American Restaurant Syndrome?

MSG Symptom Complex

For years MSG Symptom Complex has been known in the US by the misnomer Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.  We do not use that term anywhere on this site, except this page.  The reason is quite simple.  Calling this health problem Chinese Restaurant Syndrome not only does a disservice to Chinese Restaurant owners who do not add MSG, but it also dangerously hides the fact that American processed food is now so loaded with the flavor enhancer Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) as to be the largest source of MSG in the average American diet. Most Americans, when told MSG is harmful respond with "I don't eat Chinese food, so  I don't need to worry". 

However, Consider this:

American Diet Syndrome

FRIED CHICKEN - What could be more American than Fried Chicken? Chick-fil-A sandwiches have MSG added and KFC chicken actually contains so much MSG that in one country at least, KFC exceeded the legal limit for adding MSG to chicken.  

The absolute worst offender listed on our Foods to Avoid page is KFC.  The following KFC menu items all contain MSG:
   Roasted Ceasar Salad (WITHOUT dressing and croutons)
    Crispy Ceasar Salad (WITHOUT dressing)
    Roasted BLT Salad (WITHOUT dressing)
    Crispy BLT Salad (WITHOUT dressing
    Hidden Valley - The Original Fat Free Ranch Dressing
    KFC Creamy Parmesan Ceasar Dressing - contains parmesan cheese - very high in MSG naturally
    KFC Garlic Parmesan Croutons Pouch - contains parmesan cheese - very high in MSG naturally
    KFC Famous Bowls - Mashed Potatoes with Gravy
    Gravy
    KFC Famous Bowls - Rice with Gravy
    Rice
    Seasoned Rice
    KFC Snacker - Chicken
    KFC Snacker - Honey BBQ
    Honey BBQ Sandwich
    Double Crunch Sandwich
    Crispy Twister
    Oven Roasted Twister
    Oven Roasted Twister (WITHOUT sauce)
    Tender Roast Sandwich   
    Tender Roast Sandwich(WITHOUT sauce)
    Original Recipe Chicken  (its in the marinade - it's literally soaked in MSG and salt)
    Extra Crispy - MSG is in both the marinade AND the breading
    Colonel's Crispy Strips
    Popcorn Chicken
    Chicken Pot Pie
    Boneless HBBQ Wings
    Boneless Fiery Buffalo Wings
    Sweet and Spicy Boneless Wings
    Hot Wings
    Green Beans (yeah, this shocked us too)
    Mashed Potatoes with Gravy
    Potato Wedges


The Second Worst offender is Burger King.  The following menu items from Burger King have MSG added:
    Breaded Chicken Patty
    Spicy Chicken Patty
    Breaded Tendercrisp Chicken
    Chicken Tenders
    BK Chicken Fries
    Garden Veggie Patty - contains hydrolyzed corn, soy and wheat - which contains free glutamate
    Sausage Patty
    Ranch dipping sauce
    Ken's Fat Free Ranch Dressing

Based on the way MSG is used by the American fast food industry, the following tips may be helpful for those wishing to avoid MSG when they must eat at an American restaurant:

    AVOID all CHICKEN items
    AVOID all SAUSAGE items
    AVOID all PARMESAN products
    AVOID all Ranch dressings - stick to oil and vinegar Italian
    AVOID Croutons
    AVOID KFC altogether - we're not kidding
    AVOID Dipping Sauces
    AVOID Gravy
    AVOID Soups - as they often come from an MSG-containing soup base
  
The following very American snacks and foods also have MSG added in large amounts:

FLAVORED SNACK CHIPS - Most flavored potato chips and snack chips contain MSG.  Doritos, a very popular food among American teens, has at least four sources of free glutamate - the business end of MSG. 
CANNED AND INSTANT SOUP - Lipton, Knorr, Progresso and ramen noodle, and boullion cube manufacturers put MSG in their products.  Products most Americans have been raised on, and not a few American office workers have stashed in their desk for those overtime evenings when a home cooked meal is out of the question, and foods poor college students practically live on.
CANNED TUNA - Most brands of canned tuna in the US have "broth" added or hydrolyzed vegetable protein added, which can contain up to 20% free glutamate.   Manufacturers add this to hide any off flavors.
FRESH TURKEY - Many "self-basting" fresh turkeys and chickens sold in US supermarkets have solutions injected into them - solutions that contain free glutamate.

This is only a few of the products that have MSG added to them - products most Americans are unaware have MSG added to them. 

Difference Between Chinese and American Restaurants

Chinese food, for the most part consists of fresh vegetables quickly cooked.  MSG is added at the end as a condiment.  It can be NOT added at the consumers request.   Most Chinese Restaurant owners also know what else on the menu contains natural MSG - soy sauce for instance is naturally loaded with free glutamate.  Wait staff at a Chinese restaurant will often steer the MSG sensitive patron away from dishes containing soy sauce as well as MSG. At Asian restaurants, they know what is in the food because they put it there.

Most American restaurants today purchase their foods from large US food companies that have what are called  "Food Service" divisions.  In American restaurants, most wait staff and often the cooks don't know what is in the food, because the soup base probably came from a can, those cute little jalapeno poppers came from a brightly colored bag in the freezer, and very little is actually "fresh".   And, unfortunately, most American food scientists use the fact that soy sauce, and hydrolyzed vegetable protein naturally contains free glutamate to give their free glutamate containing products what is called "a clean label".  So even cooks and wait staff don't even know what they are reading on the labels.  The people who create the foods supplied to American restaurants have absolutely no compunction about hoping you don't know that MSG is in your food when you are consciously trying to avoid it. 

