Despite common perception, the toxic food additive MSG is everywhere - not just in Chinese food! This unnecessary flavor enhancer is actually hidden under dozens of ingredient names in all sorts of processed foods, restaurant foods, beverages, chewing gums, vitamins and supplements. It is added to foods in higher dosages than ever before, and more and more people are experiencing symptoms from ingesting it.
Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) is a health concern because it contains glutamate. Glutamate is the salt form of "Free Glutamic Acid." Glutamate is an excitotoxin that has been associated with many health problems (e.g., headaches, migraines, digestive distress, seizures, heart attacks, vision problems), and you’ll find many more common symptoms if you do an Internet search for “symptoms of MSG toxicity.” Due to insufficient labeling laws, food companies use many ingredient names (like those listed below) to disguise Free Glutamic Acid in their products, so you must look for more than just "MSG" on food labels if you wish to avoid this toxin and its associated health effects.
To understand why processed Free Glutamic Acid has been associated with so many health problems, it is helpful to learn about natural Glutamic Acid. Glutamic Acid is an amino acid (a building block of protein) that occurs naturally in the body as one of many excitatory neurotransmitters (chemicals that "excite" cells into action). Glutamic Acid occurs naturally in certain unprocessed, whole foods (e.g., tomatoes). In this natural form, it is bound (i.e., linked) together with other amino acids to form a protein. Once ingested, the protein is broken down slowly by the digestive system. The Glutamic Acid is released gradually into the blood stream and is non-toxic. If one ingests more glutamate than the body needs, the cells clear away the excess just as they were designed to do. The digestion of these natural, whole food sources releases into the bloodstream such a small amount of Glutamic Acid that even people who react to processed MSG (i.e., “free glutamic acid”) can usually tolerate them.
When food manufacturers break down a protein during processing (usually from corn, soy, wheat, tapioca starch, molasses or beet sugar), Glutamic Acid is "freed" from the links that bind it to other amino acids in nature. MSG (i.e., “monosodium glutamate”) and dozens of other ingredients used by the food industry contain this free form of glutamate. When one ingests this already-broken-down, free form of glutamate, blood levels of glutamate can spike to more than 20 times the usual amount because the digestive system does not have to work to break down the links. The human nervous system is not equipped to handle such quickly-absorbed doses. The excess glutamate cannot be efficiently cleared away, so it accumulates around the cells throughout the body, over-exciting them to the point of damage or death.
This disruption at the cellular level causes and exacerbates a wide range of physiological reactions from runny noses to heart palpitations. According to experts like Dr. Russell Blaylock, M.D., Free Glutamic Acid is an excitotoxin, not an allergen. Some people are more sensitive to lower dosages than others, but it affects everyone to some degree. There is often a delay between ingestion and the onset of symptoms, preventing many people from realizing the connection between their symptoms and their diet. Most acute symptoms will display within 48 hours (many within 30 minutes) of ingestion, but some health effects (e.g., obesity, infertility) have been demonstrated in lab mice long after exposure.
Processed free glutamate over-stimulates our taste buds, tricking us into thinking that these foods are extremely flavorful. Because glutamate receptors line various organs and tissues (brain, heart, lungs, digestive tract, etc.) throughout the body, ingesting free glutamate can over-stimulate any of these systems and cause a variety of symptoms. Luckily, much of this damage is reversible, and many sufferers resolve their symptoms (often within 7-10 days) by completely eliminating Free Glutamic Acid from their diets.
To prevent these effects and to avoid this hidden additive, you must carefully scrutinize the ingredients list on every item one consumes and avoid any mysterious or vague ingredients on product labels. It is best to prepare meals at home from basic, whole food ingredients and to minimize reliance on processed foods. Many of the hidden sources of MSG in our food supply are listed below. These ingredients contain free glutamate in varying amounts. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list because the list is continually expanding as food companies realize that consumers are catching on to their tactics.
