Long-time readers of Earth Clinic have probably read a post or two from KT, a strong believer in being proactive about health.
KT has written extensively on Earth Clinic about the link between Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) and the brain because of the devastating impact MSG has had on her own body from consuming small amounts of MSG found in supplement capsules made of gelatin.
This article explains exactly what MSG is, the surprisingly common foods that contain it (like mayonnaise), MSG sensitivity and side effects, and just how easy it is for you to consume it without ever knowing it.
MSG, the abbreviation for monosodium glutamate, is a flavor enhancer used to make something taste better.
You can’t avoid glutamate. It’s one of the most abundant amino acids in our bodies but is also considered a non-essential amino acid because our bodies produce all we need.
Glutamates can be either bound to other amino acids as a protein or exist independently.
Free glutamate is what makes foods taste better. It can be freed from protein in a number of ways. Curing or fermenting greatly increases the amount of free glutamate in a food: 337 mg. of free glutamate in 100 grams of cured ham vs. only 10 mg. of free glutamate in fresh pork. Huge difference.
Free glutamate is also what causes adverse reactions when MSG is eaten in sufficient quantity to cause reactions.
It is the glutamate in MSG that can deliver quite a flavor boost to your meal and deliver a negative impact on your body.
According to the glutamate industry, a Japanese scientist first discovered MSG in 1908 who extracted glutamate from seaweed and named MSG “umami,” a complex savory, meaty flavor. Eventually, umami became recognized as the fifth flavor: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. Both pure MSG and foods naturally containing free glutamate intensify the umami flavor.
Sometimes people complain about not feeling well after eating out at certain restaurants or eating certain foods. They may have become sensitive to MSG or other ingredients that contain manufactured free glutamate.
Today, you see restaurants and food products advertise they use “No MSG,” but the overall use of MSG throughout the food industry continues.
Fortunately, home cooking has changed. I remember having a container of MSG in my kitchen cabinet many years ago that I’d sprinkle on food while cooking, just as I would salt or a spice. I just checked and was frankly surprised to find you can still buy, very inexpensively, a spice-size 4.25 oz—container of MSG to sprinkle as liberally as you’d like all over your food. I wouldn’t recommend it, though. I suspect few of today’s home cooks add MSG to their family’s meals.
Some complaints about MSG are relatively mild and temporary, including headaches, drowsiness, numbness and/or tingling feelings, nausea, and other symptoms of discomfort. The FDA lists MSG as “Generally Recognized As Safe” (GRAS).
However, there are other reactions that follow eating food that contains the toxic glutamate in MSG and the more than 40 other ingredients that contain it. They range from simple skin rash to migraine headache, heart irregularities, seizures, and anaphylactic shock. And these reactions can occur immediately upon eating MSG or something else with free glutamate in it or up to 48 hours later and last for short periods of time or days.
And everyone is unique. Sensitivity levels vary widely. People end up in the ER all the time from a life-threatening reaction to something their system couldn’t tolerate. Extreme, life-threatening reactions to MSG are difficult to diagnose, and the symptoms can vary widely, but they do happen. Just ask KT.
MSG reminds me of someone on a wanted FBI poster with too many aliases to count. While manufacturers are required to list monosodium glutamate (MSG) as an ingredient on labels, TOXIC GLUTAMATE ISN’T LISTED, and few people realize that there are ingredients like hydrolyzed protein and autolyzed yeast that contain it.
MSG may also be listed by its food additive number: E621.
If the following ingredients are listed on a food label, they contain toxic manufactured free glutamate but the FDA DOESN’T require the label to list free glutamate as an ingredient.
Here’s a partial list of some of the most common ingredients containing manufactured free glutamate. You’ll find them listed on countless labels.
There are no foods that naturally contain MSG, because MSG is manufactured.
So, what can you do if you want to avoid consuming excessive quantities of MSG but still plan to continue eating?
It is useless to check the label for “No added MSG” or “No MSG,” because while there may be no MSG in the product, there will usually be some toxic free glutamate in ingredients like hydrolyzed proteins.
Occasionally a manufacturer who eliminates MSG to advertise “No MSG” will compensate by adding more salt.
The MSG problem can even begin on the farm. Certain fertilizers, fungicides, pesticides, and other products used to aid in faster plant growth can contain MSG. When these crops are brought to market, the crops may contain MSG residue. This is more common with foods grown outside the US.
Best solution: Eat unprocessed, natural, organic foods.
In all my research, I’ve never seen so much conflicting information on a topic. There are scientists and studies on all sides of the issue. As always, you have to take a hard look at who paid for the study. The Truth in Labeling Campaign claims to have traced all the MSG-related research and found everything that claims to show that MSG is safe to be badly flawed (https://www.truthinlabeling.org/assets/designed_for_deception_short.pdf).
MSG sensitivity isn’t technically an allergy, although the symptoms are similar. One person might react to a relatively small amount of MSG while someone else does not react to a larger dose.
Diagnosing MSG sensitivity is very difficult. There is no standard test to say conclusively that someone is intolerant of or sensitive to MSG. Because the reaction to MSG is a reaction to a poison, the only way to test for it is to feed various amounts of MSG to a person and observe him or her for the next 48 hours.
Diagnostic procedures for MSG sensitivity include:
As you can see, you’re already getting a lot more MSG in your diet than you’d like, even when you’re very careful. Why add more MSG from capsules when it’s not necessary?
Many of us take several capsules a day. It all adds up.
Gelatin is not inherently evil and actually has certain health benefits, such as being good for joints. It’s a natural byproduct of meat production, especially beef, and pork, and is readily available and inexpensive, making it the top choice of capsule manufacturers since 1835. All gelatin contains free glutamate, produced when gelatin is manufactured. There is no such thing as pharmaceutical grade gelatin containing no MSG.
Plant-based or Cellulose Capsules – No MSG
Plant-based capsules (with no MSG) are a relative newcomer to the capsule industry.
• Pullulan capsules are made from tapioca, a starch extracted from cassava roots.
• HPMC capsules are made from cellulose.
Consumers vote with their pocketbooks. It’s easy to let a manufacturer know you didn’t buy their product because they use a gelatin capsule.
Look for their contact information on their website or bottle and email, text, or call.
Telling a manufacturer, “I didn’t buy your product because of the gelatin capsule,” will probably have a much greater impact than you’d expect. Their marketing folks will estimate that each non-buying customer represents “X” number of customers who also didn’t buy their product but who didn’t bother to contact them. You may or may not get a response, but you will be heard. This is how change starts.
Even if you don’t have a problem with MSG and the manufactured free glutamate in it, there are those like KT who can’t tolerate it.
Because free glutamate is produced when plants are hydrolyzed, capsules made from plants don’t necessarily mean they are free of toxic manufactured free glutamate.
The safest and simplest option to avoid toxic free glutamate is to twist open your supplement capsules and pour the contents into a beverage or food that you can consume.