Does Chinese food cause headaches? When my brother and I were younger, I can vividly remember eating at one of my favorite Chinese restaurants at the local mall with the bright yellow sign. (This helped me create a rule of thumb: Don’t trust the restaurants with the neon yellow signs) It was a tiny little joint with all the food sitting there, warmed buffet style under a light, right in front of you. This seems to be the setup of most of the lower end ones. About an hour after chowing down our orange chicken and spring rolls, my brother would complain about a pretty nasty headache. It almost happened like clockwork; it was uncanny. Even if we ate at a similar restaurant this would happen to him. My mom made him stop, saying it was the MSG in the food causes the discomfort. I had not the slightest clue what that was, but it turns out she may have been on to something.
The Scoop on MSG
MSG or Monosodium Glutamate is a common food additive used to enhance flavor. Glutamate alone is found in many common foods like cheese and fish, however MSG is fermented or extracted sort of like the process used to make beer. Like my anecdotal story above, it is commonly used in Chinese food and many other processed and canned goods. MSG is not something new. It has been used since just after World War II after its flavor potential was discovered in Japan, then patented when the scientist realized it could be a hit. Through the 20th century, MSG has definitely been something discussed in regards to safety and how it affects those who consume it. Many scientists have done animal and placebo tests to attempt to uncover if indeed it is harmful. To date, the FDA only labels Monosodium Glutamate as generally recognized as safe. We should believe the FDA, right? Are these trials and anecdotal stories enough to show there may be something to worry about or is this all a hoax?
Chinese Restaurant Syndrome has been a term used since the 1960s referring to these supposed negative effects of MSG. This controversy has been a real question stirring experimentation with scientists then, and even still today as the controversy continues. There is also the people that merely think this syndrome is the power of suggestion which creates seemingly very real physical symptoms. Some of the anecdotal symptoms, like by my brother reported, were headache, sweating, chest/head numbness, and nausea. These symptoms are precisely what scientists were looking for while putting MSG to the test.
Two blind placebo studies were conducted. Scientists Morselli and Garatini used a sample of 24 people and fed broth to them every 20 minutes. The control group said they had no such symptoms while the participants who received MSG in their soup claimed they did. Keep in mind this would probably result in a relatively high p-value that this was due to chance because of the small study. However, also interestingly a scientist named Richard Kenney, MD, fed claimers of MSG sickness soda with MSG and soda with no MSG. They reacted the same way to both the drinks with and without the MSG. Other early experiments claimed that MSG made mice obese. They suspected a correlation between the Monosodium and damage to the brain resulting in the weight gain.
Just Stories or Real Danger?
These small and somewhat conflicting studies seem no more convincing than the anecdotal stories. The fact that the FDA has not done more extensive investigation or regulation of MSG probably hints it is a means of food sensitivity, rather than a real hazard to health. If MSG was actually dangerous I think we would know it by now considering it has been used in commercially sold foods for almost 75 years. If you seem to be experiencing some reaction to foods containing it, do yourself a favor and stay away from them. There is most likely something going on here even if it’s something minuscule. It is probable from the volume of small studies and stories that MSG correlates to some kind of discomfort and reaction in certain people. Luckily many restaurants specify if they do not have MSG (Panda Express at the HUB) to help all those suffering from Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.