Please don’t become overwhelmed by reading this list. There are still plenty of healthy food options for you to eat; you’ll just need to prepare most of them at home. And, with the aid of my recipes and this shopping guide, your transition will surely be a lot smoother than mine was!
- “All Natural” Products – The label “All Natural” is not a regulated term, so MSG-filled products are allowed to make this claim on the front of their packages. Don’t be fooled by claims on the front label of anything you consume; always check the ingredients list on the back of the package
- Annatto – This ingredient is extracted from the seeds of the achiote tree. Therefore, it is a “natural color,” and products containing it may be labeled as “natural” (which, again, isn’t a regulated term, anyway). Annatto is commonly used to give cheddar cheese and butter a yellow/orange color, and it is also added to ice cream and other products, as well. But just because something is “natural,” that does not mean it is safe. In fact, annatto has been linked to allergic reactions and irritable bowel symptoms in sensitive individuals. Some folks also report MSG-like reactions to annatto and suspect that free glutamic acid may be released during the processing of this ingredient.
- Aspartame – Aspartame is an artificial sweetener that exhibits similar neurotoxic effects in the body as MSG. Artificial sweeteners are commonly found in diet drinks, chewing gum, vitamins, mints, diet bars, sugar-free items, etc. I recommend everyone avoid all artificial sweeteners.
- Autolyzed Yeast (or Extract) – This is not the same thing as yeast! This ingredient is a flavor enhancer that contains free glutamic acid. Autolyzed yeast is added to a variety of products including chips, soups, processed vegetarian foods, etc.
- Baby Formula – Read the label on many commercially-prepared baby formulas, and you’ll find plenty of these hidden sources of MSG listed!
- Barley Malt – This ingredient contains free glutamic acid. It is very commonly added to baking flours to enhance the color and flavor of cereals and baked goods (even “bakery-fresh” breads). It is also added to most of the “All Purpose” flours you’ll find at the grocery store. Look for plain, unbleached white flour, instead, when purchasing flour for your own baking. It’s more expensive and not all stores carry it. It is generally available at natural food stores or in the health food section at regular grocery stores; and it does not contain barley malt.
- Beverages – Many juices, flavored drinks and sodas contain hidden MSG in the form of color and/or flavor enhancers or preservatives like “caramel color” (see below), “natural flavor,” and “citric acid.” Save yourself the trouble, and just drink water! If you’d like to drink tea, please read the “Tea” section of this guide for more information.
- Bouillon – I have never found a commercially-prepared bouillon that doesn’t contain at least one potential source of hidden MSG.
- Broth – Many brands available at grocery stores contain vague words like “spices” or “flavor” or MSG-containing ingredients like “autolyzed yeast” (see above) in their ingredients list, so be sure to check the label. It’s cheap and easy to make your own broth at home; and it tastes much better, too! We often freeze or can our Homemade Broth to preserve it for future convenient use. Some folks who are extremely sensitive to free glutamic acid may experience reactions even to homemade broths because, when exposed to lengthy cooking times, protein-rich foods (like meat) are broken down and more free glutamate is released than these folks can handle. Such individuals are advised not to allow meats, beans or glutamate-rich vegetables (e.g., tomatoes) to simmer any longer than necessary.
- Calcium Caseinate – This ingredient may contain free glutamic acid as a by-product of the breakdown of the milk protein during processing. It’s often found in unlikely places like canned tuna!
- Caramel Coloring or Flavoring – This ingredient sometimes contains free glutamic acid as a by-product of processing. It’s often added to beverages, cheap soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, etc.
- Carrageenan – This inflammatory ingredient is added to products for thickening purposes. It is especially common in dairy products (cottage cheese, sour cream, whipping cream, flavored milks, etc.). It contains free glutamic acid because it’s processed from seaweed which is naturally rich in glutamate. It is also frequently found in toothpaste, and it can contribute to gum sensitivity.
- Chewing Gum – Most chewing gums (even “natural” brands) contain problematic ingredients such as “natural flavors,” “aspartame” and other artificial sweeteners - even when the gum is not a “sugar-free” variety! Although chewing gum is not something you swallow, these additives are still absorbed into your bloodstream. And don’t overlook breath mints, either. Many of them contain these same problematic ingredients, as well!
