food news

People Are Fighting to Change an Anti-MSG Term in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Chef Eddie Huang and TV host Jeannie Mai are calling out the dictionary's outdated definition for "Chinese restaurant syndrome."
20 January 2020, 6:33am
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Photo by Panida Wijitpanya via iStock/Getty Images Plus

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

Earlier this week, chef, author, and entrepreneur Eddie Huang began tweeting a new campaign, followed soon after by similar promotion from TV host Jeannie Mai: #redefineCRS, they wrote, calling out Merriam-Webster.

The CRS in this case is "Chinese restaurant syndrome," a relic of the late 1960s that's responsible for the backlash and negative discourse over monosodium glutamate, the umami food additive colloquially known as MSG. Huang and Mai's campaign to redefine the term is a collaboration with MSG producer Ajinomoto, which was started after Japanese chemist Ikeda Kikunae discovered a process to isolate MSG from sea kelp to create the savory flavoring in 1908.

Despite its promotional aspect, the redefine campaign has a point: The current definition of "Chinese restaurant syndrome" doesn't quite take into account the shoddy science supporting the existence of the "condition," or the term's xenophobic undertones.

Currently, Merriam-Webster's definition for "Chinese restaurant syndrome" describes the phrase in straightforward terms: "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." That isn't the whole story, though, and plenty of dishes beyond Chinese food contain MSG, from Doritos to Chick-fil-A sandwiches.

The anti-MSG controversy started in 1968 when Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok published a letter in the New England Journal of Medicine in which he, a researcher at the National Biomedical Research Foundation, described a condition that he dubbed as "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome." Kwok wrote that after eating at Chinese restaurants, he experienced numbness, weakness, and palpitations, which he attributed first to Chinese cooking wine, and then to MSG.

Kwok called on the medical community for more research, and what he set off was a decades-long discussion about the safety of MSG. People wrote in to the publication agreeing with Kwok's experience, and CRS gained coverage in places like the New York Times. In the 50 years since that starting point, MSG has continued to be demonized and avoided, with some Chinese restaurants still touting its exclusion.

But contrary to what Americans might have thought a few decades ago, today's perspective is more skeptical of the condition's existence, after scientific studies calling MSG into question were found to have large flaws. According to FiveThirtyEight, those issues included research that allowed participants to know whether or not they were eating MSG, scientifically frowned upon due to the placebo effect.

Today, the racist and xenophobic ties of the anti-MSG movement also seem more clear. As MSG's champions—including food science writer Harold McGee and chef Dave Chang—have pointed out, MSG occurs naturally in foods like Parmesan cheese, tomatoes, and steak—foods people eat without claiming feelings of "Chinese restaurant syndrome." Clearly, something about the cuisine MSG was most often associated with impacted public view of the ingredient and contributed to its backlash.

What the #redefineCRS campaign is asking for is a definition that reflects that increased knowledge, not one that simply validates the term. Emily Brewster, a senior editor at Merriam-Webster, told VICE via email that while Merriam-Webster had no record of anyone contacting it about the term until the morning the #redefineCRS campaign began, its staff will be reviewing the entry and "will revise it according to the evidence of the term in use." The Merriam-Webster Twitter account responded to Huang similarly.

Reviews like this are part of the process at Merriam-Webster as words change meaning and connotation over time.

"The ongoing evolution of language means that we are in a constant state of revision. Keeping up with it is a challenge, so we are always grateful to readers for pointing us to vocabulary that is in need of review," Brewster wrote. "As usages change, our entries change to reflect those shifts. Our aim is always to provide accurate information about what words mean, which includes providing information about whether a use is offensive or dated."

The dictionary's current definition might have seemed true at a time, but language changes alongside our understanding of science and culture, and the dictionary only really reflects the perspective of a given moment. Sometimes, we need to give it all a fresh look.