !

Let people buy it and use it and eat it, but it isn't for everyone ...be aware!