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Should "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome" be Redefined?

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In 1993, Merriam-Webster defined what is known as "Chinese restaurant syndrome" as "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." The resulting culinary culture phenomenon found MSG removed from countless food items, and the fear around the initialism was the source of much health-related panic.

The tricky part of the 'syndrome' is that nobody is sure that it exists. It's possible that the symptoms are caused by an abundance of sodium, and it's also possible that it's confirmation bias making people sick. However, as the new campaign #RedefineCRS notes, another problem is in the naming of the condition. MSG isn't specific to Chinese food, and in fact is found in countless common food items, and can be used in any restaurant, Chinese or otherwise. This, they claim, is an unfair description of a condition that is murky at best, attaching it to a particular culture, which could be harmful by way stereotyping Chinese food, and by extension, Chinese people.

Can the definition just be removed? No, says Emily Brewster, senior editor at Merriam-Webster, who told the New York Times that "Merriam-Webster deletes an entry only when the term is no longer in use." It is possible, however, to change the definition to mark an offensive term or racial slur. #RedefineCRS is working to ensure that the definition is changed to accurately reflect what CRS actually is: an unfounded claim that has attached a stigma to Chinese culture.

Photo: Pixabay