What is the difference between the glutamic acid found in protein and the potentially harmful manufactured glutamic acid we refer to as MSG?
What is glutamic acid (glutamate)?
Glutamic acid is an amino acid found in abundance in both plant and animal protein. In humans it is a non-essential amino acid, i.e., the body is capable of producing its own glutamic acid, and is not dependent upon getting glutamic acid from ingested food.
Technically, glutamate is the salt of glutamic acid. Monosodium glutamate and monopotassium glutamate are salts of glutamic acid.
What is MSG?
Outside of the body, glutamic acid is produced commercially in food manufacturing and chemical plants. It’s use in food began in the early 1900s as a component of a flavor enhancer called “monosodium glutamate.” Unfortunately, any glutamic acid that is produced as an individual amino acid outside of the body for use in food, drugs, dietary supplements, cosmetics, personal care products, fertilizers, or other, can cause or exacerbate brain lesions, neuroendocrine disorders, learning disabilities, adverse reactions, neurodegenerative disease and more in animals — including humans. Many people who realize that that glutamic acid that is produced commercially in food manufacturing and chemical plants places humans at risk refer to all commercially produced glutamic acid as “MSG.”
Although an extract of seaweed had been used by oriental cultures to enhance food flavor for over 1,000 years, it was not until 1908 that the essential component responsible for the flavor phenomenon was identified as glutamic acid; and it was in 1910 that industrial production of glutamic acid designed for use in the food additive “monosodium glutamate” commenced. From 1910 until 1956, the process underlying production of “monosodium glutamate” was slow and costly. However, in 1956, the Japanese succeeded in producing glutamic acid by means of bacterial fermentation; and after considerable research to identify suitable strains of microorganisms for starting the requisite cultures, large-scale production of glutamic acid (and food additive “monosodium glutamate”) through fermentation began.
The first published report of an adverse reaction to MSG appeared in 1968 (Kwok, R.H.M. The Chinese restaurant syndrome. Letter to the editor. N Engl J Med 278: 796, 1968). The first evidence that MSG caused brain damage in the form of retinal degeneration was published in 1957 (Lucas, D.R. and Newhouse, J. P. The toxic effect of sodium-L-glutamate on the inner layers of the retina. AMA Arch Ophthalmol 58: 193-201, 1957); and the first published report of brain lesions, obesity, and other disturbances in mice treated with monosodium glutamate was published in 1969 (Olney, J.W. Brain lesions, obesity, and other disturbances in mice treated with monosodium glutamate. Science. 164: 719-721, 1969).
Research over the course of the last four decades has undeniably demonstrated, using laboratory animals, that in addition to its role as a building block of protein, glutamic acid serves as a neurotransmitter vital to the transmission of nerve impulses in many parts of the central nervous system. It has also been undeniably demonstrated, using laboratory animals, that, under certain circumstances, glutamic acid, along with other acidic amino acids, functions as a neurotoxin, causing neuron degeneration and cell death which may be followed by neuroendocrine disorders.
Since man was created, he has eaten food in the form of protein. We understand a fair amount about human protein digestion and subsequent metabolism at the present time. As part of protein digestion, protein is broken down into its constituent amino acids, one of them being glutamic acid. In the human body, the ingested protein is broken down (hydrolyzed) in the stomach and lower intestines through the action of hydrochloric acid and enzymes–both of which are found naturally in the human body. In a healthy human, the body controls the amount of glutamic acid converted from protein in this way, and disposes of the “waste.” Humans do not store excess glutamic acid as such.
While glutamic acid can be freed from or “broken out of” ingested protein that contains glutamic acid, glutamic acid can also be created from other amino acids derived from ingested protein. If an individual never ingested protein with glutamic acid in it, that individual could synthesize all the glutamic acid that is needed from other amino acids. The human brain is also capable of synthesizing glutamic acid according to its metabolic needs, from endogenous materials.
Ingestion of free amino acids is a relatively new phenomenon. In naturally occurring food substances, amino acids rarely are free. Rather, they are linked to other amino acids in peptides or proteins. The free amino acids that are available in the marketplace, either in bulk or in processed foods, are manufactured. Commercially manufactured glutamic acid is produced in food and chemical plants.
We know very little about the digestion and subsequent metabolism of free amino acids, including processed free glutamic acid (MSG). We do know that vitamins, minerals, sugars, and some amino acids can be assimilated without digestion. It is conceivable, therefore, that processed free glutamic acid (MSG) introduced as such into the body is not subject, at all, to the processes of digestion, including the processes of elimination of excesses of that which is ingested. To the extent that the process of digestion or absorption of free amino acids differs from the process of digestion of protein, we can only guess how free amino acids are metabolized by the body. Some persons have assumed that ingested free amino acids, including processed free glutamic acid (MSG) are digested and metabolized in a manner identical to the manner in which protein is digested and metabolized. The evidence which exists, suggests that this is not true.
