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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