This flavor enhancer is linked to a host of health issues, including fibromyalgia (1), obesity (2), fatty liver (3), high insulin and blood sugar (3), high cholesterol (3), liver toxicity (3), metabolic syndrome (4), high blood pressure, disturbance to the gut-brain connection (5), neurological and brain damage (6). The danger lies in that MSG is almost impossible to avoid.
Why? The reason is twofold:
1. There are over 40 different ingredients that manufacturers use that all have MSG.
2. It is not just a flavor enhancing additive—it is a natural by-product of processing proteins. These MSG by-products are found in many of your favorite organic health foods.
What is MSG?
MSG, or monosodium glutamate, got its reputation as a flavor enhancer extracted from seaweeds in China. In the early 1900′s, the process was perfected in Japan and became commercially available.
In the 1960′s, the phrase “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” was coined by the New England Journal of Medicine. Twenty minutes after eating Chinese food, some sensitive people would experience tingling, numbness, brain fog, chest pressure and pain.
In the 1970′s, researchers found that pharmaceutical MSG would kill brain cells in a laboratory. Shortly thereafter, they realized that commercially available MSG would have the same effect.
MSG is simply the addition of one (mono) sodium molecule to the amino acid glutamic acid, which is found naturally in many foods. When any amino acid builds up in the body, most people have the ability to break it down in the liver without alarm. However, some amino acids, such as glutamic acid (glutamate) and aspartic acid (aspartame or “nutra sweet”), may be more difficult to convert and flush out of the body.
Both glutamate and aspartame cause the nerves to fire, and when they are in excess, the nerves can fire excessively and cause a form of neuro-toxicity. Even bland foods will taste fantastic when high levels of glutamic acid are used as flavor enhancers.
By now most of us have heard of MSG’s role as a flavor enhancer. But how does this work? Concentrated free glutamic acid or MSG act as nerve stimulants and will change how the taste buds taste food. A yucky or even a really bad tasting food will taste fantastic when high levels of glutamic acid are introduced as a “flavor enhancer.”
The insidious nature of MSG is that it may occur whenever a protein is broken down in the body.
When folks are sensitive to MSG, they are reacting to free glutamic acid in the blood. Remember, MSG is made when the free glutamic acid binds with a sodium molecule. Whenever protein is broken down in the body, glutamic acid is freed from a protein (in which it naturally occurs), and you have the potential of free glutamic acid building up in the blood and a possible toxic MSG reaction.
MSG Reactions: Whole vs. Processed Foods
While this happens naturally when ingesting protein-rich whole foods like grains, meats, dairy, and even vegetables, the glutamic acid is released in concert with many other amino acids, rather than in high concentrations on its own. As a result, unadulterated whole-food-based proteins do not cause a toxic MSG reaction in the body (7).
On the other hand, many processed foods—including organic health foods—contain processed proteins that harbor free glutamic acids.
If MSG is produced as a result of protein hydrolysis or a byproduct of protein processing, the FDA does not require MSG to appear on the label. Moreover, a product labeled “No MSG” may still have MSG or free glutamic acid as a result of protein processing, as long as pure MSG was not added.
The truth is that protein-hydrolysis-based glutamates or MSG are found in just about every highly processed food. Even vegetable proteins are hydrolyzed to make veggies burgers and many other frozen or pre-prepared “vegan” and “health foods.”
When purchasing processed “health foods,” look for these common ingredients loaded with MSG that do not require an MSG listing on the label:
> Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein > Textured Vegetable Protein > Yeast Extract
Unadulterated whole-food based proteins do not cause a toxic MSG reaction in the body.
The Bottom Line
MSG or free glutamates as a flavor enhancer is found in highly processed foods, usually under an alias to make it impossible to know for sure what you are eating.
MSG or free glutamic acid is also found in many health foods as result of vegetable protein breakdown or hydrolysis. These MSGs are not added into food as a flavor enhancer, but exist in varying quantities in many foods as a result of protein breakdown.
Some folks break down glutamates better than others, so when it comes to glutamates as a result of protein breakdown, this is a highly individualized issue. However, MSG as a flavor enhancer should simply be avoided.
Hidden names for MSG and free glutamic acid:
Names of ingredients that always contain processed free glutamic acid (7):
> Glutamic Acid (E 620)2 > Glutamate (E 620) > Monosodium Glutamate (E 621) > Monopotassium Glutamate (E 622) > Calcium Glutamate (E 623) > Monoammonium Glutamate (E 624) > Magnesium Glutamate (E 625) > Natrium Glutamate > Yeast Extract > Anything “hydrolyzed” > Any “hydrolyzed protein” > Calcium Caseinate > Sodium Caseinate > Yeast Food > Yeast Nutrient > Autolyzed Yeast > Gelatin > Textured Protein > Soy Protein > Soy Protein Concentrate > Soy Protein Isolate > Whey Protein > Whey Protein Concentrate > Whey Protein Isolate > Anything “…protein” > Vetsin > Ajinomoto
Names of ingredients that often contain or produce processed free glutamic acid (7):
Glutamic acid found in unadulterated “whole food” protein does not cause adverse reactions. To cause adverse reactions, the glutamic acid must have been processed/manufactured or come from protein that has been fermented (1).
The following are ingredients suspected of containing or creating sufficient processed free glutamic acid to serve as MSG-reaction triggers in highly sensitive people (7):
Unfortunately, many protein powders contain processed free glutamic acid.
Protein Powders: Be Selective
Unfortunately, many protein powders contain forms of soy and whey protein, as listed above, that will always contain processed free glutamic acid. Since free glutamic acids are a product of processing proteins, it can be tricky to find a protein powder that does not potentially contain them. The key is the amount or concentration of these glutamates in each product, as well as gauging your own personal level of sensitivity and ability to break them down, that becomes the issue.
Don’t Stress—Just Eat Whole Foods!
A list so long can be overwhelming, and can provoke the feeling of, “What is there left to eat?” When trying to avoid MSG, the main focus should be on a diet of whole, unprocessed foods including vegetables, grains, legumes, fruits, nuts and seeds, organic and grass-fed meats and organic dairy.
Make sure your proteins are clean, preferably organic and grass-fed and cook them at home or enjoy them at a restaurant whose practices you support, rather than eating excess processed foods.
After looking at the above list a few times, you’ll get the hang of which kind of ingredient names connote MSG and easily avoid them.
As Jack Lalanne advised, “Don’t eat anything with a wrapper!” And if you can’t do that, try toavoid processed foods with more than five whole-food ingredients.