MSG, Wheat Gluten, and Restaurants

MSG, monosodium glutamate, is a food additive, the effects of which are hotly debated. While the FDA insists that it is safe for consumption by most people, those who are sensitive to it experience a wide range of side effects, unpleasant to debilitating. It is one of the oldest flavor enhancers, dating back at least 8000 years in fish sauce.

Glutamate is a naturally occurring non-essential amino acid. "Non-essential" does not mean that our body does not need it. What this means is that it is produced in the body and we do not have to obtain it from an external (dietary) source. However, we do regularly eat glutamate in such foods as fish, chicken, mushrooms, cheese, and some vegetables. There are two kinds of glutamate, L-glutamate and D-glutamate. These molecules are simply mirror images of each other. When one of these molecules joins with a sodium atom it becomes a salt, and then becomes monosodium glutamate. Commercially produced MSG is a mix of L- and D-glutamates.

One source of glutamates is from wheat gluten. Wheat gluten is simply the protein part of the wheat and proteins are made of amino acids. When the gluten is subjected to the processes which extract and concentrate it, these glutamates are produced. Their effects will be the same as those of the glutamates from MSG. Therefore, anyone with gluten allergies needs to also avoid MSG.

Watching out for MSG and glutamates from gluten is not as simple as reading labels, although that is a good place to start. D-glutamate is a byproduct of any number of food production processes which are not listed on labels.

The easy place to start when eating out is to eliminate fast food restaurants. Virtually all prepared seasonings, sauces, coatings, salad dressings, croutons, and soups contain MSG. Fast foods use such products liberally. Packaged chips are problematic, especially cheese coated, or other flavored snack chips. Chinese food is loaded with MSG. Gluten byproducts are used as thickeners in common foods like ice cream and ketchup.

But how about better restaurants? Are you safer there? Not really. You should avoid all sausage or processed meats, cheese, salad dressings, sauces, soups (because they are usually prepared with a packaged soup base), gelatin, and gravies.

A big part of the problem is that free glutamates (those not chemically bound to proteins) are produced in any number of processes that don't require products to be labeled as containing MSG. Some of these glutamates include hydrolyzed vegetable proteins, autolyzed yeast, hydrolyzed yeast, yeast extract, soy extracts, and protein isolate. On food labels these products may be listed as "spices" or "natural flavorings. Ultra-pasteurized dairy products contain free glutamates.

How can it happen that free glutamates appear in food to which no MSG has been added? Food preparation that boils bound glutamates in the presence of acid changes them to free glutamates. Thus they have the same effect on the body as adding commercially prepared MSG. Common foods which contain bound glutamates are wheat, milk, corn, seaweeds (how the Japanese discovered MSG), beef, soy, and more. Therefore, many tasty foods such as Italian tomato sauce, parmesan cheese, malted barley, and lots more contain free glutamates, which taste good, without anyone adding a bit of commercially prepared MSG.

Even if a person is extremely careful about ordering in a restaurant it may not be enough to prevent them from ingesting free glutamates. Some people are so sensitive that they cannot eat anything cooked on a grill which has been previously used to cook products containing MSG.

In any case, a person's own sensitivity to MSG should determine how willing they are to risk eating any foods that they did not prepare themselves.