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There is much debate over MSG, a flavor enhancer, that is linked to a host of health issues including fibromyalgia (1), obesity (2), fatty liver (3), high insulin and blood sugar (4), high cholesterol (3), metabolic syndrome (4), high blood pressure, disturbances in the gut-brain connection (5), neurological and brain health issues (6) and much more.
What is MSG?
In the 1960’s the phrase, “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” was coined by an article in The New England Journal of Medicine. Twenty minutes after eating Chinese food, some very sensitive people would experience tingling, brain fog, numbness, chest pressure and pain.
Monosodium Glutamic Acid (MSG) refers to a chemical process in which glutamic acid is isolated, and then, bound to a sodium molecule and purified into a white powder that is added to foods as a flavor enhancer. MSG can be an excitotoxin, which means it amps up and stimulates sensory nerves – in an enhanced, tastier way. As a flavor enhancer, the active forms of MSG or glutamic acid are called D-glutamic acid and L-glutamic acid, plus other toxic by-products.
When proteins are ingested in their natural state, the stomach breaks these proteins down only into L-glutamic acid. When proteins are processed, heated, hydrolyzed or fermented as in the flavor enhancer MSG or proteins powders, veggie proteins etc… they break down into both D and L-glutamic acid. (7) This suggests it is the D-glutamic acid that is the culprit causing the MSG reactions. But D-glutamic acid is tasteless and benign according to Dr. Darren Gay, PhD researcher who specialized in purified amino acids. The more likely cause, according to Dr. Gay, are the toxic by-products of processing and an inability to handle L-glutamic acid rather than the D-glutamic acid.
When proteins are manufactured, processed or fermented they will not only produce D and L-glutamic acids they will produce a host of toxic by-products that may also be a factor in the MSG symptoms. Those are: pyroglutamic acid, mono and dichloro propanols (which are carcinogenic), heterocyclic amines (which are carcinogenic), and other unwanted byproducts (impurities).(7) It seems that it is the combination of the processed L and possible D-glutamic acid along with the toxic by-products that is the cause or an exacerbation of the MSG symptoms.
This is why certain people who are “MSG sensitive” cannot tolerate MSG as well as processed protein products that have been denatured in the manufacturing process. This can include any protein that has been broken down, heated or processed — found in most packaged foods.
The L-glutamic acid that is found in processed protein foods as well as when proteins that are naturally digested through the stomach are a stimulating molecule that activates taste and nerves. Very high dosages of L-glutamic acid can over stimulate the nervous system.
Fortunately, the body highly regulates the amount of L-glutamic acid that is allowed into the blood stream. The body needs it and if there is not enough of it, the body will use other amino acids to manufacture its own glutamic acid. This is why glutamic acid is a non-essential amino acid—the body can make its own. This suggests the importance of glutamic acid for the function of the body and nervous system. (7) It also suggests the importance of the health and integrity of the intestinal skin as a protective barrier from excess or overwhelming amounts of amino acids that can over-excite the nervous system.
It is true that when proteins are processed they can be denatured or flip form being a D or L-glutamic acid. Some experts believe it the D-glutamic acid that is the culprit for the toxicity reactions to MSG because processing proteins has been shown to increase D not L-glutamic acid. But, as I mentioned, the consensus seems to be that the cause of MSG symptoms is the toxic combination of excess L-glutamic acid and excess toxic by-products.(7)
The form of glutamic acid called L-glutamic acid, which naturally occurs in many foods and proteins in the body is considered a non-toxic form by many experts. The average human has 4.4 pounds of L-glutamic acid in the body and there are no reactions. Glutamic acid is a main component of proteins. It is found in meat, eggs, poultry, milk, eggs, cheese, fish and even wheat. It is also found in most grains, beans, vegetables, mushrooms, fruits, and sea weed.
In these natural forms, the glutamic acid is bound to other proteins in chains of amino acids or proteins.. The process of freeing the glutamic acid from the protein chains during the human digestion of proteins is generally not a problem. When the glutamic acid is freed from the amino acid chain during processing there seems to be concerns I mentioned.
So, avoiding MSG should be easy right? As a flavor enhancer, MSG is required by the FDA to be listed in the ingredients. However, as a processing agent, which is very common in many food products, MSG does not require labeling. This exposes many of us to L and D-glutamic acid and it’s toxic by-products on a regular basis.
Interestingly, only a small percentage of the population reacts to MSG, and much seems to depend on the amount of MSG one is exposed to and how sensitive their intestinal wall is to toxins.
In a healthy body, proteins are broken down in the stomach and small intestine by hydrochloric acid (HCl) and digestive enzymes. The body’s digestive tract controls how much glutamic acid is freed up from the protein chain, but the free L-glutamic acid absorption is highly limited and most of it is passed off as waste through the intestinal tract. If this type of free glutamic acid is rapidly absorbed into the blood stream because of a break-down of the intestinal skin, it can trigger a neuro-excitatory toxic response in the body.
The D-glutamic acid, is made by processing foods and the body does not seem to recognize it.
How To Avoid Non-Labeled MSG
Without a doubt we should be reading labels and avoiding any food with MSG in it. Even if you do not seem to be sensitive to it, MSG is an irritant or neurotoxin and can damage the intestinal wall over time and create other problems down the road.
To avoid the non-labeled MSG that is used in very small quantities as a processing aid, all processed foods must be avoided. This includes many health foods such veggies burgers, turkey sausages, textured or hydrolyzed proteins and processed protein powders.
Some and for sure not all health food companies that go through the trouble of avoiding processed proteins in such a way that avoids the production of excess L-glutamic acid, any D-glutamic acid if possible, and the toxic by-products..
The key is to avoid large exposures to MSG and, while being aware of your reaction to all processed foods, especially packed protein products and even protein powders, always choose fresh, non-processed foods as often as possible.
That said, since a small amount of L and D-glutamic acid is incredibly hard to avoid, the most logical thing to do is to continue to support the health of the intestinal skin so that it continues to act as a protective barrier against toxins. If the inner skin breaks down, numerous undigested toxins can enter the blood stream and lymph and become irritants, toxins, allergens and trigger similar symptoms to MSG. Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity is a perfect example.
My 3 favorite Ayurvedic herbs designed to support the health of the skin that lines the intestinal wall are:
Hidden names for MSG and free glutamic acid:
Names of ingredients that always contain processed free glutamic acid: (7)
- Glutamic Acid (E 620)
- 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
- Textured Protein
- Soy Protein
- Soy Protein Concentrate
- Soy Protein Isolate
- Whey Protein
- Whey Protein Concentrate
- Whey Protein Isolate
- Anything “…protein”
Names of ingredients that often contain or produce processed free glutamic acid: (7)
- Carrageenan (E 407)
- Bouillon and broth
- Any “flavors” or “flavoring”
- Citric acid, Citrate (E 330)
- Anything “ultra-pasteurized”
- Barley malt
- Pectin (E 440)
- Anything “enzyme modified”
- Anything containing “enzymes”
- Malt extract
- Soy sauce
- Soy sauce extract
- Anything “protein fortified”
- Anything “fermented”
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)
- Corn starch
- Corn syrup
- Modified food starch
- Lipolyzed butter fat
- Rice syrup
- Brown rice syrup
- Milk powder
- Reduced fat milk (skim; 1%; 2%)
- Most things labeled “Low Fat” or “No Fat”
- Anything labeled “Enriched”
- Anything labeled “Vitamin Enriched”