Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, or how MSG kept me awake all night

Food politics
MSG, the scourge of Chinese food

The other evening, we had a Chinese takeaway.

As normal, it was great.  Spare ribs, prawn toast, wontons, sweet and sour, salt and pepper chicken, all delivered conveniently to our door from the Chinese round the corner and down the road.

All was good.

But at four AM the next morning, I woke up, feeling thirsty.

Not thirsty in the ‘just woken up and feeling a bit groggy’ sense, but thirsty like I was stranded in the middle of the Sahara and hadn’t touched a drop of water for a week.

After three glasses of water, I still felt thirsty.

I’d had a normal day…a few cups of coffee, a glass of orange juice, several cups of water at work and a glass of wine.   I hadn’t been running or gone to the gym, and the temperature wasn’t too hot.

The only thing out of the ordinary was the Chinese takeaway.

Googling around in the morning, I realised that I had probably suffered from a bizarre condition widely known as Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.

Symptoms include mild palpitations, dizziness, headaches and, as I now know to my cost, uncontrollable thirst, all or some of which seem to occur soon after eating Chinese food.

This fairly non-specific and vague condition is down to the presence of salt, and more significantly, the additive monosodium glutamate in food, and is so named because MSG is very often used in Oriental food as a flavour enhancer.

My takeaway wasn’t particularly salty, but it must have been fully loaded with MSG.

So what is this mysterious additive, and why is it there?

MSG doesn’t affect the four basic tastes of salt, sour, sweet and bitter, but it does sharpen and boost complex flavours in foods like chicken or seafood.

It also adds an elusive fifth layer of taste, umami

The flavour of umami – a word borrowed from Japanese – is hard to describe.  Directly translated, it means ‘good flavour’ or ‘good taste’, and the taste is often described as ‘savoury’, ‘brothy’ or ‘meaty’.  The Guardian’s Word of Mouth blog memorably described umami as “a staggering, mouthfilling…facepunch of a flavour”.

MSG was first commercially marketed in Japan in 1909, and was introduced as Accent to the American market in 1948.  It’s been used to provide ‘facepunch’ in a huge range of foods ever since, and is common in highly processed convenience foods such as stock cubes, barbecue sauces, potato crisps and all manner of seasonings.  It’s also a mainstay of most fast foods.

MSG is extremely common.  There’s a good chance that something in your cupboard contains MSG, whether it’s called MSG or one of its many other derivative or associated names.  A certain chicken-obsessed Colonel most certainly adds it to his secret blend of herbs and spices.

Some of the E-numbers to look out for are E620 through to E625.

The use of food additives has always been controversial, but there’s no conclusive evidence that MSG is harmful, even in very large quantities.  European research concluded that normal levels of consumption could be regarded as safe, and that MSG posed little problem even in huge quantities.  The food scientist Harold McGee stated in his 2004 book On Food and Cooking that “[after many studies], toxicologists have concluded that MSG is a harmless ingredient for most people, even in large amounts.”

So it would appear that MSG is generally safe.  Does that mean that it’s a good thing?

At best, I’m ambivalent to it, but neither am I particularly fond of feeling the need to drink a couple of pints of water in the dead of night, either, so I’d probably prefer to avoid it if possible, on the basis that food should really taste of food, not chemically enhanced flavourings.

There are better ways to pack taste and flavour into food than loading it with glutamic acid based flavour enhancers.  I can understand why producers and cooks resort to MSG – it’s an easy shortcut and gives a dish or product an almighty kick – but there are other ways of providing that kick or something parallel to it.

Why not use more herbs, better spices, chilli, more pepper?

Maybe resist adding more salt, but you get the idea…

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14 comments… add one
  • Cristina Sep 8, 2010

    Very interesting and informative post. Thank you for sharing. It sounds dangerous especially if a person has heart problems to have these after effects from MSG.

  • Kath Sep 8, 2010

    We avoid MSG like the plague. Keeps us awake, and I get weird tingling sensations in my arms when I accidentally eat it. Fortunately, we have a lot of Asian restaurants in the Seattle area that do not use it.

  • Becky Sep 8, 2010

    I love your description of "Chinese takeaway." Over her we call it "take out." Same thing, just a different way of saying it.. Next time you want Chinese food, ask the restaurant if they use MSG. Some restaurants have this posted so you will know. Hope that you're feeling better.

  • Susan Sep 9, 2010

    Good post… I've had that raging thirst as well in the small hours… never occurred to me that it was MSG. I knew about the palpitations and chest pains and headaches but not the thirst. Thanks for the heads up. If I have Chinese I'll probably cook it myself in future.

  • Sara Sep 9, 2010

    I can't believe places still use it. After it became a good thing not to, hence all the "No MSG" messages on your menus, the public disdain kind of went quiet because we assumed we didn't have to worry about it being in our food unless it was listed. It gives my mom and I migraines. Make sure and ask before you order if they use MSG.

  • Zak Sep 9, 2010

    There's an interesting article on MSG in one of Jeffrey Steingarten's books (either 'The Man Who Ate Everything' or 'It Must Have Been Something I Ate').

    Apparently, parmesan cheese is very high in free glutamate (the naturally occuring form of MSG)

    • rich Sep 9, 2010

      Yes, that's true. Parmesan is packed with glutamic acid. Kelp also has very high levels, but that's not so good grated over spaghetti.

  • Carla and Michael Sep 10, 2010

    Fantastic post, very informative. Thanks.

  • David Goddard Sep 16, 2010

    I agree that you don't need to use it but I can see why people use it, it is a useful tool.

    There was a program on the BBC where they got two groups of people who say they suffer from Chinese restaurant syndrome, they took one group to to a chinese restaurant and one group to an Italian restaurant.

    They fed both groups foods with no MSG but with foods that are high in natural glutamate and both groups showed the signs of CRS.

    Watch the parmesan!

  • Matt Tempest Sep 20, 2010

    Just saw this very comprehensive piece on MSG and thought of your post:

  • David Terry Feb 17, 2011

    I'm sure more double-blind testing needs to be performed on this subject since I keep reading about cases where people are fed MSG without them knowing, and they don't get any symptoms. Maybe it's the MSG combined with something else that's the problem.

  • Robert Oct 24, 2011

    MSG is P*O*I*S*O*N. The food industry says it is natural, but arsenic and mercury are “natural” but will kill you over time, too. It makes everything taste better, but it is a slow poison…avoid it whenever you can. It’s in almost all canned and frozen foods because it makes them seem tasty even if they’ve been storage a very long time… BEWARE

  • Harriet Apr 17, 2013

    I made some soup once and accidentally tipped in a huge amount of stock powder. As we were hungry, I fished out what I could and we ate it. It tasted horrible, but I thought nothing of it, and certainly didn’t worry that the stock powder ingredients included MSG. So then I too had the 4am wakeup – shivering violently and my teeth were chattering so badly in my head they sounded like castanets – never heard anything like it. My husband wasn’t even slightly affected (bigger than me and ate less poisonous soup).

    MSG can be toxic, it depends on how much you ingest and your size and metabolism whether you get symptoms. A little bit is probably fine I guess, but I avoid it now..

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