- Citric Acid – This additive may cause no problems when it’s derived from citrus fruit, but that is rarely the case. Citric acid is usually derived from corn (using hydrolysis), so it may contain free glutamate residue from the processing of the corn protein. It is often used as a preservative in canned tomato products, soups, etc.
- Corn Syrup and Corn Syrup Solids – These ingredients are corn derivatives, so free glutamic acid may be present as a by-product of the processing.
- Cornstarch – This ingredient is a corn derivative, so free glutamic acid may be present as a by-product of the processing. It is added to baking powder, powdered sugar, etc.
- Dextrose – This ingredient is a corn derivative, so free glutamic acid may be present as a by-product of the processing.
- Dry Milk Solids – This ingredient may contain free glutamic acid as a by-product of processing. It is frequently added to cheese and other skim-milk products.
- Enriched or Vitamin-Enriched products – Refined flour products (e.g., white bread, white pasta, white flour, and cereals), white rice, milk, fruit juices, etc. are often enriched with synthetic vitamins and minerals. The binders (e.g., cornstarch – see above) that are used during the enrichment process sometimes contain free glutamic acid.
- Enzyme-Modified (anything) – Enzymes are used to break down proteins; so when they are included in an ingredients list, there is a good chance that free glutamic acid is present in the product as a “side effect” of this break-down process.
- Fermented (anything) – The fermentation process releases free amino acids. Anytime a fermented ingredient is listed on a product label, there’s a good chance that free glutamic acid is present in the product as a “side effect” of this process.
- Flavors, Flavoring, Natural Flavor, Artificial Flavor – These ingredients are vague and may contain free glutamic acid. If you wish to eat the product, you should contact the manufacturer directly to determine whether or not their “flavor/flavoring” contains any “free glutamic acid.” Do not ask if it contains “MSG” because they can tell you “no” as long as it contains no “pure MSG,” and the item could still contain other sources of free glutamic acid. In my household, we choose to avoid ingredients like these regardless of a manufacturer’s response.
- Flour – There are two potential problems with flour. If it is refined white flour (i.e., not whole grain), it may be enriched (see above); and products added during the enrichment process sometimes contain free glutamic acid. Secondly, if the flour contains “malted barley flour,” as is often the case with All Purpose and other baking flours, that’s another source of free glutamic acid. Check the ingredients list when you buy flour, and read the “Unbleached White Flour” and “Whole-Wheat Flour” sections of this guide for my specific recommendations. Also, if you purchase a prepared food item that lists “flour” in its ingredients list, you will have no way to know which of these types of flour was used (and, thus, the potential free glutamate content) without contacting the manufacturer directly.
- Flowing Agents – Additives are commonly added to salt and seasoning mixes (e.g., chili powder) to keep the spice granules from caking together. Some of these agents (e.g., cornstarch) may contain free glutamic acid, so it’s best to avoid them.
- Garlic Salt – Be sure to read the ingredients lists on every spice you purchase. Garlic salt, for example, often contains all sorts of flavor enhancers and flowing agents (see above); not just “garlic” and “salt” like you may assume! Look for brands that contain only these two ingredients or purchase garlic granules and salt separately, instead.
- Gelatin – This ingredient is generally derived from animal bones/tendons/skins/etc. These sources are all very rich in natural, bound glutamate, which becomes free glutamic acid during processing. Gelatin is used in gelatin desserts, gummy candies, vitamins, medicinal capsules, etc.
- Guar Gum & other vegetable gums – These ingredients are used as fat substitutes and stabilizers in salad dressings and other condiments, cream cheese and non-dairy milks (e.g., coconut milk). Although they are created from natural plants (e.g., guar beans), they may contain free glutamic acid as a by-product of processing. These gums may cause gastrointestinal discomfort and other symptoms.
