MSG!

Bottom line: There may be other reasons to avoid MSG but gluten is not one of them. According to the International Glutamate Information Service (http://www.glutamate.org) monosodium glutamate (MSG) is gluten free. This flavoring “enhancer” is made primarily through fermentation using various sugars and starches, such as sugar cane, beet sugar, corn starch and tapioca starch as starting materials. Wheat starch does not appear to be used.

Why the confusion over gluten-free status? MSG wasn’t always produced using fermentation. It used to be isolated from protein sources that contained high amounts of glutamic acid (monosodium glutamate is a monosodium salt of the amino acid glutamic acid). The protein source typically used was wheat gluten. In fact, glutamic acid was first isolated in 1866 from the wheat prolamin gliadin. When MSG first became available commercially in 1909 it was isolated from wheat flour. Wheat gluten remained the primary source of MSG until the 1960s when other methods of production were developed, including chemical synthesis and fermentation.

If you are still concerned about MSG… keep in mind that under FALCPA if a food regulated by the FDA includes an ingredient that contains wheat protein, the word “wheat” must be included on the food label either in the ingredients list or Contains statement.  In other words, if MSG was isolated from wheat gluten or produced via fermentation using wheat starch, AND it contained protein from wheat, “wheat” would appear on the label of an FDA-regulated food.

BUT even if MSG is either isolated from wheat gluten or fermented using wheat starch as a starting material, keep in mind that MSG is the monosodium salt of the single amino acid glutamic acid. MSG is NOT gluten, or gliadin, or even a celiac-toxic chain of amino acids. Might it contain residual gluten? Possible—maybe–but highly unlikely. This was confirmed by Thomas Grace of Bia Diagnostics in Burlington, Vermont, “It is unlikely that you will find any trace of gluten in MSG.” MSG is a highly processed and purified substance. It has to be in order to impart its flavor “enhancing” properties.

If you are interested in reading accurate information about MSG, please see the publications cited below.

Sources of information:

Ault, Addison. The Monosodium Glutamate Story: The Commercial Production of MSG and Other Amino Acids. Journal of Chemical Education. 2004;81:347-355. Available at: http://www.cornellcollege.edu/chemistry/cstrong/512/MSG.pdf

Sano, Chiaki. History of Glutamate Production. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2009;90:728S-732S. Available at: http://www.ajcn.org/content/90/3/728S.full

Matheis, Gunter. Flavor Modifiers. In Philip R. Ashurst editor Food Flavorings. Gaithersburg, Maryland: Aspen Publishers. 1999:367-405.

Copyright © March 2011 by Tricia Thompson, MS, RD