The Truth About MSG and Chinese Restaurant Syndrome

Written by Rose Kivi | Published on July 18, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

Overview

Chinese restaurant syndrome describes a group of symptoms that some people experience after eating food from a Chinese restaurant. A food additive called monosodium glutamate (MSG) is often blamed for Chinese restaurant syndrome, but scientific evidence has not proven MSG to be the cause of the symptoms. However, there is not another scientifically proven explanation for the symptoms. Most people can eat foods that contain MSG without any problems. A small percentage of people have bad reactions to the food additive. Because of the controversy over MSG, many restaurants, Chinese and otherwise, now advertise that they do not add MSG to their foods.

What Is MSG?

MSG is a food additive that is used as a flavor enhancer to make foods taste better. MSG is similar to glutamate, a substance that is found naturally in almost all foods. MSG is derived from products such as molasses and corn. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) categorizes MSG as a GRAS (generally recognized as safe) food additive. Salt and sugar are also categorized as GRAS by the FDA. MSG is added to many processed foods, including some Chinese food, hot dogs, and potato chips.

What Causes Chinese Restaurant Syndrome?

The only known, yet unproven, link to Chinese restaurant syndrome is MSG. If you become ill after eating Chinese food or other foods that contain MSG, you may be sensitive to the food additive. It is also possible to be sensitive to foods that naturally contain high amounts of glutamate.

What Are the Symptoms of Chinese Restaurant Syndrome?

Symptoms of Chinese restaurant syndrome usually begin within two hours after eating foods that contain MSG. They can last anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days. Common symptoms that you may experience include:

  • headache
  • sweating
  • skin flushing
  • numbness or burning in your mouth or throat
  • nausea
  • fatigue

Less commonly, people experience severe, potentially life-threatening symptoms that are similar to those of allergic reactions after eating foods that contain MSG. Severe symptoms may include:

  • chest pain
  • rapid or abnormal heartbeat
  • difficulty breathing
  • swelling or pressure in your face
  • swelling in your throat

When to Get Medical Treatment

Minor symptoms do not require treatment. Severe symptoms require immediate medical treatment. If you experience severe symptoms, go to an emergency room or call 911 right away.

How Is Chinese Restaurant Syndrome Diagnosed?

Your doctor may diagnose Chinese restaurant syndrome by evaluating your symptoms and dietary intake. If you experience the symptoms shortly after eating foods that contained MSG, you could have Chinese restaurant syndrome. If you are experiencing severe symptoms such as chest pain or difficulty breathing, your doctor may perform the following tests:

  • check your heart rate
  • perform an electrocardiogram to analyze your heart rhythm
  • check your airway to see if it is blocked

How Is Chinese Restaurant Syndrome Treated?

Treatment for Common Symptoms

Chinese restaurant syndrome generally does not require treatment. Your symptoms will most likely go away on their own. Taking over-the-counter pain relievers may relieve headache symptoms. Drinking several glasses of water may help to flush the MSG out of your system. This flushing can shorten the duration of your symptoms.

Treatment for Severe Symptoms

If you experience severe symptoms that are potentially life threatening — such as difficulty breathing, swelling of the throat, or rapid or abnormal heartbeat — your doctor may prescribe antihistamine medications to relieve your symptoms.

Can I Still Eat Foods That Contain MSG if I Have Had Chinese Restaurant Syndrome? | Diet

If you experienced severe symptoms from Chinese restaurant syndrome in the past, you should avoid foods that contain MSG. Read the ingredient labels on food packages and ask restaurant managers if they add MSG to their foods. If you think you are sensitive to foods that naturally contain high amounts of glutamate, talk to your doctor or nutritionist about eating a special diet that eliminates foods that contain a lot of glutamate.

If your symptoms were only minor, you do not necessarily have to stop eating the foods you like. Ask your doctor if it is 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.

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Article Sources:

  • Chinese restaurant syndrome: MedlinePlus. (n.d.). National Library of Medicine - National Institutes of Health. Retrieved June 5, 2012, from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001126.htm
  • Food Ingredients and Colors. (n.d.). U.S. Food and Drug Administration Home Page. Retrieved June 5, 2012, from http://www.fda.gov/food/foodingredientspackaging/ucm094211.htm
  • Hodgson, A. S. (2001). Some facts about monosodium glutamate (MSG). Foods and Nutrition, FN-8, 1. Retrieved June 5, 2012, from http://www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/oc/freepubs/pdf/FN-8.pdf

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