Chinese restaurant syndrome is an outdated term that was first coined in the 1960s. It refers to a group of symptoms that some people experience after eating food from a Chinese restaurant. These symptoms often include a headache, skin flushing, and sweating. A food additive called monosodium glutamate (MSG) is often blamed for the symptoms some people experience after eating Chinese food. However, there’s minimal scientific evidence showing a link between MSG and these symptoms in humans.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers MSG to be a safe ingredient, and most people can eat foods that contain MSG without experiencing any problems. However, a small percentage of people have short-term adverse reactions to the food additive. Due to the controversy, many restaurants now advertise that they don’t add MSG to their foods.
MSG is a food additive that’s used to improve the taste of food. MSG has become an important additive for the food industry because it often allows the use of lower quality or less fresh ingredients without compromising reported flavor. MSG is similar to glutamate, a substance that’s found naturally in almost all foods. MSG is produced by the fermentation of molasses, starch, or sugar cane. This fermentation process is similar to process used to make wine and yogurt. The FDA categorizes MSG as a food additive that’s generally recognized as safe (GRAS). The FDA also categorizes salt and sugar as GRAS.
There’s controversy over the lack of oversight the FDA has in the introduction and use of additives by the food industry. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), many food additives declared as GRAS don’t go through rigorous testing for such a safety claim. Trans fats at one time were identified as GRAS until enough research forced the FDA to step in and change the classification. Aside from being used in some Chinese food, MSG is added to many processed foods, including hot dogs and potato chips. Since people identify themselves as sensitive to MSG, the FDA requires companies that add MSG to their foods to include the additive on the list of ingredients on the package label.
People may experience symptoms within two hours after eating foods that contain MSG. They can last anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days. Common symptoms include:
- skin flushing
- numbness or burning in the mouth
- numbness or burning in the throat
Less commonly, people experience severe, potentially life-threatening symptoms that are similar to those of allergic reactions. Severe symptoms may include:
- chest pain
- a rapid heartbeat
- an abnormal heartbeat
- difficulty breathing
- swelling in the face
- swelling in the throat
Minor symptoms don’t require treatment. You should go to an emergency room or call 911 right away if you experience severe symptoms.
MSG is thought to be linked to these symptoms, but it’s not proven. If you become ill after eating Chinese food or other foods that contain MSG, you may be sensitive to the food additive. It’s also possible to be sensitive to foods that naturally contain high amounts of glutamate.
Your doctor will evaluate your symptoms and dietary intake to determine whether you’re sensitive to foods containing MSG. If you’re experiencing severe symptoms, such as chest pain or difficulty breathing, your doctor may check your heart rate, perform an electrocardiogram to analyze your heart rhythm, and check your airway to see if it’s blocked.
Treatment may vary depending on the type of symptoms you’re experiencing.
Treatment for Common Symptoms
Mild symptoms usually don’t require treatment. Taking over-the-counter pain relievers may ease your headache. Drinking several glasses of water may help to flush the MSG out of your system and shorten the duration of your symptoms.
Treatment for Severe Symptoms
Your doctor may prescribe antihistamine medications to relieve any severe symptoms you may be experiencing, such as difficulty breathing, swelling of the throat, or a rapid heartbeat.
You should avoid foods that contain MSG if you have experienced severe symptoms from eating foods with MSG in the past. Read the list of ingredients on food packages and ask restaurant managers if they add MSG to their foods. Talk to your doctor or nutritionist about eating a special diet that eliminates foods that contain a lot of glutamate if you think you’re sensitive to foods that naturally contain high amounts of glutamate. Due to the high use of MSG in some Asian restaurants, you may need to avoid Asian restaurants that don’t identify the foods on their menu as being free of MSG.
If your symptoms were minor, you don’t necessarily have to stop eating the foods you enjoy. Ask your doctor if it’s safe for you to eat foods that contain MSG. You may be able to reduce your symptoms by eating only small amounts of foods that contain MSG.