- High Fructose Corn Syrup – (see “Corn Syrup”)
- Hydrolysis (Hydrolyzed Plant/Vegetable Proteins: corn, soy, wheat, oat, gluten) – The hydrolysis process releases free glutamic acid when it is used to break down protein-rich foods such as corn, soy or wheat.
- L-cysteine – This ingredient is another excitotoxin that affects our bodies in similar ways as free glutamic acid. It is primarily found in baked goods, and it’s frequently used in tortillas.
- Lecithin and Soy Lecithin – This ingredient is often made from hydrolyzed soy (see above), and free glutamic acid may be present as a by-product of this processing method. This ingredient improves the texture of candies, chocolate bars, chocolate chips, etc. It is used in countless other foods, as well.
- Liquid Malt – This ingredient is sometimes added to baked goods to enhance the color and flavor. (See “Barley Malt”)
- “Low Fat” or “No Fat” items - Fat is responsible for much of the flavor of food. When manufacturers reduce or eliminate fat in their products, they must add other ingredients to enhance the flavor and make it palatable. Often this is done by adding hidden sources of MSG.
- Malted Barley (Flour), Malt Extract, Malt Syrup – (see “Barley Malt”)
- Maltodextrin – This ingredient is a corn derivative, so free glutamic acid may be present as a by-product of the processing.
- Milk Powder – This ingredient may contain free glutamic acid as a by-product of processing.
- Modified Food Starch – This additive is made from soy, potatoes, whey or corn; and it may contain free glutamic acid as a result of processing. This ingredient is used as a fat substitute in “reduced-fat” products and is also used to stabilize and thicken a variety of prepared foods (e.g., desserts, sauces, and salad dressings).
- Molasses – Molasses is extracted from sugar cane or sugar beets, and it is naturally rich in unprocessed, bound glutamate. Consumers who are highly sensitive to glutamate may experience symptoms from eating natural molasses. Because molasses is naturally rich in glutamate, it is often used by the food industry to produce the processed toxic form of glutamate that is used as a flavor enhancer in many foods. Some consumers won’t experience reactions to molasses as long as the molasses is “unsulfured.” Molasses is “sulphured” (i.e., contains “sulfites”) unless it is specifically labeled as “unsulphured,” so read labels carefully. Sulfur dioxide is often used during the processing of molasses to lighten its color and extend its shelf life. If you are sensitive to sulfites and/or molasses, please be aware that even if you don’t purchase molasses directly, it is often added to other foods (e.g., brown sugar) to add color and/or flavor. Always check ingredient lists!
- Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) – This ingredient is pure MSG, and it contains about 78% free glutamic acid – the highest percentage contained in any ingredient on the market! MSG is often made by processing corn, wheat starch, tapioca starch, molasses or beet sugar in such a way that the natural bound glutamates in these foods are released as free glutamic acid. Pure MSG is found in many products, such as dry seasonings, soups, flavored potato chips, etc. Remember, though, “free glutamic acid” is what makes MSG problematic. If you wish to fully escape its effects, you must avoid as many of the sources of processed free glutamate listed here as possible.
- “MSG-Free” – Products labeled as “MSG-Free” on the front label are claiming not to contain pure “Monosodium Glutamate” (see above). However, these foods may contain any number of the other hidden sources of free glutamic acid listed here. So always judge products by their ingredients lists, not by the claims on their front labels!
- Natural Flavors (or “Flavoring”) – If you find this ingredient on a product, it may or may not contain free glutamic acid. The FDA permits “autolyzed yeast” and “hydrolyzed protein” to be labeled as “natural flavors” on product labels. Some “natural flavors” are actually natural flavors like essential oils (e.g., peppermint oil). In such cases, the words “natural flavor” may simply be used to protect the proprietary formula of a product. If you wish to eat the product, you should contact the manufacturer directly to determine whether or not their “flavor/flavoring” contains any “free glutamic acid.” Do not ask if it contains “MSG” because they can tell you “no” as long as it contains no “pure MSG,” and the item could still contain other sources of free glutamic acid.
