Fortunately, since I don’t eat food containing MSG very often, the symptoms cleared by the next day. Unfortunately, I attended a reception that evening, and since I had skipped lunch and was hungry, I ate things I shouldn’t have, including a peanut sauce I am sure came from a can. That night, the same thing happened, and the next day I was stiff and sore from head to toe.
Of course, I knew the reason why and just resolved to be more careful going forward. But suppose I was a person who ate a lot of processed or restaurant food and didn’t know the reason why. I would feel awful all the time: headache, dry mouth, excessive thirst, and aches and pains like arthritis. I might be told I had the disease du jour: fibromyalgia. But there is no treatment for fibromyalgia so I would probably be treated for the runner-up disease du jour: Lyme’s disease. The treatment for Lyme’s disease is courses of antibiotics, which would probably make my condition worse. If I complained to the doctor about the dry mouth and thirst, I would be tested for diabetes; and if I sought treatment for headaches, I’d end up on some pretty powerful pain killers.
Which brings us to the question: could all these conditions, especially the rheumatism-like achiness that plagues so many people, be due to MSG and similar substances added to virtually all processed food? For example, MSG allows food manufacturers to make something that resembles gravy—which we make at home with good drippings, flour and genuine bone broth—with water, a thickener, artificial coloring and artificial flavors, especially MSG.
Apologists for MSG point out that it derives from glutamine, an amino acid needed for protein synthesis, immunity, liver health, detoxification and maintenance of acid-alkaline balance, among many other roles. Our bodies can make glutamine; however, in times of rapid growth or healing—especially healing of the gut—we need more glutamine than we can make and must get it from food. Homemade bone broth is an excellent source, one explanation for bone broth’s reputation as a healing food.
Glutamine is a precursor to glutamate, an important neurotransmitter, for which we have receptors in the brain and all over the body. Apologists for MSG argue that the additive is not really different from glutamate (or its cousin glutamic acid). For example, journalist Liz Roth-Johnson writes, “Despite their different names, glutamate, glutamic acid, and monosodium glutamate are essentially the same molecule and behave the same way in our bodies.” She provides the following diagram.
Roth-Johnson notes that ripe tomatoes and aged cheese contain high levels of glutamate, so what could be the problem with MSG?
The problem is that most people don’t get headaches and arthritis-like symptoms when they eat ripe tomatoes and aged cheese. One explanation is that the sodium molecule added to glutamate makes it a very different molecule—after all, adding chlorine to sodium to make nutritious salt makes chlorine very different from poisonous chlorine gas! Small differences in molecules can make huge differences in the body.
Free glutamate is formed during fermentation—of milk into cheese, of soybeans into soy sauce, etc. That’s what gives these foods their delicious meat-like umami taste. Most people can eat small amounts of slowly and naturally fermented soy sauce without problem, but react strongly to cheap soy sauce made by rapid protein hydrolysis with added MSG.
Another difference: most of the glutamate in our body does not come from free glutamate in our food but from the breakdown of protein into its separate amino acids. It’s a good assumption that these enter the bloodstream more slowly than MSG added to food, or even to glutamate added to food, and their transformation into neurotransmitters is more controlled. Eating foods containing MSG or a lot of added free glutamate, can overwhelm the system, so to speak.
And free glutamate is everywhere, I mean everywhere, usually not labeled but lurking in other food additives. Here’s a list of ingredients that contain free glutamate in one form or another:
Any hydrolyzed protein
Whey protein concentrate
Whey protein isolate
Soy protein concentrate
Soy protein isolate
Anything protein fortified
Soy sauce extract
Anything enzyme modified
Anything containing enzymes
Anything containing protease
And these are foods that can contain a lot of free glutamate formed during processing
Carrageenan (E 407)
Commercial bouillon, broth and stock
Any flavors or flavoring
Citric acid, Citrate (E 330)
Pectin (E 440)
And these are foods that extremely sensitive people have reacted to:
Modified food starch
Lipolyzed butter fat
Brown rice syrup
Reduced fat milk (skim; 1%; 2%)
Most things low fat or no fat
Anything vitamin enriched
Certain amino acid chelates (used in supplements)
Furthermore, these sensitive souls need to avoid anything fermented, including natural cheese, naturally fermented soy sauce and homemade sauerkraut, and even tomato paste. Interestingly, the late Jack Samuels, creator of truthinlabeling.org (which created the above lists), told me that he could eat cheese made with old-fashioned animal rennet without problem, but reacted strongly to cheese made with vegetarian rennet (which is produced by genetically modified bacteria).
I always purchase organic herbs and spices, often not reading the labels. But I looked carefully at the label of some organic chili powder I recently bought and was shocked to read that it contained “organic rice concentrate.” Rice concentrate is not in any of the above lists, but it is obviously a processed ingredient and why would the company add it to chili powder unless it contributed some kind of zip to the flavor? Just shows you can’t be too careful! Always read labels!
But back to the main point: if you are suffering from any kind of chronic pain or discomfort, try limiting yourself exclusively to whole natural foods that you have prepared yourself. I’m betting you will see an improvement without taking any drugs.
Chapter leaders for the Weston A. Price Foundation can help you find sources of healthy food, especially grass-fed meat, eggs and dairy products, in the area where you live. You can find your local chapter here: https://www.westonaprice.org/find-local-chapter/