Kentucky Fried Chicken seasoning's 'secret ingredient' causes social media outrage

MSG is a common savory flavor enhancer. It is found naturally in tomatoes and cheese. It is recognized as safe by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and is not banned anywhere in Europe.  

An illuminated sign stands atop a KFC outlet in the Sydney suburb of Villawood April 27, 2012 (photo credit: REUTERS/TIM WIMBORNE)
An illuminated sign stands atop a KFC outlet in the Sydney suburb of Villawood April 27, 2012
(photo credit: REUTERS/TIM WIMBORNE)

Earlier this month, a woman from New Zealand discovered that Kentucky Fried Chicken's (KFC) famous seasoning contains monosodium glutamate (MSG). She posted her discovery on social media, sparking outrage. She herself claimed to be under the impression that MSG was "banned."

The New Zealand woman referred to MSG as "salt on crack." Other social media users responded similarly, roundly denouncing the use of MSG and attributing their "feeling sick" after eating KFC to the controversial flavor enhancer. 

MSG is a common savory flavor enhancer. It is found naturally in tomatoes and cheese. It is recognized as safe by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and is not banned anywhere in Europe.  

"Human studies failed to confirm an involvement of MSG in “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” or other idiosyncratic intolerance.

Ronald Walker, John R. Lupien, The Safety Evaluation of Monosodium Glutamate, The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 130, Issue 4, April 2000.

KFC has been open about its use of MSG for several years. 

Sweet and Sour Pork, a staple of Chinese food (credit: VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)Sweet and Sour Pork, a staple of Chinese food (credit: VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

"Chinese Restaurant Syndrome"

The controversy surrounding MSG can be traced back to a letter sent to the New England Journal of Medicine in 1968 by a Dr. Ho Man Kwok. According to a 2019 episode of NPR's This American Life, the letter read:

"For several years since I have been in this country, I have experienced a strange syndrome whenever I have eaten out in a Chinese restaurant. The syndrome, which usually begins 15 to 20 minutes after I've eaten the first dish, last for about two hours without any hangover effect. The most prominent symptoms are numbness at the back of the neck..."

The letter goes on to list his symptoms and posits possible causes. The line that would eventually cause the most drama was:   

"...it may be caused by the monosodium glutamate seasoning used to a great extent for seasoning in Chinese restaurants."

Racism and debunking

As a result of this letter, the term "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome" was coined and a new brand of racism was born - culinary. People became comfortable attributing their subsequent experiences of bloat or heartburn to the Asian-ness of their food.

A case of diagnosed "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome" was even reported in India in 2017, according to the US National Library of Medicine. The term is now considered by most, including the Merriam-Webster dictionary, to be outdated or offensive. 

A study published in 2000 by the Oxford Academic's peer-reviewed Journal of Nutrition concluded that "human studies failed to confirm an involvement of MSG in “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” or other idiosyncratic intolerance."

Furthermore, any issues in the hypothalamus, which is in charge of the body's autonomic nervous system, were discounted.

The study specifically stated that "Blood levels of glutamate associated with lesions of the hypothalamus in the neonatal mouse were not approached in humans even after bolus doses of 10 g MSG in drinking water."

The recent revelation made by the New Zealander about KFC's food made its rounds on social media, particularly Facebook. Those looking to uncover the exact 'herbs and spices' used by Colonel Sanders are one step closer than they were last month — provided that none of their previous endeavors involved Google. Otherwise, they are back where they started.