The Company Behind MSG Urges Merriam-Webster to Drop ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’

Celebrities call out the dictionary's 50-year-old definition as racist

TV host Jeannie Mai gestures in frustration to a camera during an interview
TV host and celebrity stylist Jeannie Mai joined the campaign from a brand that sells MSG to undo decades of negative buzz around the flavor enhancer.
Ajinomoto

Merriam-Webster is such an of-the-moment publication that it’s added terms like “gender-nonconforming,” “snowflake” and “bottle episode” to its arsenal lately, plus identified “they” as the word of 2019. As its editors say, “The English language never sleeps.”

So why has it continued to single out monosodium glutamate in Chinese food, under the heading “Chinese restaurant syndrome,” as the potential cause of a number of serious reactions like dizziness and palpitations, despite a lack of medical evidence?

A new campaign, backed by a Japanese seasonings marketer, seizes on the 50-year-old term and asks the dictionary to rewrite its definition, helping bust a decades-old stigma—and, of course, sell more MSG. Chef and author Eddie Huang and TV host Jeannie Mai appear in a video that premiered this week showing their reaction to hearing that “Chinese restaurant syndrome” can still be found in the listings of Merriam-Webster.

“That’s really ignorant,” Huang says after hearing that “Chinese restaurant syndrome” is defined 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.”

“They might as well just call it ‘Oriental restaurant syndrome,’” Huang says.

Mai adds: “You know what gives me a headache? Racism.”

There’s no branding or direct product pitch for Ajinomoto, the company behind the campaign, which has Mai and Huang encouraging others to add their voices to the hashtag #RedefineCRS. There’s also a medical doctor in the video who debunks the old stereotype that Chinese food and MSG make you sick.

On the contrary, research has shown that MSG is safe to consume, and popular products like ramen, Doritos and ranch dressing contain it, according to the PSA. Glutamate also naturally occurs in foods like tomatoes, Parmesan cheese and mushrooms.

MSG as a flavor additive dates back to 1908, when a Japanese scientist managed to isolate it as the source of the savory flavor in the popular soup base dashi. He dubbed it “umami” and soon began mass producing it under the name Ajinomoto, or “essence of taste.” Today, Ajinomoto is a global food conglomerate, so it’s clear to see why the perception of MSG is a topic close to the company’s heart.

Shortly after the effort launched on Tuesday, Merriam-Webster responded to Huang on Twitter, saying the dictionary would review the term.

Organizers say more than 60 stories appeared in the media after the campaign launched, and Twitter posts discussing MSG and Chinese restaurant syndrome increased 1,304% from the week prior—though admittedly they weren’t exactly the most topical subjects. The hashtag was mentioned in upward of 400 Twitter posts, with 17,000 likes and retweets. Mai and Huang are asking their followers (nearly 400,000 collectively) to press for a rewritten dictionary entry, one that acknowledges the inherent discrimination in the original from 1968. 


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