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

food and drinks

March 9, 2023 | 18:35

It’s a busy night at Bonnie’s, Brooklyn’s viral Cantonese restaurant, and the bartender is mixing a martini—with a completely different twist.

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

Including, apparently, the martinis, which taste more like a chilled miso broth than your usual vodka-liquor combo.

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

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

Bonnie’s in Williamsburg isn’t shy about using MSG in everything from entrees to cocktails.
Stefano Giovannini for the NY Post
MSG lends Bonnie’s martini an umami kick.
Eng is known for his playful take on the McRib sandwich.

Anti-MSG sentiment, widely believed to have xenophobic origins, dates back to the late 1960s, when reports of diners reacting badly after consuming food containing the widely misunderstood ingredient gave rise to some, which is called Chinese restaurant syndrome. And while an article describing the so-called disease in a prominent medical journal at the time was later reported to be a hoax, MSG’s reputation has suffered since.

Lately, though, the much-maligned additive is having a moment, as chefs like Eng say enough is enough, giving the once-secret ingredient its upcoming party.

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

“It’s also an opportunity to educate people that MSG isn’t bad for you—it’s literally a naturally occurring thing 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 the NY Post
Cacio e pepe at Bonnie’s gets an extra kick from fu yu (fermented bean curd) along with the traditional pecorino and black pepper.
Eng has become something of a hype man for the use of MSG in cooking.
Alex Lau

The evangelical Eng hawks MSG-embossed shirts and proudly calls out the ingredient on his menu.

“I think it all makes a bigger difference,” he says. “It’s very rewarding to know today people who are more into using it and are comfortable with it. It’s part of many people’s pantry.”

Lunar, a Brooklyn-based hard seltzer company that leaves MSG in its canned libations, is just as happy to see the tide turn.

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

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

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

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

Because of the lingering anxiety about the amino additive, he says, he sometimes wants to tread lightly for customers.

“I’m going to call it Magic Seasoning Granulate because it’s really part of the magic of cooking,” he said. “Sometimes you need to break the ice with people.”

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

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

“What they’re saying is you love our food and we use MSG. That helps change things. I’m glad they’ve been so vocal about this,” 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 debunk MSG myths “one of the best things I’ve ever done. ”

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

While the chefs are leading the way, 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 worrisome reactions—including headaches and tingling sensations—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
a few hours of consuming foods that contain MSG, something happens that definitely cannot be ignored,” said Dr. Gill Hart, a food intolerance expert at sensitivity testing company YorkTest, told The Post.

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

However, Hart admitted that the research is ongoing.

“New evidence has shown that dietary levels of MSG are actually broken down in the gut and do not cross the blood-brain barrier, meaning it may be difficult for researchers to link MSG consumption to (any) symptoms,” she said.

And how does Eng react when someone balks at including MSG in their food and drink?

“We rarely have 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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