There are a number of methods presently used for producing MSG. Commercially, each has its advantages and each has its drawbacks. But the MSG produced by every one of these methods can kill brain cells, cause neuroendocrine disorders, cause or exacerbate neurodegenerative disease, and cause adverse reactions in both animals and humans.
In its early editions of the Code of Federal Regulations, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) distinguishes between two classes of commercially manufactured glutamic acid when glutamic acid is to be used as a food additive (Code of Federal Regulations Food and Drugs 21: Parts 100-169, 1990; Code of Federal Regulations Food and Drugs 21: Parts 170-199, 1989).
Class I. Glutamic acid can be produced when a protein is broken down into its constituent amino acids. Glutamic acid can also be produced by bacteria that have the ability to synthesize and excrete glutamic acid outside of their cell membranes. In either case, when the glutamic acid is refined to approximately 99% glutamic acid, the FDA requires that the ingredient/product containing the 99% pure glutamic acid be identified on food labels as “monosodium glutamate.”
Class II. When protein is broken down into its constituent amino acids, and refinement results in an ingredient/product that is less than 99% pure glutamic acid, the product is referred to as a “hydrolyzed protein product” (HPP). There are a myriad of HPP, each of which must be assigned its own unique “common or usual name.” The HPP include (but are not limited to) products called “calcium caseinate,” “sodium caseinate,” “autolyzed yeast,” “hydrolyzed protein,” “hydrolyzed vegetable protein,” “hydrolyzed animal protein,” “yeast extract,” and “textured vegetable protein.” All of these invariably contain commercially manufactured glutamic acid (MSG). The only factor that distinguishes them from the ingredient called “monosodium glutamate” is that the per cent of glutamic acid in the HPP can not, by definition, exceed 98%. Depending on the starting material, the method of protein breakdown used, and the degree to which the HPP have been hydrolyzed, all HPP will contain a variety of free amino acids, possibly small peptides, and even some protein in addition to glutamic acid. All HPP, will also contain impurities, just as all “monosodium glutamate,” will contain impurities.
Reaction flavors (also referred to as processed flavors)
MSG can also be produced by combining specific amino acids, reducing sugars, animal or vegetable fats or oils, and optional ingredients including hydrolyzed vegetable protein (Lin, L.J. Regulatory status of Maillard reaction flavors. Division of Food and Color Additives, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, FDA. August 24, 1992; Food Chemical News. May 31, 1993, p 16). Strictly speaking, these products are not HPP, for there is more involved than simply breaking protein into its constituent amino acids and thereby releasing processed free glutamic acid (MSG). They are mentioned here primarily because the glutamate industry often uses them in ingredients labeled “flavor,” or “flavoring,” (often preceded by the word “natural”) and uses these “reaction flavors” as “clean label” alternatives to “monosodium glutamate” and various HPP. “Clean label” ingredients are ingredients that consumers might not recognize as containing MSG.
Olney and others have demonstrated that HPP, like “monosodium glutamate” cause glutamic acid type hypothalamic lesions and neuroendocrine disorders. HPP contain not only processed free glutamic acid (MSG) but other amino acids, including aspartic acid and L-cysteine, which are known to exert the same or similar neurotoxic effects as glutamic acid. (Olney, J.W., Ho, O.L., and Rhee, V. Brain-damaging potential of protein hydrolysates. N Engl J Med 289: 391-393, 1973; Schainker, B., and Olney, J.W. Glutamate-type hypothalamic-pituitary syndrome in mice treated with aspartate or cysteate in infancy. J Neural Transmission 35: 207-215, 1974).
Humans who suffer adverse reactions to the ingestion of monosodium glutamate also suffer adverse reactions to ingestion of HPP (Schwartz, G. R. In Bad Taste: The MSG Syndrome Santa Fe: Health Press, 1988, pp 7-10). Similarly, they will suffer adverse reactions to ingestion of reaction flavors.
FDA regulations require that products that contain MSG in its “monosodium glutamate” form must be labeled with the words, “monosodium glutamate.” Similarly, FDA regulations require that products that contain MSG in its HPP forms must be labeled with their individual unique “common or usual names.” However, the FDA does not require, and has refused to require, that the MSG in products that contain any source of MSG be identified. The rationale given by the FDA for this refusal is that FDA code does not require that constituents of an ingredient be disclosed to the consumer. The MSG in hydrolyzed vegetable protein, autolyzed yeast, sodium caseinate, etc., is considered, by the FDA, to be a constituent, and therefore does not need to be disclosed. Thus, very often, nothing on the label of a product containing MSG reveals that the product contains MSG.