- “No MSG”- Products labeled as containing “No MSG” are claiming not to contain pure “Monosodium Glutamate” (see above). This label does not guarantee that no other sources of free glutamic acid are added to a product. So always judge products by their ingredients lists, not by the claims on their front labels!
- “No MSG Added” – Free glutamic acid (the problematic component of MSG) is often generated as a side effect of processing and, thus, it is not technically “added” to products in these cases. Also, products sometimes claim “No MSG Added” on their front label even when they contain other possible sources of free glutamic acid such as cornstarch, meat broth, fermented ingredients, etc. “No MSG Added” does not guarantee that no other sources of free glutamic acid (besides pure MSG) are added to a product. So always judge products by their ingredients lists, not by the claims on their front labels!
- Nuts – See the “Nuts” section of this guide for details and my specific recommendations.
- Oils – Some cooking oils contain free glutamic acid residue, especially if the plant they are derived from is naturally high in glutamate (e.g., corn, soy, peanut, and sunflower). High temperatures are used to create such oils, and the heat breaks down the proteins and releases free glutamate in the product. Free glutamate remains in the oils as a result of processing. Avoid purchasing such oils or any products that contain them (e.g., most snack chips). It is best to stick with butter, olive oil, coconut oil and/or lard for all of your cooking needs.
- Pectin – This ingredient is often used as a gelling agent in jellies, jams, “gummy” candies, vitamins, etc. It may contain free glutamic acid.
- Protein (corn, wheat, rice, oat, soy, or whey) – The process used to isolate the protein in these foods releases free glutamic acid. This includes the “protein” ingredients used in weight-loss drinks, protein shakes, baby formulas, etc.
- Protein-Fortified (anything) – (See “Protein” section - above) Milk is one example of a food that is sometimes protein-fortified. (See also “dry milk solids”)
- Rice Syrup or Brown Rice Syrup – This ingredient may contain free glutamic acid as a result of processing. It is used as a “natural” sweetener, especially in products sold at many health food stores (e.g., cereals, snack bars).
- Salad – Salad mixes that are pre-washed at the factory may be rinsed in a citric acid solution which causes MSG reactions in some folks. The best option is to purchase whole heads of lettuce and cut and wash them yourself.
- Salt – Regular table salt, any iodized salt, and even many sea salts contain free glutamic acid in the anti-caking agents and iodine carriers they contain (e.g., cornstarch, dextrose, yellow prussiate of soda). Look for brands of salt in which the only ingredient listed is “salt.” See the “Salt” section of this guide for more details.
- Smoke Flavor (Flavoring) – This ingredient may contain free glutamic acid or pure MSG. It is often added to marinades, sauces (e.g., BBQ), packaged meats, etc.
- Soy Lecithin – This ingredient is often made from hydrolyzed soy, so free glutamic acid may be present as a by-product of this processing method. This ingredient improves the texture of candies, chocolate bars, chocolate chips, etc. And it’s used in countless other foods, as well.
- Soy Protein (Concentrate/Isolate) - This ingredient is used to boost the protein content and/or flavor of foods, and it contains free glutamic acid as a result of breaking down the soy protein into amino acids. It is often used in protein bars/shakes, prepared vegetarian foods, etc.
- Soy Sauce or Extract – Some folks are sensitive to soy sauce in any amount because the process of fermenting protein-rich soy beans releases free glutamic acid. Cheaper brands are even worse because they usually contain additional hidden sources of MSG and caramel coloring, as well!
- “Spices” & “Seasonings” – Do not assume that these words on an ingredients list are short-hand for a blend of dry herbs and spices. Sometimes that is the case, and sometimes it’s not. These words are used to disguise pure MSG in some meat products. In other foods, these designations may disguise other hidden sources of free glutamic acid.
- Stevia – Stevia is a great no-calorie, natural sweetener. Look for it in its natural form without any added ingredients. Ask an associate at your local natural health store to be sure you’re purchasing the appropriate form. Many companies are producing altered versions of this sweetener to which they add maltodextrin and other sources of free glutamic acid.
