MSG and Free Glutamate: Lurking Everywhere

A few weeks ago, on a trip to British Columbia, I ate in a local restaurant. When eating out, I always try to order something simple, without a gravy or sauce, since these sauces are bound to contain MSG. So I ordered a plain crab cake with rice and vegetables—no sauce, no mayo. Boy, did that crab cake taste good! About midnight I knew why. I woke up with a dry mouth, a terrible thirst and a headache. The next day I felt sore all over, like I’d been in a fight. My hands felt like they had arthritis.

MSG word cloud

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, glutamateglutamic acid, and monosodium glutamate are essentially the same molecule and behave the same way in our bodies.” She provides the following diagram.

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Glutamic Acid, Glutamate, Monosodium Glutamate

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 naturally formed in 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:

Anything hydrolyzed
Any hydrolyzed protein
Calcium caseinate
Sodium caseinate
Yeast extract
Torula yeast
Autolyzed yeast
Textured protein
Whey protein
Whey protein concentrate
Whey protein isolate
Soy protein
Soy protein concentrate
Soy protein isolate
Anything protein fortified
Soy sauce
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
Natural flavor
Citric acid, Citrate (E 330)
Anything ultra-pasteurized
Barley malt
Malted barley
Brewer’s yeast
Pectin (E 440)
Malt extract

And these are foods that extremely sensitive people have reacted to:

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 low fat or no fat
Anything enriched
Anything vitamin enriched
Anything pasteurized
Balsamic vinegar
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 (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:

Author: Sally Fallon Morell

Sally Fallon Morell is best known as the author of Nourishing Traditions®: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats. This well-researched, thought-provoking guide to traditional foods contains a startling message: animal fats and cholesterol are not villains but vital factors in the diet, necessary for normal growth, proper function of the brain and nervous system, protection from disease and optimum energy levels.

8 thoughts on “MSG and Free Glutamate: Lurking Everywhere”

  1. Excellent inclusion of your empirical evidence, Sally!

    The body certainly does not lie – and how the body responds to the products of modern-day food manufacturing does not necessarily equate to “disease symptoms” (as so many medical doctors would have people believe)!

    We need to get you on “Good Morning America” and the like so your penetrating insights can seep more deeply into the collective psyche!

  2. I’d love to ensure my family was eating a diet that was free of any of the above additives, but my word is it ever hard to accomplish this when they are in virtually everything. It’s so discouraging these days how terrible our food supply has become. I have chronic fatigue, which is hard because I don’t really have the energy to cook all of our meals from scratch. But I do what I can.

  3. I think I’ve had fibromyalgia for many years but was diagnosed approximately 5 years ago. I was working at Walmart and was just exhausted. Not the tiredness that sleep helps. I mean totally exhausted, with muscle pain. My primary doctor diagnosed fibromyalgia. He  prescribed Cymbalta around 4 years ago. Cymbalta was approved for Fibromyalgia treatment. Although it did relieve some of the pain, I still suffered from fatigue. November 2017  my doctor started me on Natural Herbal Gardens fibromyalgia Herbal mixture,With the help of Natural Herbal Garden natural herbs I have been able to reverse my symptoms using diet, herbs, which i feel has made the most difference. The Fibromyalgia natural formula immensely helped my condition, it reversed my Fibromyalgia. my muscle pain. And then the joint stiffness, and fatigue. gradually disappeared.

  4. This is from an April 2016 interview of Dr. Peter (Fritz) Kunz who has a farm in Indiana.

    “The PMO pasteurized milk ordinance states that when you remove fat you have to replace the fat soluble vitamins A & D. Apparently the Vitamin A & D have to be stabilized with a chemical compound to keep them miscible in basically an aqueous solution. The compound apparently contains MSG!! We were shocked to find this out and it further confirmed that we did not want to do a reduced fat or skim milk product.”

  5. i got a rash on my arms from being on the keto diet and eating too much preseasoned , ready to cook chicken and barbq chicken from Costco. i had a decent tolerance level for msg but got a rash 20 years ago from the Costco kimchi.
    If I had known they were using msg everywhere, i would have been more careful. Now i seem to have no tolerance and still have flare ups of the rash that never completely goes away and has to stay out of the sun. The rest of my body takes sun with no problem. This has been going on for 4 months now and i have a VERY limited home make diet. I miss being able to go out for dinner.

  6. So incredibly jubilant to have found this blog! I think I ate all of the things in the above mentioned lists in the 90’s and 2000’s. Sad face. I was living(born and raised) in Germany until ’92 and never had gut issues until moving to Southern California when my parents retired. I am crawling my way back to a healthy digestive system 30 years later after only very recently drinking strictly raw milk, raw cheese, pastured eggs and meat, cooked veggies, omitting coffee(yikes!),etc. First time in 30 years that I am not bloated after a meal and don’t have to run to the bathroom every few hours.
    Absolutely devouring all of your information! Thank you!

  7. I’ve carried this list with me for years…. stopped using MSG years ago and was actually dismissed from psychiatric care after I did so. Now I avoid anything artificial at all costs and suffer allergic like reactions if I accidentally have anything with msg or other artificial ingredients.

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