The FDA goes even farther in allowing MSG to be “hidden,” even more surreptitiously, in food. When sugar is added to a spice package, the addition of the sugar must be disclosed. But when many MSG-containing ingredients are added to “flavor,” “flavoring,” “natural flavoring,” “stock,” or “broth,” not even the “common or usual names” of those particular MSG-containing ingredients need to be disclosed.
Finally, the FDA allows the inclusion of MSG produced during product processing to be totally undisclosed. MSG can be produced during processing if protease enzymes in the presence of any form of protein are included in an ingredient/product. Under certain conditions, if a product contains protein, the addition of protease enzymes during processing will produce MSG in the end product of the food being packaged or manufactured.
It is extremely important to the glutamate industry that consumers should believe that processed free glutamic acid (MSG) is identical to the glutamic acid in intact protein and in higher organisms (like the human body).
The glutamate industry continues to deny that exposure to free glutamic acid found in processed food (MSG) causes adverse reactions including hives, asthma, seizures, and migraine headache; causes brain damage, learning disorders, and endocrine disturbances; and is relevant to diverse diseases of the central nervous system such as addiction, stroke, epilepsy, schizophrenia, anxiety, depression, and degenerative disorders such as ALS, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Central to their argument is the lie that the processed free glutamic acid used in processed food and in pesticide and fertilizer products is identical to the glutamic acid found in unprocessed, unadulterated food and in the human body. Central to the success of their argument is the fact that this glutamate industry lie has never been challenged by a legislator, agency of the US government, or the Courts. When sued by those who have legitimate claims for damages caused by MSG, perpetrators of the lie settle out of court and leave no public record. Legislators and the Courts defer to the FDA, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the FDA, EPA, and USDA refuse to respond or simply lie.
Most of the glutamic acid with which consumers come in contact is found in protein where it is connected to (or bound to) other amino acids in long chains. There are two forms of glutamic acid found in nature: L-glutamic acid and D-glutamic acid. When glutamic acid is found in protein it is referred to as bound glutamic acid. The glutamic acid found in protein is L-glutamic acid, only.
Eating protein (which will contain bound glutamic acid that is L-glutamic acid, only) does not cause either brain damage or adverse reactions.
Glutamic acid outside of protein is referred to as free glutamic acid. Although they may turn out to be artifacts of measurement, at the present time, it would appear that there may be small amounts of free glutamic acid found in some food consumed by humans. That free glutamic acid would have been associated with unprocessed, unadulterated, and/or unfermented protein in the plants and animals (all higher organisms) used as human food. The glutamic acid found in higher organisms, but outside of protein, is always in the same form as the glutamic acid found in protein, i.e., it is L-glutamic acid, only.
The second form of glutamic acid, i.e., D-glutamic acid, is not found naturally in higher organisms. It is found naturally only in the cell walls of certain bacteria.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, industrialists began to manufacture free glutamic acid. Manufactured/processed free glutamic acid (MSG) always contains D-glutamic acid, pyroglutamic acid, and various other impurities in addition to L-glutamic acid. Manufactured/processed free glutamic acid (MSG) causes brain lesions and neuroendocrine disorders in laboratory animals. Manufactured/processed free glutamic acid (MSG) also causes adverse reactions which include skin rash, tachycardia, migraine headache, depression, and seizures in humans.
MSG-sensitive consumers generally refer to all forms of processed free glutamic acid as MSG. Consumers react to all processed free glutamic acid in the same way they react to the processed free glutamic acid in the flavor enhancer called “monosodium glutamate,” provided, of course, that they ingest amounts of processed free glutamic acid (MSG) that exceed their tolerance levels for MSG.
The following pages should be sufficient to demonstrate that processed free glutamic acid used in processed food, drugs, cosmetics, personal care products, dietary supplements, and in pesticide and fertilizer products is not identical to the glutamic acid found in unprocessed, unadulterated food, and in the human body:
How is MSG manufactured? See: How is MSG manufactured?
How do we know that MSG causes brain damage and neuroendocrine disorders? See: How do we know it causes brain damage and neuroendocrine disorders?
How do we know that MSG causes adverse reactions? See: How do we know that MSG causes adverse reactions?
You may find it meaningful to know that glutamate receptors, which were once thought to be present only in the central nervous system, have recently been found in the mouth, lungs, intestines, muscle, and other “peripheral” locations.
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This page was last updated on July 3, 2009.
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