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Dear Culinary Backstreets,
Should I be concerned about MSG when I eat in Shanghai?

The addition of MSG to Chinese food has been dividing diners for decades now, yet it appears that most people still don’t really know why they’re trying to avoid the stuff, or if they should even be concerned. We’re here to clear that up, once and for all.

According to, in 1908, a Japanese scientist named Kikunae Ikeda was looking to find the root flavor that gave the omnipresent Japanese fish stock, dashi, its meaty flavor. After subsequent tinkering in the lab, he focused on seaweed, one of the main ingredients of dashi, and through evaporation, isolated a specific compound that amplified the meaty flavor that we now refer to as umami, or the fifth taste.

Once Kikunae could get this natural substance into a crystalized form, he had no trouble getting it to market and selling it widely as a convenient flavor enhancer. Fast-forward decades, to one letter to the editor by a doctor (Chinese-American, no less) in 1968 to a scientific journal commenting on adverse physical reactions he experienced after eating Chinese food, and things changed quickly. This led to a deluge of public interest and reader reports of wide-ranging supposed aftereffects.

Facing the brunt of this “Asian spice” backlash, the recently popularized Chinese takeout restaurants faced a major stumbling block. The scientific community, however, barely even gives credence to the possibility that there are allergies to the product and has coalesced around the idea that there is no concern for the general consumer.

The FDA says the organization “considers the addition of MSG to foods to be ‘generally recognized as safe’ (GRAS). Although many people identify themselves as sensitive to MSG, in studies with such individuals given MSG or a placebo, scientists have not been able to consistently trigger reactions.”

So is there cause for concern? If you’re one of the people who identifies as having a specific reaction to MSG and other natural, chemically identical glutamates (found in ingredients like soy sauce and mushrooms), then by all means take precautions while dining in Shanghai. However, know that it will be hard to avoid completely (especially as soy sauce is a very common ingredient in Chinese cuisine), and customizing dishes while ordering in China is practically unheard of and rarely heeded. (If you still want to try to put in a request while dining out, try this phrase, which translates to “Please don’t use MSG, I have an allergy”: 请不要用味精,我对有过味精敏, Qǐng bùyào yòng wèijīng, wǒ duì wèijīng yǒu guòmǐn.)

For the general public, who have probably been consuming MSG in Doritos, Cheetos, ranch dressing and canned soups (we’re only judging a little bit), you’ll have nothing to worry about when dining out in Shanghai – many stores unabashedly use MSG, and others do not, but it isn’t ever used in quantities that would warrant concern. In case you’re wondering how locals feel about it, the literal translation for MSG is “the essence of taste.”

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Published on October 15, 2015

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