Chinese restaurant syndrome (noun)

  • a group of symptoms (such as numbness of the neck, arms, and back with headache, dizziness, and palpitations) that is held to affect susceptible persons eating food and especially Chinese food heavily seasoned with monosodium glutamate

Merriam-Webster says they’re reviewing a term in their dictionary following a social media campaign to redefine it, calling it outdated and racist. 

Chinese restaurant syndrome was first used as a term in 1968, according to Merriam-Webster. Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok, a Chinese immigrant, used the term in the New England Journal of Medicine complaining about the symptoms he experienced when eating at "certain Chinese food restaurants.” 

These included numbness, general weakness and palpitation, symptoms he did not experience when eating Chinese food in other situations. He speculated a few different reasons for this, and named monosodium glutamate, or MSG, as one. 

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Since then, studies have tried and failed to establish any connection between those symptoms and MSG, and the Food and Drug Administration considers foods with MSG added safe to eat. But the damage had been done, and Chinese restaurants were associated with heavy use of MSG and, by extension, Chinese restaurant syndrome. 

Now, a Japanese food and biotechnology corporation is sponsoring a campaign asking Merriam-Webster to redefine the term, saying the definition has been scientifically disproven and is racist. 

Using the hashtag "RedefineCRS," the company is encouraging people to tweet at the dictionary publisher asking them to redefine the term as "an outdated term that falsely blamed Chinese food containing MSG, or monosodium glutamate, for a group of symptoms (such as headaches, dizziness, and heart palpitations)."

Restaurateur Eddie Huang and Jeannie Mai, a talk show host and stylist, are working with the campaign, posting on their own social media accounts and filming videos to raise awareness of the term. 

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“For me, it’s another thing to point to other people and say ‘Look, if you think racism toward Asians doesn’t exist in this country, like here it is,'” Huang told ABC News. “I know how white people see us. ‘They’re cool, they’re acceptable, they’re non-threatening. But they’re weird, their food.'"

Neither of the two prominent Asian American celebrities knew that the term existed in the dictionary before the campaign. 

“The dictionary I thought was a reputable kind of Bible that was fact-checked all the way through in order to get us information,” Mai told ABC News. “'Chinese restaurant syndrome' is truly an outdated, super racist term.”

Merriam-Webster responded to Huang and Mai on Twitter on Jan. 14, saying they are reviewing the term and revising accordingly. 

“We’re constantly in the process of updating as usage and attitudes evolve, so we’re grateful when readers can point us toward a definition that needs attention,” the publishing company said on Twitter

Published on Jan 15, 2020