The dangers and prevalence of MSG in food will shock you! This flavor enhancer is linked to a host of health issues, including fibromyalgia, obesity, fatty liver, high insulin and blood sugar, high cholesterol, liver toxicity, metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure, disturbance of the gut-brain connection, and neurological and brain damage. The danger is that MSG is almost impossible to avoid.
Why? The reason is two-fold:
1. There are over 40 different ingredients that food manufacturers use that contain some form of MSG.
2. It is not just a flavor enhancing additive--it is a natural byproduct of protein processing. These MSG byproducts are found in many of your favorite organic health foods.
What is MSG?
MSG, or monosodium glutamate, 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 difficulty. However, some amino acids, such as glutamic acid (glutamate) and aspartic acid (aspartame or "NutraSweet"), may be more difficult to convert and flush out of the body. Both glutamate and aspartame cause the nerves to fire, and when levels of either of these are too high, the nerves can fire excessively and cause a form of neurotoxicity. The insidious nature of MSG is that it may occur whenever a protein (which is made up of amino acids) is broken down in the body.
The Cost of "Enhancing" Flavor
By now, most of us have heard of MSG's role as a flavor enhancer. But how does this work? Since MSG acts as a nerve stimulant, it will change how the taste buds taste food. A yucky or even bad tasting food will taste fantastic when high levels of glutamic acid are added.
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.
On the other hand, many processed foods--including processed organic health foods--contain hydrolized proteins that harbor free glutamic acid. The FDA does not require manufacturers to label these foods as containing MSG unless an "added ingredient" is 99% pure MSG. If MSG is produced as 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 present as a result of protein processing, even though pure MSG was not added.
The truth is that hydrolized protein 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, which are loaded with MSG but do not require an MSG listing on the label:
The Bottom Line
1. MSG, or free glutamic acid, is found in highly processed foods as a flavor enhancer, usually under an alias, to make it impossible to know for sure what you are eating. Refer to the list below for the many hidden names of MSG.
2. MSG, or free glutamic acid, is also found in many health foods as a result of vegetable protein breakdown or hydrolysis. These MSGs or free glutamic acids are not added into food as a flavor enhancer but exist in varying quantities in many foods as a result of protein breakdown.
3. 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:
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)
Any hydrolyzed protein
Soy Protein Isolate
Whey Protein Isolate
Names of ingredients that often contain or produce processed free glutamic acid:
Carrageenan (E 407)
Bouillon and broth
Any flavors or flavoring
Citric acid, Citrate (E 330)
Pectin (E 440)
Anything enzyme modified
Anything containing enzymes
Soy sauce extract
Anything protein fortified
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.
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 this long can be overwhelming, and can cause one to wonder what there is 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 an excess of 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 to avoid processed foods that have more than five whole-food ingredients.
Dr. Susan Godman