New Campaign Aims to Revise “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary

updated Jan 16, 2020
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Racism shows up in the food industry in a thousand different ways: in whose food is allowed to command premium prices, whose food is considered “ethnic,” and whose food people think made them sick. But few myths about food have been so pervasive, so entrenched, and so fully proven to be completely false as the idea that MSG in Chinese food makes people ill. What’s worse, the terrible name given that non-existent phenomenon, “Chinese restaurant syndrome”, has somehow managed to hold its spot in the dictionary without caveat for almost 30 years. Now, reports The New York Times, the world’s largest MSG producer Ajinomoto has teamed up with a few celebrities to try to change that.

In the Merriam-Webster Dictionary — the same one whose tweets mocking Trump for making up words have gone viral — “Chinese restaurant syndrome” remains defined as “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.” The campaign, backed by Ajinomoto, aims to have Merriam-Webster “#RedefineCRS,” noting that “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome isn’t just scientifically false — it’s xenophobic.”

The term stems from a letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1968 that states the writer, supposedly a Chinese-American physician named Robert Ho Man Kwok, had experienced strange physical symptoms after eating at Chinese restaurants in the U.S. The author of letter was actually Dr. Howard Steel, and the whole thing was meant to be a joke. But he had opened Pandora’s box: replies poured in from around the country from people saying they felt ill after eating at MSG-laden Chinese restaurants.

No study using scientific methods has ever proven the ill-effects of MSG, and it’s prevalent in all types of food, including, as celebrity chef and media personality David Chang pointed out on Twitter, the beloved fried chicken sandwiches at Chik-fil-A and Popeye’s. Chang has long fought against the MSG stigma, including on his PBS show Mind of a Chef. Now, he’s joined by comedian and Restaurateur Eddie Huang and television personality Jeannie Mai who are a paid part of the #RedefineCRS campaign. 

The campaign doesn’t propose that the word be removed from the dictionary, simply that it gets a new definition: “an outdated term that falsely blamed Chinese food containing MSG, or monosodium glutamate, for a group of symptoms (such as headaches, dizziness, and heart palpitations).” As the New York Times piece points out, Chinese restaurant syndrome, like sports teams named for mascots, is “a relic of historic prejudice.”