Chinese Restaurant Syndrome


A few decades ago Americans who ate at Chinese restaurants started to notice an irritation occurred within an hour finishing their meals. A significant portion of the population experienced symptoms like drowsiness, tingling, and headaches. The large majority of these symptoms were benign, and went away after a while. The phenomena soon got the name Chinese Restaurant Syndrome and it was traced to MSG (monosodium glutamate), an ingredient many cooks added to Chinese dishes.

MSG is sometimes described as a “preservative” (which has pejorative overtones) and sometimes as a flavor enhancer. Like table salt, it is both, and food processors use is in the same way they use salt. MSG is found in many foods naturally, especially in seaweeds (sea vegetables?) used for flavoring in some traditional East Asian cuisines. It was first isolated by Japanese scientists about a hundred years ago, and Japanese companies today dominate the world market in MSG production.

Although the symptoms rarely were serious, paranoid consumers raised flags and many stopped eating MSG out of the belief that it is bad for you. Some restaurants even promoted themselves as MSG-free.

But here’s the thing about MSG: it’s harmless. Studies have consistently shown this. And it doesn’t cause Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. Studies have consistently shown that, too. So what’s the cause of the Syndrome? Is it mass psychosis?

The thinking now is that the culprit isn’t the MSG, but is a mold that grows with the MSG inside the big fermentation vessels used to make the MSG. The mold is present in very small quantities and hasn’t been identified, but it is so potent it causes symptoms. The mold explanation is reminiscent of ergot molds that grow on rye grain and are now suspected to be the cause of many of the witchcraft allegations in medieval Europe. The rye mold caused sensations that could be misinterpreted as attacks from demons, and the mold seemed to cause hallucinations in some people. Indeed, a headache medication made from ergot mold lists hallucinations as a possible side effect. Albert Hoffman was investigating ergot-derived chemicals for headache drugs when he invented the powerful hallucinogen LSD in the 1940s and the company he worked for today sells the ergot-derived migraine medication Migranal.

Terrell Davis had to sit out part of the first half of the 1998 Superbowl because of a migraine. He took Migranal and was able to perform so well in the second half he was named Most Valuable Player. In premodern times Scandinavian warriors would drink deer urine as part of a ritual preparation for battle. The deer had eaten fungus from the forest floor and the hallucinogenic compounds were excreted by the kidneys; these warriors were called Beserkers, from which we get the word “beserk”, and they acted wildly in battle. Perhaps Terrell Davis’s evasion of the Green Bay linebackers is a modern version of the same phenomenon.


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