The rising concern of glutamate

Glutamic acid (or the neutralized form called glutamate) is a building block for proteins. Humans produce it naturally, and it can also be found in certain foods. Glutamate is found in many cells of our body and is a neurotransmitter, a messenger between nerve cells.

Glutamate found in food is usually bound, for example, as part of a protein. Unbound glutamate has the ability to enhance taste compounds and make something more savoury.

What is MSG?
You’re likely familiar with the term MSG, or mono-sodium glutamate. This is basically sodium plus glutamate. The food industry began adding MSG to food to improve it’s taste – for example, unbound glutamate in a can of soup improves its flavour, giving it a fresh taste and not like something cooked two months ago and packed in a can.

The MSG controversy
In more recent years, concerns have been raised about the health risks associated with MSG in food. You might be surprised to learn that scientists have been aware of some of the health risks for more than 40 years.

In 1969, a neuroscientist working at Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis demonstrated how MSG could destroy certain parts of the brain. Animals with these altered brains became obese.

The list of glutamate additives in food has been increasing every decade since the 1950s. This fact indicates a direct correlation between increased MSG consumption and the rise of obesity in our society.

Additionally, if MSG kills brain cells in rats and mice (by exciting the cells to death, no less) then consider what it could be doing to our brains, and worse, to the brains of our children. Could MSG be responsible for the rise in things like ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder)?

MSG is out; glutamate is in
The food industry recognized that people were no longer going to purchase foods, or at least not in as great a quantity, that contains MSG. Instead, they started to take bound glutamate in food and unbound it by certain processes such as hydrolization, autolysis, modification and fermentation. Today, free glutamate is made not from MSG but instead comes from corn, molasses and wheat that has been processed to free the glutamate. Foods that contain this glutamate can be labeled MSG-free, even though they still contain glutamate.

Watch for these names on food labels:

  • Hydrolyzed vegetable protein
  • Hydrolyzed protein
  • Hydrolyzed soy protein
  • Soy protein concentrate (extract)
  • Soy protein isolate
  • Soy sauce
  • Textured protein
  • Whey protein concentrate
  • Plant protein extract
  • Sodium caseinate
  • Yeast extract
  • Autolyzed yeast

These common foods often contain MSG:

  • Malt extract
  • Bouillon
  • Broth
  • Stock
  • Natural flavoring
  • Seasoning
  • Carrageenan

Food producers manipulate food, creating virtual Frankensteins of their former, natural state. Many processes removes the wholesome goodness of food, and often the natural flavour as well. Food then needs to be artificially propped up with sugar, fat, salt, and additives like MSG and glutamate.

As a gastroenterologist, I treat many people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). There are a great deal of nerve receptors for glutamate in our guts – could free glutamate in our food be stimulating the nerves in our gut, increasing symptoms of IBS and other disorders?

Be a savvy consumer – read labels and don’t consume the offenders. When you have a choice, choose Mother Earth.

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