Who Started It?

The truth is, the country where MSG was first isolated (in 1908) and used was Japan.   A Japanese company called Ajinomoto - only recently found guilty of price-fixing MSG on the world market, is today the prime maker of MSG.  Japan is also where taurine and CoQ10 are now used to treat heart disease, and ginger and taurine-rich sushi are eaten alongside MSG sprinkled food.  These foods have protective effects against an MSG reaction.  However, even the Japanese have found recently that MSG fed to mice can lead to blindness.  The Japanese are concerned about the health affects of MSG.   Should we not be also?

Then Why Chinese Restaurant Syndrome?

The reason MSG may have been associated with Chinese food, and not Japanese food, may be the protective effects of raw fish and fresh ginger in Japanese cuisine mentioned above, but also that taurine is found mostly in animal products, and that Chinese food is often low in meat.  Also, taurine is destroyed by high heat, and foods are often cooked at high temperatures in Chinese stir frying.

It is interesting to note the joke that after eating MSG in foods at a Chinese restaurant "you are hungry an hour later", may have some merit.  The glutamate in MSG acts as an insulin trigger.  This will definitely give you a hunger response about an hour and a half later.  This fact has not been lost on American food manufacturers.  They know the value of an addictive food ingredient. If they keep you hungry for more, they have succeeded. 

MSG-free Tips on Eating at Asian Restaurants

We don't want to discourage anyone from the pleasures of eating Asian cuisine.  MSG is actually easier to avoid in an Asian restaurant, than in an American one. 

  • Ask for NO MSG in your food.

  • Avoid soy sauce

  • Avoid soups, and sauces

  • Instead of a sushi roll ask for sashimi - no seaweed

  • NO SEA TANGLE, NO FISH EXTRACT, NO SEAFOOD EXTRACT - these can make an MSG sensitive person very ill.  Even Whole Foods adds Tangle extract to their sushi.

  • Make sure no MSG or seafood extracts were added to the rice if you order Chirashi

  • Use vinegar and wasabi instead of soy sauce to dip your sashimi

  • Think fresh - ask for a quick MSG-free stir fry of fresh vegetables, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, unmarinated meat, plain noodles, fresh ginger, plain sesame oil.

  • Avoid dishes that look too mixed together and marinated.

  • Avoid saki - sometimes MSG is added to warmed saki to remove the bitterness. In fact, go easy on alcohol altogether - your liver is needed in good condition if you should have an MSG reaction

  • Avoid those little crunchy appetizers - they often contain MSG.

  • Green tea is a good idea to drink with your meal. 

  • Avoid sauces and dishes like Egg Foo Yung which consist of sauces likely to contain MSG

  • At Dim Sum restaurants, avoid the sauces they deliver on the side, and choose foods not sauced already.

  • Most Asian restaurants serve very simple desserts which often consist of fresh fruit - usually oranges.  It is a good idea to eat this, as Vitamin C helps mitigate any MSG reaction.

  • Korean food is interesting as there are safer dishes like those served in very hot bowls, where rice, raw vegetables, and raw egg are added to the bowl, and it cooks right in front of you at the table.  Sauce is suppied on the side, but you don't need to use it.

  • In Korean restaurants steer clear of the Kim Chee, the red pickled cabbage - it often contains MSG. 

  • Try Thai food - there are many soy-free choices - it has fresh bright flavors - but also ask for NO MSG.  Thai sauces which are creamy are usually made from coconut milk, an interesting flavor.

  • Vietnamese food - vietnamese food is also interesting to try, in some dishes, star anise gives this cuisine the exotic flavor of licorice.  Again, ask for NO MSG.

  • Do not drink any aspartame diet drinks with your meal.  Aspartame is just as bad for you as MSG. Aspartame and MSG have a synergistic effect.

  • So - basic rules of thumb-
    Always ask for NO MSG
    NO TANGLE, FISH, OR SEAFOOD EXTRACT

    Think fresh - avoid marinaded foods
    No dipping sauce
    Eat your fruit, drink your green tea, eat fresh ginger
    No soy sauce, limit alcohol, avoid diet drinks- especially with aspartame

CONCLUSION

Asian cuisine should be treasured and enjoyed for the fresh vegetables, and fresh fish it contains.  MSG is considered an avoidable condiment in Asian cooking, not the main attraction. In fact, our favorite restaurants to eat at are Asian because most foods are served with sauces on the side and many restaurants now offer NO MSG in anything.  So, if you skip the soy sauce and talk to the staff ahead of time about your concerns, you can usually have a wonderful, fresh meal, without getting ill.  In American Restaurants often MSG is added because the other ingredients may be inferior or already processed, or out of a can, or not as fresh as you'd like.   Often, if the restaurant is a chain, like McDonalds, or KFC, the food is often precooked or prepared at a different location first.  (Recently, McDonalds admitted that its french fries are precooked elsewhere with a "seasoning" .)  Because of this MSG Symptom Complex could just as easily be called American Diet Syndrome.

Unfortunately, Americans are not looking for MSG in the most important place they should be: American food.  That is why we DON'T call MSG Symptom Complex - Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.  

 

 

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