Is MSG bad for you? Chefs and experts don’t always agree

Food & Beverage

March 9, 2023 | 18:35

It’s a brisk night at Bonnie’s, Brooklyn’s men’s Cantonese restaurant, and the bartender is mixing a martini — with a very different kind of twist.

“Almost everything on the menu has MSG in it,” Bonnie’s featured chef and owner Calvin Eng enthuses.

Including, apparently, the martinis, which are more like chilled miso broth than your usual vodka-brine combo.

Eng, a breakout star showered with accolades from both local and national food circles, has become something of a go-getter for Monosodium Glutamate, the lower-sodium salt and flavor that imparts an umami kick to everything it touches.

Found in all-American favorites like Campbell’s Chicken Noodle, Chick-Fil-A seasoning and even snack staple Doritos, for some reason chefs—Asian chefs in particular—have been forced to spend decades defending their use of the cooking staple.

Bonnie’s in Williamsburg isn’t afraid to use MSG in everything from main dishes to cocktails.
Stefano Giovannini for NY Post
MSG lends the martini at Bonnie’s umami kick.
Eng is known for his playful take on the McRib sandwich.

Anti-MSG sentiment, widely considered to be xenophobic in origin, dates back to the late 1960s, when reports of diners reacting badly after consuming foods containing the much-misunderstood ingredient led to something called Chinese restaurant syndrome. And while an article detailing the so-called disease in a prominent medical journal at the time was later reported as a hoax, MSG’s reputation has suffered ever since.

Recently, however, the much-maligned additive is having a moment when chefs like Eng are saying enough is enough, giving the once-secret ingredient its coming-out party.

“A big part of our mission from the beginning has been to educate our guests about what Cantonese food is and what it can be,” Eng told The Post.

“That’s also an opportunity to educate people that MSG is not bad for you — it’s literally naturally occurring in most foods you eat.”

Diners at Bonnie’s on a recent evening. The restaurant has received accolades from both local and national press.
Stefano Giovannini for NY Post
Cacio e pepe at Bonnie’s gets an extra kick from fu yu (fermented bean), along with the traditional pecorino and black pepper.
Eng has become something of a bully for the use of MSG in cooking.
Alex Lau

The evangelical Eng hawks MSG-emblazoned shirts and proudly shouts the ingredient on its menu.

“I think everything makes a bigger difference,” he says. “It’s very rewarding to know people today who are more willing to use it and comfortable with it. It’s part of a lot of people’s pantries.”

Lunar, a Brooklyn-based hard seltzer company that hawks MSG in its cans, is just as pleased to see the tide turn.

“Calvin’s approach with Bonnie really encapsulates what Cantonese-American cuisine’s place on the table looks like,” says Luna founder Kevin Wong. “It’s a shame that a myth with racist origins from decades ago is still circulating, preventing people from experiencing truly wonderful cuisine.”

Kevin Wong, founder of Lunar, a Brooklyn-based hard seltzer maker that uses MSG in its recipes, is encouraged by the change in perception.

Chris Cheung, owner of popular Brooklyn restaurant East Wind Snack Shop, says he’s “reprimanded” for using it in his food — not that he’s phased.

“As a chef, I see it as a wonderful cooking ingredient that enhances many flavors and is integral to many dishes,” he told The Post.

Because of the ongoing anxiety surrounding the amino supplement, he says, he will sometimes slow down for clients.

“I’ll call it Magic Spice Granules, because it really is part of the magic of cooking,” he said. “Sometimes you have to break the ice with people.”

Chef Chris Cheung at Brooklyn’s East Wind Snack Shop says that sometimes taking the softer approach with anxious customers can lead to success.
Leslie Brienza

“A lot of Asian chefs have been using MSG in their cooking quietly because there’s this stigma,” says Dan Q. Dao, founder of the food consulting agency District One. He’s glad to see popular restaurants like Bonnie don’t hesitate to face the problem head-on.

“What they’re saying is you love our food and we use MSG. It helps change things. I’m glad they talked about it so much,” he said.

The modern pro-MSG movement can be traced back to Momofuku mastermind David Chang, long a vocal proponent of the additive, who has called his efforts to help debunk MSG myths “one of the best things I’ve ever done.”

Momofuku’s David Chang, pictured here in 2009, was an early champion of MSG use in modern cooking.
Bloomberg via Getty Images

While the chefs charge forward, the medical community continues to take a more conservative approach.

The Mayo Clinic says that while MSG is “generally recognized as safe,” they warn that “the FDA has received many reports of concerning reactions — including headaches and tingling — from people attributed to foods that had MSG in them.”

“For at least 1% of the population, MSG sensitivity is very real, so if you feel sick within
a few hours of consuming foods containing MSG, then something happens that certainly cannot be ignored,” Dr. Gill Hart, a food tolerance expert at the sensitivity company YorkTest, told The Post.

The medical community has a more conservative view of MSG use, but acknowledges that research is ongoing.
Getty Images/iStockphoto
Chick-Fil-A said that “MSG is present in some of our menu offerings as a flavor enhancer.”
Stefano Giovannini

Hart admitted, however, that the research is ongoing.

“New evidence has shown that dietary levels of MSG actually break down in the gut and do not cross the blood-brain barrier, which means it may be difficult for scientists to link MSG intake to (any) symptoms,” she said.

And how does Eng react when someone rejects the inclusion of MSG in their food and drink?

“We rarely got those guests,” he says. “But they definitely exist and come here and there. It’s an opportunity for us to hit them with the facts.”

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