We all learned that MSG was a nasty contaminant commonly found in fast food restaurant meals (especially Chinese and Japanese dishes) years ago, and that the food industry has been drugging us with it by adding it to flavor our foods as a cheaper alternative to high quality salts. However, MSG sadly lurks in some pretty sneaky places that most people aren’t aware of. Unless you’re a label fiend (guilty as charged here!), you might not be able to spot it since the FDA doesn’t require it to be labeled as Monosodium Glutamate or Glutamic Acid (what MSG essentially stands for). It can actually be listed under 40 or more ingredients on a food label, which makes eating whole foods more important than ever.
But we should all learn to spot MSG more easily than we are able to now. It’s a leading cause of not just headaches and overall fatigue, but also food addiction, excessive thirst and excessive cravings. Some studies show it can also change our brain chemistry and change our neurological function. Yikes! Oh, and if you’re concerned about your weight and heart, it’s also been linked to weight gain, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and a host of other metabolic problems.
What You Should Know:
Yes, it is true that glutamic acid (a non-essential amino acid) is found in many foods naturally because it is an amino acid after all. The problem isn’t with glutamic acid, it’s with highly processed forms of glutamic acid due to the way the processing changes the structures and renders them harmful to your body. When high heat is exposed to glutamic acid and several steps of processing occur, this increases the free form of glutamic acid (MSG) in the product, which makes it a health hazard. This is especially true with high protein foods, but can also apply to some other foods as you’ll see as well. Many producers of processed protein products may advocate that glutamic acid in these products aren’t harmful. What you need to know is that highly processed and highly heated forms of any natural protein aren’t healthy for your body, especially when their protein structure changes and it increases free form MSG in the body. Not to mention, these foods do not compare to the benefits you’ll get from eating whole food products or products that don’t undergo such extensive processing.
That being said, if you’re looking to avoid MSG, here are five given sources that contain increased levels of MSG that you’ll want to be on the lookout for.
1. Yeast Extract, Yeast, or Autolyzed Yeast
If you see this ingredient listed and think, “Oh, this has nutritional yeast!”, then you better think again. Yeast extract is not a friendly type of yeast, nor is it something you want to consume if at all possible. It’s a cheap, easy way to flavor food that not only contains MSG, but also comes from moldy yeast (yuck!) that disrupts your beneficial levels of good digestive bacteria. Since maintaining a healthy microbiome is vital to your health, avoiding this given source of MSG is important on a number of levels. You’ll usually find yeast or yeast extract listed in breads, condiments, soup mixes, soups, broths, frozen foods, and even some natural food products. Nutritional yeast will be listed as such and is from a whole other type of food with health benefits that does not contain MSG.
2. Hydrolyzed Protein
Hydrolyzed protein is often used in protein bars (specifically those with whey and soy isolates) and is used to thicken food products while also upping the protein content. It’s also suspect to be found in dry mixes and most any highly processed food containing protein. Stick to whole food-based proteins (lentils, chickpeas, greens, oats, quinoa, nuts, seeds, etc.) instead of relying on bars and whey or processed soy-based shakes.
3. Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP)
This one might surprise some people since it’s a common cheap souce of vegan protein and found in many veggie burgers, but Truth in Labeling who manages the food labeling of MSG says this is one of the most common and given places that MSG lurks. Textured vegetable protein is made from defatted soy flour that has been cooked under pressure at very high heats and then dried. It is treated with chemicals during the process and produced at such a high heat, this denatures the proteins and also changes their structure. Plus, when you look at TVP, you’ll notice it looks absolutely nothing like whole soybeans. It’s tiny, very hard crumbly pieces of soy that have to be cooked and reconstituted with water. Due to the way the proteins are cooked and highly heated in TVP, it increases the natural glutamic acid (free MSG) in the product.
Many types of TVP also contain added MSG for flavoring purposes, and some even contain gluten during processing as well. It might be one reason so many people react negatively to it, and it’s also not the only way to obtain protein in a vegan diet. Here are our favorite soy-free sources, along with some clean protein sources to put on your plate in place of MSG-laden options. If you decide that you enjoy TVP on a vegan diet, then please do be mindful of how it works for you and any reactions you might have to it. Some people may do better with whole forms of soy such as edamame, tofu, or fermented forms of soy protein, such as tempeh and the condiment miso.
You might see this and think of milk – well, you’d be right. Calcium caseinate and sodium caseinate are two dairy derivatives from casein (a milk protein) that are commonly used in protein powders and protein bars, but they may also be included in many vegetarian processed foods and some dry mixes like baking or cooking products. Caseinates are a source of MSG due to the high heat they’re exposed to during processing, which increases the glutamic acid that forms MSG. Whey protein, casein protein, and all other highly heated sources of protein are also sources of proccesed free form MSG. Since casein is linked to dangerous health issues food addictions, anything derived from this dairy protein should be avoided as much as possible.
Again, stick to plant-based, whole food options just to be safe. If you’re looking for healthier protein bars, see our homemade, sugar-free protein bars, and for protein powders, stick with hemp protein powder, a clean vegan protein powder free of allergens, or see our tips on how to make it yourself!
5. Anything “Enzyme Modified”
Added enzymes to food can sometimes include MSG. This doesn’t usually pertain to the digestive enzymes you might be familiar with, but instead, modified enzymes are usually produced from yeasts for cheap flavorings for processed foods. Check breads, soups, frozen foods and a variety of condiments like salad dressing for this source. Check out our salad dressing options and ways to flavor your food the healthy way instead of resorting to processed options.
Other common names for MSG include: natural flavors, spices, seasonings, and modified food starch just to name some of the most common. It’s almost always found in commercial soups, breads, salad dressings, condiments, highly processed protein bars and anything with whey or soy protein isolate.
How to Avoid MSG
The best way to avoid MSG is to choose whole foods first. You can also read labels and look under the Nutrition Label Panel. Items that contain no MSG will typically say so under the allergy section where the product reads: “Contains …”. Many products (like vegetable broths,breads, dressings, soy products, sweeteners, spices, protein bars, etc.) are also labeled MSG-free if they do not contain any.
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