'Natural' versus 'unnatural' MSG
Much as I respect the Truth in Labeling Campaign and similar consumer-led campaigns to remove various additives from food, they are consumer-led rather than science-led, and they do not have a full, scientific understanding of adverse reactions to foods. As a result they can talk absolute nonsense sometimes.
In the 18 years during which the Truth in Labeling Campaign has extensively studied the subject of monosodium glutamate and the many hidden forms of the reactive component of monosodium glutamate, we have concluded that there is likely more than one biochemical mechanism that causes adverse reactions in MSG-sensitive people. However, we believe that the most common reason for adverse reactions may be an intolerance for one or more of the contaminants that invariably are produced when glutamic acid is freed from protein through adulteration, processing and/or fermentation.
If a food ingredient is untreated, unprocessed and unfermented, even if it contains free glutamic acid, it will only contain L-glutamic acid because higher organisms contain only L-glutamic acid. There will be no contaminants. Consequently, MSG-sensitive people can typically eat tomatoes off of the vine even though they contain free glutamic acid (umami), providing that they are not overripe, and cheeses such as Reggiano Parmesan that are made from raw milk rather than pasteurized milk or milk that has been cultured, and that are made from rennet rather than enzymes. Give the same person a domestic cheese made from pasteurized milk, cultured milk, and/or enzymes and an adverse reaction will often follow. (possibly, any processed free glutamic acid (MSG) from fermentation of Reggiano Parmesan cheese is below the tolerance level of most MSG-sensitive people.) MSG Update – “Natural versus manufactured umami” in Wise Traditions Spring 2008
Sometimes I wonder whether the frequent apologist inserts like this that I find in Wise Traditions articles are planted there because someone has specifically asked for a “Weston A. Price Foundation friendly” answer that justifies the organisation’s many mistakes on what constitutes a healthful food that does not harm sick people.
It is certainly true that there is more than one biochemical mechanism for MSG sensitivity. Glutamate intolerance like other food chemical intolerances are multifactoral and very complex, occuring on a continuum from high tolerance to low tolerance, with different individuals affected with different symptoms.
However the idea that there is a difference between ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ MSG is of course, utter rubbish. In the stomach monosodium glutamate rapidly dissolves into sodium cations and glutamate anions. Glutamate is the anion of L-glutamic acid. The form glutamate occurs in – whether glutamate or glutamic acid – is not in the slightest bit important as the difference is purely a matter of electrical charge and can change at will. For all intents and purposes the form of glutamate found in artificial additives and in natural wholefoods is absolutely identical to the body.
The idea that people can react to a naturally-occurring compound is obviously a matter of confusion for the author of this article, hence in comes the theory that instead of reacting to MSG, people must be reacting to a mysterious ‘contaminant’. The idea that MSG-sensitive people can eat these naturally-occurring glutamates safely is downright wrong and very bad advice to give to glutamate sensitive individuals. I assure you that people are not reacting to mysterious artificial contaminants, they are reacting to MSG. Comprehensive elimination diets and blind capsule challenges performed by the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital have long confirmed MSG reactions. The same reactions are seen in individuals who eat foods that contain natural glutamates in isolation from other food chemicals – like peas for example, which do not contain amines or significant amounts of salicylates. Mysterious-contaminant-paranoia is a phenomenon I encounter often in individuals who are not educated on food chemical intolerance and have not sorted out what they are reacting to and what they are not reacting to.
People create all sorts of funny rules in their heads for why they might be reacting to one food and not reacting to another. Perhaps this author has discovered that he can tolerate a certain brand of cheese. Cheeses from small producers are often not aged for the same length of time or as flavour-refined as mass-produced cheeses, purely due to time and space constraints. It’s quite possible the author got lucky and found a relativley low glutamate Parmesan cheese. It’s also quite possible that people who have these strong beliefs about ‘natural’ foods being pure still have an unusual reaction but blame it on something else they have eaten. People tend to try to prove their beliefs rather than challenge them. This is called confirmation bias, and the Truth in Labeling website is full of these kinds of mistakes. Unfortunately this does nothing for their cause, as any misleading statements or distortion of the facts makes one look less trustworthy to those in the know including those on the opposing team.
Further, people who obsess over a problem with one particular food chemical rarely see the bigger picture. They may observe that they have reactions to foods when they go out to eat, and always blame this on the presence of MSG in those foods (just as people on the GFCF diet blame all of their eating out reactions on ‘hidden gluten’), when it is likely the foods contain a number of other reactive additives, and be relatively higher in other natural food flavour chemicals like amines, salicylates and SLAs. People rarely just have reactions to MSG and natural glutamates alone, usually they are also somewhat sensitive to other food chemicals due to cross-reactivity as different chemicals can trigger the same biochemical pathways in the body.
The article also contains the following contention:
In this writer’s interaction with countless MSG-sensitive people over more than 18 years, I have only communicated with three people who contended that they could tell when MSG was in a food preparation. However, their method of identification was a feeling of an electrical charge, a tingling on their tongue, rather than an actual taste.
I can taste MSG. Why can’t these people? MSG has a very strong, monotonous flavour a bit like salt. It is a strong meaty taste, but without any nuance or subtlety. I find it unpleasant as it tends to drown out all other flavours. This is probably why it is used by manufacturers, because it disguises off-flavours as a result. I can taste glutamate in processed foods, and I can taste it in old meat, cured meat, and in stocks and broths.
If it is true that these people cannot taste MSG, then the reason these people can’t taste MSG is because they don’t know what to look for. They are so used to eating foods that contain natural glutamates and other strong flavours that MSG containing foods do not taste strong or unusual to them. Fresh meat is relatively tasteless compared to the vacuum packed or hung meat most people eat these days. They are probably also used to reacting to foods that do not contain MSG but contain other reactive chemicals which do not have an MSG taste – for example, one cannot taste food colourings or histamine, and reactive SLAs have many different flavours. Only on a comprehensive food chemical elimination diet do people start to be able to taste the difference between foods that will cause adverse reactions and those that will not.