- Stock – (see “Broth”)
- Tea (including bags and loose leaf teas that you brew yourself!) – Many “flavored” teas contain ingredients like “natural flavors,” which can disguise free glutamic acid. Often within a particular brand, some flavors will contain just pure tea and other flavors will contain additives; so check every label. Many teas are flavored with herbs (e.g., Chamomile) which are fine. If you are unsure whether an ingredient is an herb or an additive, a quick Internet search is helpful. An associate at your local natural foods store or specialty tea shop would be a good resource, as well.
- Tomatoes and Tomato Products – Tomatoes are naturally high in bound glutamate. Folks who are sensitive to glutamate should not cook tomatoes any longer than necessary. Canned tomato products (diced tomatoes, tomato sauce, etc.) often contain citric acid, as well, which may contain free glutamic acid. Tomato paste often does not contain citric acid, and it’s relatively easy to find a brand at any store that contains only “tomatoes.” See the “Tomato Products” section of this guide for my specific suggestions regarding canned tomato products.
- Tooth Products – Some toothpastes and mouthwashes contain ingredients that will cause MSG-reactions for some people. Such ingredients include aspartame, natural flavor and carrageenan. I personally suffered from sensitive gums until learning that carrageenan is inflammatory and switching toothpastes.
- Torula Yeast – This ingredient contains high levels of free glutamic acid. It’s used as a flavor enhancer in many snack foods, seasoning mixes, crackers, etc. (even those advertised as “natural”).
- Ultra-Pasteurized (anything) – The process of ultra pasteurization exposes foods to very high heat levels to extend shelf life. Unfortunately, such high temperatures also break down any proteins that are present into amino acids, like free glutamic acid. Organic dairy products are frequently ultra-pasteurized. Most non-dairy milks are also ultra-pasteurized.
- Vinegar – Because white vinegar is distilled from glutamate-rich corn, free glutamic acid may be present. A better choice is apple cider vinegar.
- Vitamins and Medications - Many contain inactive ingredients, such as cornstarch and dextrose, which are forms of free glutamic acid. Many also contain other additives, binders and artificial sweeteners. I am not dispensing medical advice regarding any supplements. I’m simply advising you to check the ingredients lists for unwanted additives in these items. Always consult with a medical professional. A friend of mine was taking fish oil capsules because she heard fish oil was good for the heart. She started to experience “racing heart” symptoms only to discover that she was reacting to the fish oil capsules themselves, which did contain “gelatin” as one of the inactive ingredients. Animal gelatin is comprised of over 11% free glutamic acid!
- Whey – Whey is a by-product of cheese making, and it is high in protein. When it is processed into a powdered form, these proteins are broken down and free glutamic acid is released. This powder is then added to processed foods like ice cream, protein powders/drinks/bars, candy, etc.
- Xanthan Gum – This ingredient is used frequently as a thickening agent and stabilizer in cream cheese, non-dairy milks (e.g., coconut milk), salad dressings, sauces and gluten-free baked goods. It is created through a fermentation process involving bacteria and a sugar source (generally from corn, soy, wheat or dairy). Free glutamic acid is released during the fermentation process used to create this ingredient.
- Yeast – Because fermentation of molasses is involved in the manufacturing of yeast, most yeast products contain some amount of free glutamic acid. You’ll need to determine for yourself whether or not this amount of free glutamate causes reactions for you and adjust the amount of yeast-containing foods in your diet accordingly. At the very least, select a brand of yeast that contains no other additives or ingredients (e.g., Rapunzel brand).
- Yeast Extract – This ingredient is not the same as yeast; it is a flavor enhancer created by processing yeast in a way that releases free glutamic acid. This ingredient is commonly found in processed vegetarian foods, etc.
- Yogurt - Many varieties (especially flavored varieties) contain sources of free glutamic acid. See the “Yogurt” section for my specific recommendations about yogurt selection.