Chinese Restaurant Syndrome

When the melamine debacle erupted last year and attracted the world’s attention to food safety issues globally, it seems rather unfair that another food safety issue should be attributed to the Chinese..

However, the Chinese Restaurant syndrome , which was first described in 1968 and referred to a collection of symptoms occuring after eating Chinese food is certainly not confined to this cuisine.

Chinese Restaurant

Unfairly Taking The Blame..Chinese Restaurants like this one in Manassas, Virginia, USA (photo courtesy of ZA Yusoff)

The symptoms – headache, throbbing of the head, dizziness, lightheadedness, sweating, a feeling of facial pressure, tightness of the jaw, burning or tingling sensations over parts of the body, chest pain, and back pain – can sometimes be mistaken for a pending heart attack. The cause is attributed to a form of food allergy to monosodium glutamate (MSG aka Ajinomoto, Vetsin, and Accent) and occurs only to some individuals.

I wrote above that it was unfair to blame Chinese food because while many people believe that MSG is the cause of these symptoms, a statistical association has not been demonstrated despite numerous research studies.  In fact, MSG is found in so many foods from so many cuisines that it raises one’s eyebrows : Maggi sauce, Marmite, Parmesan cheese, Knorr bouillon cubes, flavored potato chips, Kikkoman sauce, Worcestershire sauce, most barbeque sauces, to name a few!

Chinese Restaurant2

The Mother of All...100% pure MSG

So is MSG safe? The US Food & Drugs Administration (FDA) has classified it as safe as early as 1959. Most countries, including the European Union and the USA merely specify that there must be adequate labelling if MSG is added. In fact, most people recover from mild cases of Chinese restaurant syndrome without treatment and with no lasting problems. The only exception are those who develop severe allergy reactions, which can be life-threatening – watch out for

  • Chest pain
  • Heart palpitations
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swelling of the throat

In such cases, nothing less than a fast trip to the Emergency Department is mandated!

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4 responses

  1. Avoid adding MSG in the early part of cooking and especially so if the food is to be cooked to boiling stage. Add MSG when adjusting the seasoning/taste at the end of cooking. My 2 cents.

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  3. Doc,

    A lot of negative writings have been penned on MSG. One of the most common negatives that I have heard is its “bad” effect on human brain especially children. Some say that MSG affects brain development in children.

    Is there any documented proof that MSG affect the human brain negatively? Especially in young children? If there is such documented proof, why is it not banned altogether?

    Your comments please.

    Doctor2008 replies: MSG, Nutrasweet and similar ‘excitotoxins’ were demonstrated by researchers in 1968 to damage brain cells in newborns, making them short, obese and having reproductive difficulties. It was for this reason MSG was banned from baby foods. Normal doses of MSG, on the other hand, could not be proven to affect adults. So keep MSG-containing foods away from babies..and that includes soya sauce and certain cheeses.

  4. I’m certain this is what happened when I had to rush to the hospital. If only the doctors had taken more time to discern their course of action I could have avoided the double by-pass heart surgery.

    I’ve been a big fan of the Chinese food for years. We have many Asian food places here in SW Missouri. A new place opened in town. I thought the stuff was a bit too sweet and even said something when ordering the takeout. It was more likely MSG.

    The attack happened two weeks in a row. Each Friday I had been getting food at one place. After having the meal I was mowing the yard and felt a shortness of breath weakness and pain in the chest shooting down my left arm. I’m 40 year old male and this was all quite unexpected. The first time was noticable but mild so there was no doctor visit. The next Friday was much worse. At the ER I was soon told I had a heart attack and would need a double by-pass surgery.

    After over a year has passed and listening to a health radio show mention the MSG syndrome I’m convinced that’s all it was. The surgery was likely unnecessary.

    I could go on but I’m sure I’m not the only one this has happened to.

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