MSG Report: Chili’s & Tony Roma’s

22 May

M… S… G. Ugh. Those three letters (together and in that order) strike fear in my stomach.

In fact, all the women in my family are allergic to MSG, AKA monosodium glutamate. No, wait. Sorry. According to the FDA, there’s no such thing as an allergy to this insidious ingredient, so I’m supposed to say I’m “intolerant”. Whatever. All I know is, my night is going to be very unpleasant if I consume it.

We MSG-intolerants don’t get the same amount of press as those who must avoid, say, peanuts or gluten¹; and to be fair, I don’t recall ever reading that our intolerance is potentially life-threatening (though I’ve had glutamated nights where I wished I’d just die already). At the same time, we are sensitive to an artificial substance that is wholly unnecessary in quality cooking. I mean, just look at three of the biggest culprits likely to contain MSG: flavor enhancers, preservatives, and meat tenderizers². If you’re using fresh, quality ingredients – if, as HF is fond of saying, there’s actual food in your food – why would you need these things? Even if you’re not intolerant but just care about the quality of what you put into your system, MSG is something to monitor.

So I always like to reward/punish restaurants for avoiding/using MSG by spreading the word via Twitter and e-mail. Like an ant scouting for food, I send word back to my MSG-wary family and supportive friends: “Hey, this is a safe place to eat! Support them!”

But there’s more to it than just, “Are they using MSG?” There’s also a lot to be said for how the staff handle the question. To that end, and as a way of keeping a record for myself, I’m going to be posting more detailed “reports” here on what I find. Beginning with Chili’s and Tony Roma’s.

Chili’s, location forgotten (possibly St. Louis Park or Bloomington, MN)

Several weeks ago, HF, HM, and I had stopped at Chili’s for dinner and I noticed a new soup (Chicken & Green Chile) on the menu that sounded absolutely delightful. But as noted in the footnotes, soups are a potential danger zone, so I asked the server if she’d go ask after the ingredients. She very pleasantly agreed and disappeared briefly.

She returned with a grin to report that Chili’s is a completely MSG-free zone. Five gold stars to them!

And I’m happy to report that the chicken and green chile soup was, indeed, delicious.

Meal: Chicken & green chile soup; Carribean salad

Allergen Chart: Quite comprehensive, but does not include MSG. Available here.

Tony Roma’s, Mall of America (MoA), Bloomington, MN

Last night, due to possible inclement weather, HF and I moved our scheduled walk to the mall, circling each of the massive MoA’s four floors. Afterwards, we stopped at Tony Roma’s for dinner. The soup of the day was clam chowder – cream-based soup – cue the alarm bells.

I love clam chowder, but I have to be very careful about it. So I asked our server (Emily) to look into it for me. While she was gone, I realized I should have asked about the barbecue sauces, if they used any meat tenderizers, seasonings, etc. (steakhouses and other restaurants whose emphasis is on meat can be such fun). When Emily came back, she told me she’d talked to her manager and that they hadn’t seen MSG listed on the soup’s label, but she wasn’t completely sure of its absence. I proceeded to ask her about my other concerns, and she very politely excused herself again to investigate.

The next person to appear at our table (whose name I did not catch) had all the appearance of being the aforementioned manager. She was extremely friendly, patient, and helpful, asking me to give her a list of all my potential concerns and she would personally go check them.

When the manager returned, she went through my list one-by-one: The baked potato soup has no MSG (hmm, she didn’t mention the chowder or French onion, though I asked after “the soups”). Neither do the barbecue sauces. The seasoning used on the meat, which can be left off, is simply a mix of (if I recall correctly) garlic, salt, and pepper. I think there might have been a couple other foods discussed, but they’re slipping my mind.

All in all, I was very pleased and impressed with the attention paid to my concerns and the patience exhibited by the staff. This set my mind at ease, enabled me to enjoy my meal, and I’ve seen no sign of a reaction, so I’m confident they were correct in their findings.

Meal: TR’s Riblings w/Carolina Honeys sauce; roma tomato pesto salad; mashed potatoes

Allergen Chart: Seems to be nonexistent. They do, however, have a feedback form that I just used to give glowing feedback about Emily and her manager. And I suggested they make an allergen chart available.

1 If you or someone you know is a celiac or want to/must otherwise avoid gluten, I highly recommend Roger’s Celiac Travel site. In addition to gluten-free recipes and lots of information, there are free cards in multiple languages (47 at the time of this post!) that you can print out to provide to restaurant staff explaining your needs. (If you have an iPhone/iPod, there’s also “an app for that”!)
2 Other likely danger foods include: soups and salad dressings, especially cream-based; seasoning mixes, such as those used on meats or french fries; flavored chips (Doritos, Cheetos); boxed meals like Pasta-Roni… Frozen stuff is usually okay, but I read a lot of box and can labels.

17 Responses to “MSG Report: Chili’s & Tony Roma’s”

  1. Lisa at 01:04 #

    As someone who is “intolerant” to MSG, I appreciate your blog entry. I find that most preservatives are a problem for me and I have had a few different reactions to foods laced with MSG and other artificial flavor-enhancers and preservatives. Eating out can sometimes be more troublesome than fun. For the most part, the wait staff and managers are very polite and helpful. Although I have run into wait staff that have been less than helpful. I recall one meal when I went to a Chinese restaurant in town. I ordered steamed rice and steamed vegetables. The waitress couldn’t get over the fact that I didn’t want my vegetables sauteed and ended the conversation by remarking in a rude tone, “so you want your vegetables with no flavor.” Enough said.

    • ButMadNNW at 01:34 #

      Yep. I stand by my assessment: if you’re using quality, fresh ingredients, they have plenty of flavor already. We’ve just lost the ability to appreciate it in a society where so many things have added salt, sugar, fat, and “flavor enhancers”.

