What Is Chinese Restaurant Syndrome?
Chinese restaurant syndrome is an outdated term that was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.
What Is Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)?
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
What Are the Symptoms of Chinese Restaurant Syndrome?
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.
What Causes Chinese Restaurant Syndrome?
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.
How Is Chinese Restaurant Syndrome Diagnosed?
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.
How Is Chinese Restaurant Syndrome Treated?
Treatment may vary depending on the type of symptoms you’re
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.
Can I Still Eat Foods That Contain MSG?
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.