Is MSG Gluten-Free? Why Does It Make Some People Sick?

Some people seem to react to MSG, but the problem isn't gluten

chinese food in carryout box

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You've probably heard of MSG, and in fact, you've most likely have eaten it in a variety of restaurant and processed foods. Most people know that MSG often is an ingredient in Chinese food, but it's actually common in many different foods and cuisines.

However, even if you've heard of MSG, you may not be sure exactly what it is... and whether or not it fits into your gluten-free diet. In addition, you may believe you have experienced negative health effects from MSG, such as headaches and nausea following meals that likely contained the ingredient.

This MSG primer should help explain the facts about MSG, including whether it's considered to be gluten-free, and whether it causes negative health effects.

What Is MSG?

MSG stands for monosodium glutamate. But what exactly is monosodium glutamate?

The "sodium" part of it probably tipped you off that it might be a form of salt... and yes, it is a form of salt. Meanwhile, the "glutamate" part might scare anyone with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity who knows they must avoid the protein "gluten."

"Glutamate" does sound a lot like "gluten." But just because it sounds like "gluten" doesn't mean glutamate necessarily is related to that dangerous (for us, anyway) protein found in the grains wheat, barley, and rye. These days, it's mostly not.

Glutamate Is an Amino Acid

Glutamate (also known as glutamic acid) is one of the 23 amino acids that are the building blocks of protein. Our bodies actually manufacture glutamate, which is used to help transmit messages between our nerve cells.

To make MSG, you take one molecule of sodium and bind it to one molecule of glutamate. This chemical reaction creates monosodium glutamate, or MSG.

Where Do You Find MSG?

MSG makes food taste good because glutamate has an affinity for the taste buds in our mouths that look for umami, which is a very pleasant savory taste. Umami is a Japanese word roughly translated as "deliciousness."

Most of us think of MSG in conjunction with Chinese restaurants, where it's frequently used as a flavor enhancer. But you may not realize that MSG is used to enhance the flavor of many processed foods you buy in the supermarket, including canned soups (yes, even gluten-free canned soups), canned vegetables, and some brands of chips (even gluten-free chips and other snacks).

MSG and free glutamate can be hidden under a variety of names, including: hydrolyzed protein, autolyzed yeast, yeast nutrient, enzymes, and any ingredient name that includes the term "glutamate."

MSG and Gluten

Decades ago, in the early days of MSG production, manufacturers isolated glutamate from wheat gluten—which happens to be a protein source extremely high in glutamate. So yes, back then MSG was closely related to gluten (and impurities in manufacturing could have rendered the resulting MSG unsafe on the gluten-free diet).

These days, though, the glutamate used in MSG is mainly produced by fermenting sugar beets or molasses. It's also possible to create MSG in the lab directly from its component elements: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, sodium, and oxygen.

Under FDA rules, any MSG made from wheat and still containing wheat protein would need to be labeled as "containing wheat." Unless manufacturing was incredibly sloppy, the level of gluten in any wheat-derived MSG would fall below the legal limit of less than 20 parts per million.

It's true that there are people who react to levels of gluten well below the legal limit, but given that most MSG is not made from wheat, it almost certainly isn't a risk for people who have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

Reactions to MSG

Reported reactions to MSG, also known as "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome," can include headaches, flushing, weakness, anxiety, and nausea. However, the Food and Drug Administration hasn't been able to link these symptoms to MSG specifically.

In fact, studies performed to date haven't shown a clear cause-and-effect relationship between MSG and any symptoms, and most clinicians believe MSG-related symptoms affect a small number of people and are temporary.

For example, one analysis of whether MSG can cause headaches looked at six different studies. The analysis, published in the Journal of Headache and Pain, found that only one study showed an association between headaches and MSG, and that association appeared only in women. However, the analysis concluded that more research is needed to determine whether or not there's truly any effect.

A Word from Verywell

If you'd prefer to avoid MSG entirely, it's possible to do... although it's not easy, as you'll need to avoid many processed foods and skip eating out in lots of restaurants, especially fast food places. But since that's also the prescription for avoiding as much trace gluten as possible (not to mention just eating better generally), you might wind up healthier overall as a result.

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