    • whittaker at 23:24 #

      hey guys, and gals…a new version of MSG. is also known as HVP-hydrolyzed vegetable protein. it does the some of the same things as MSG.
      here’s a reply of an email i sent to red-lobster, (Darden Resturants, owns, Red lobster, Olive garden, LongHorn stakehouse, The capital Grill, Bahama Breeze & seasons 52 restaurants).

      October 14, 2010
      Dear Mr. Whittaker,
      Thank you for your interest in Red Lobster; it is always a pleasure to hear from our guests.
      We cannot guarantee the absence of MSG in our menu items. Our products may contain hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP) as part of the spice blends. Hydrolyzed vegetable protein is used as a flavor enhancer and individuals who are sensitive to MSG may also react to HVP.

      Again, thank you for taking the time to contact us.

      Senior Guest Relations Representative

      • ButMadNNW at 23:34 #

        *sigh* I yearn for the day when restaurants realize they don’t need “flavor enhancers”. If you use fresh, quality ingredients, the flavor is already there!

  2. Kathy at 07:57 #

    I have had reactions to Chilli’s in the past. I don’t think they realize that MSG has many names. They may claim to not use MSG, but my body and I have to disagree. Some MSG is now under the umbrella labeling as “seasoning”…

    • ButMadNNW at 14:08 #

      I’m always automatically cautious of any food that lists “seasoning” on the label, especially if preceded by “artificial”.

      My sister and I recently decided to adopt the so-called “primal” diet, and its emphasis on fresh (organic, whenever possible) ingredients, meat, and veg is a whole new weight off my mind with regards to MSG. 🙂

      Thanks for visiting the blog!

    • Georgia at 10:55 #

      I am with you on that one. Everytime I foods with MSG, I throw up about 30 minutes after eating. I can also set my watch by it……. I had an issue today in fact with their new Chicken Enchilada Soup…. URGH

    • Brenda N at 10:00 #

      I was at chili’s yesterday and had steak fajita and shrimp fajita combo with tea. I had a full blown migraine within 30 min of ingestion. MSG reaction, I also get bloating and dizzyness. The spices on the food were very strong which leads me to believe it wasnt MSG but a similar additive.

  3. Pictishgirl at 15:02 #

    I just received the following official reply to my email asking what was safe on the Chili’s menu for an MSG intolerant person:

    Thank you for your recent inquiry regarding Chili’s menu items. To address your concerns, Chili’s does not add or purchase products that contain monosodium glutamate. However, many of our food items contain naturally-occurring glutamate, such as autolyzed yeast extract, hydrolyzed vegetable proteins, sodium caseinate and gelatin, that can potentially cause ‘monosodium glutamate-like’ reactions in some individuals.

    Out of an abundance of caution and concern for your health, we cannot recommend any menu entrée that would eliminate the potential of your consuming one of the aforementioned additives.
    Guest Relations
    Reference Number: 661700

  4. Valentina at 05:40 #

    Longhorn Steakhouse definintely uses MSG in something – I am so swollen today I am almost not recognizable. Yesterday for lunch I had a little bit of their Onion Rings, Firecracker Chicken Wraps and Rainbow Trout with vegetables. Never again!

  5. RC at 00:20 #

    I ate at Chili’s tonight for dinner, for the first time in years. It is now 3am and I am in full bloom of my MSG allergic reaction to their food. If I had the money to buy influence in the FDA then “intolerance” would not be the definition of the allergic reaction from MSG, in my case I get hives. Sadly, I shall never eat at Chili’s again, and some of their food may very well be MSG free but unfortunately not all of it appears to be. I wish I had been more vigilant.

    • ButMadNNW at 01:27 #

      Oh, I’m sorry to hear that! That sucks. Well, it’s been 3 years since I wrote this blog, so maybe they backtracked? Or maybe our experiences were unique to our locations.

      Hope you feel better quickly. I get hives from guinea pigs, of all things, so sympathy!

      • Lisa at 19:26 #

        I went for the first time 3 weeks ago and had steak. Not even 20 after , I was looking for a bathroom. Then tonight we went back and I had the loaded chicken, OMG ! I didn’t even hit the parking lot and could feel the MSG taking affect on my colon.. 2.5 hours of HELL. I thought the steak was bad , stay far far away from the chicken.. I will never eat at this place ever again, sad cause the food is sooooo good. 😦

  6. Deb at 23:20 #

    I ate a small portion of Chili’s chicken tortilla soup tonight and drank water. Before I got home I had a raging migraine and even with meds, over four hours later, am still suffering. I know there is MSG in Chili’s chicken soup now! Consumer beware!
    Also recently discovered Quaker rice cake chips contain MSG being given as a complimentary snack at the airport!

  7. B mcewen at 20:19 #

    Thank you for this. I too am very reactive to MSG. I even got very sick at PF Chang’s. If you can keep posting where are acceptable places to each with no msg I would really appreciate it. I went to a place in New Orleans and they said everything on their menu had msg. Also in Ybor City, FL they said everything had msg. They both said it was the south and msg is expected.

  8. Kenneth at 21:24 #

    I myself go into anaphylaxis in 15 minutes after consuming MSG I love how they say it’s an intolerance.Well have to check and recheck all foods I eat,or potential death.Thats a bad intolerance for sure,I call it an allergy.


  1. Win/Win: Support celiac research/Get gluten-free diet help « The Refuge from Reality -

    […] to eat food I know will make me sick, either because I don’t want the hassle of bothering the server or explaining why I can’t eat it, or because it looks/sounds/smells/tastes so good. There are […]

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