Clean eating may have its benefits—like added vitamins and minerals, or an energy or mood boost—but who gets to decide which ingredients are “clean”? That’s the question activist and comedian Jenny Yang is tackling in her recently launched #DinnerWithGoop campaign.
Yang, along with global food and amino acids manufacturer Ajinomoto, has publicly invited Goop, the lifestyle platform helmed by actress Gwyneth Paltrow that regularly espouses so-called “clean eating,” to an intimate dinner. On the menu? A multi-course feast featuring monosodium glutamate, better known as MSG, from soup to nuts—or rather, from MSG-infused cucumber cocktails to MSG-laced savory dumplings. Yang’s goal is to get Paltrow’s brand to reexamine some of its stances on MSG, an ingredient commonly found in Chinese cuisine.
Currently, the platform tends to treat MSG as something to be eliminated in order to live one’s best, dewiest life. For example, one post promoting a product called “Clean Cleanse” rattles off various “chemicals” that harm the body, including insecticides, fertilizers, lead, arsenic, and, further down the list, MSG. The cleanse, of course, helps to prevent the inevitable damage from those “recirculating toxins.” Paltrow, who penned the post’s intro, shares in the opening blurb that she just completed the 21-day cleanse (which sells for $485) and reported that “it worked wonders.”
The message is subtle but clear: MSG is better avoided and dispelled than enjoyed.
“#DinnerwithGoop is an attempt to engage in conversation with them,” Yang told me over the phone. “They're so influential. It would be powerful to be able to say, ‘This is a thing that you should be aware of if you care about stopping Asian hate.’ Anti-takeout food, anti-Chinese food—it's all kind of connected in our collective stereotypical brains.”
The history of anti-MSG sentiment dates back to 1968, when Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok published a letter to the editor in The New England Journal of Medicine. Dr. Kwok, who was a Chinese immigrant living in the U.S., claimed that eating Chinese American restaurant food caused him to develop an ephemeral numbness in his neck, back, and arms. Dr. Kwok hypothesized that MSG might be to blame.
Following the publication of the letter, additional voices chimed in, also alleging symptoms, including dizziness and headaches. The New York Times covered the murky issue in a story entitled, “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome' Puzzles Doctors.” As the article notes, restaurant owners at the time were highly skeptical. Robert Kuan, proprietor of a Chinese restaurant on Mott Street in New York City, told the Times, “The only headaches I get are from running this place and paying taxes.”
Still, the attitudes surrounding MSG and “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” had legs. They linger today, even though the FDA recognizes MSG as safe. Per the administration’s website: “Although many people identify themselves as sensitive to MSG, in studies with such individuals given MSG or a placebo, scientists have not been able to consistently trigger reactions.”
Yang, who was born in Taipei and regularly traveled there even after moving to California when she was five years old, has fond memories of her Taiwanese family’s cooking. Food was a means for her to bond with her family, especially the women. “I can remember watching them cook and talking about cooking in a very specific way. It's not even an obsession, it’s just a part of our culture,” said Yang.
Many of her grandma’s treasured recipes (none of which were written down, Yang notes with a laugh) fully embraced MSG. Her grandma’s red-braised pork belly strikes a particularly poignant note in her mind’s eye. “I will never forget how good it was—every other delicious red-braised pork belly dish will never compete with the memory I have of my grandmother’s. It probably had more fat than anyone else’s. Maybe it was the MSG, too.”
Blacklisting a specific food or ingredient may seem objective, but to Yang, it’s deeply personal. Though she still speaks Mandarin, she thinks that “for a lot of immigrant kids, when language fails, food is our only link to our culture.”
Excluding MSG from the boundaries of “clean” eating can feel like an attack. “It's upsetting to me, as someone who cares about my body and body positivity and not shaming each other for what we eat and how we live our lives.” What’s more, says Yang, to call a particular way of eating “clean” presumes other ways are considered “dirty.” It’s important to be cognizant of which foods carry the latter label—and why.
Similar to how the introduction of umami into the modern (English) lexicon in the late 1970s changed the way people thought about flavor, Yang wants to usher in another shift in food culture—a watershed moment in which MSG is no longer demonized.
So far, Goop hasn’t RSVP’d to the dinner invitation. But the brand hasn’t declined either. Yang, who is currently filming The Brothers Sun series for Netflix, is hopeful.
“It would be really cool if they would step up and be like, ‘This is important to us. We got it wrong.’ Let's, like, have a conversation. Let's do it over good food.”