“Chinese restaurant syndrome” is in the dictionary, and its definition needs a refresh

Photo: fokusgood (iStock)

If you’ve never heard of “Chinese restaurant syndrome,” it’s a phrase coined in the 1960s to describe the feelings of drowsiness, dizziness, or numbness experienced by some people after eating Americanized Chinese food. For decades, the faulty logic was that MSG—an additive in much Chinese cooking—was to blame. In reality, MSG is present in all sorts of foods that we eat every day, and yet Chinese food was the only cuisine roundly condemned for its “harmful” effects and pressured to remove its MSG. Our modern understanding is that the alleged Chinese restaurant syndrome is merely the result of eating foods high in carbs, oils, and sodium; it’s not a phenomenon particular to Chinese cuisine. Xenophobia is likely what’s perpetuated the idea, because the science doesn’t support it.

Despite the term’s flawed logic, Merriam-Webster nevertheless has a dictionary entry for “Chinese restaurant syndrome,” since it’s a widely cited condition. According to The Associated Press, there’s now an effort on social media to make Merriam-Webster edit the definition.

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Chef and author Eddie Huang and TV personality Jeannie Mai are leading the charge with Japanese MSG producer Ajinomoto to #RedefineCRS, and they’re clear that the definition doesn’t need to be erased from the dictionary, just updated. “I actually think it’d be interesting if they just kept it and just noted this is an outdated, antiquated thing,” Huang said. “I do think these things are important to remember and point to.”

Reached for comment, Merriam-Webster senior editor Emily Brewster responded, “Our aim is always to provide accurate information about what words mean, which includes providing information about whether a use is offensive or dated. We’ll be reviewing this particular entry and will revise it according to the evidence of the term in use.”

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About the author

Marnie Shure

Marnie Shure is editor in chief of The Takeout.