Chinese Restaurant Syndrome!!

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?

The Tests

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.


MSG YouTube



Mayo Clinic

Truth in Labeling


Study Outlined on Science Direct

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4 thoughts on “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome!!

  1. Daniella Cappello

    I enjoyed this blog because I noticed that every time I eat Chinese food I need to down a bottle of water afterward to prevent a headache. I’ve never doubted that this is definitely from the sodium and MSG. I too now order strictly off of the “no msg” menu! As this still undergoes research I agree that it is best to just stay away if your body becomes bothered.

  2. Devon Buono

    My favorite carryout food has to be Chinese. It is literally my favorite. I do not believe that I have every experienced any of the symptoms you described though. I decided to look up more experiments done on MSG, in an effort to come to a collective agreement. I found a study which came to the conclusion that MSG does in fact cause discomfort. It was conducted as a double-blind, placebo trial. In the experiment, those who consumed MSG experienced headaches, weakness, and muscle tenseness more often than those who received the placebo. ( Even though they have not found a mechanism, the results were most likely not due to chance. The study was conducted in a manner in which third confounding variables were limited, and the results produced a relatively low P value. I am glad I read this post, because I had never heard of this syndrome before. I really hope the results we found are not true, but I do fear the worse. Great job on this post!!

  3. rvm5523

    I’ve never really been a fan of Chinese food and I never really knew why but I think I found an answer. Every time I eat Chinese food I tend to get the same experience you described in the beginning of the post when you and your brother experienced headaches and other side effects. That chemical, MSG, after doing some more research is like you said in plenty of food items especially Chinese food and proves to have unsettling aftermath with plenty of people who consume it. The website wrote an article explaining why the additive should be illegal and I thought I’d put in the link. Here is is, Thanks for the article!

  4. Marielle Concetta Ravally

    I sympathize with you and your brother’s story. In fact, my family (avid Chinese food fans) have actually stopped ordering takeout Chinese food from our favorite restaurant precisely because of “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”. We might have not known that this was actually a noted phenomenon, we all noticed an increase in lethargy and increased discomfort due to bloating and headaches after consuming Chinese food. Now if we order out, I specifically order off the non-MSG menu. Now instead of having eater’s remorse after the meal, I can actually enjoy my meal during and after consumption. Though your story as well as my own is purely anecdotal, I think the trending nature of this subject makes it worthwhile to study further.
    This Washington Post article I came across, goes against our theories. It claims that the small amount of MSG that we consume isn’t enough to have detrimental effects on our health.

    I would be interested to know the actual truth. Your post got me thinking. Thank you for posting!

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