I am starting to see a trend of internet blog articles that suggest that certain proteins (whey or collagen) contain MSG. I can assure you that the authors are mistaken, and due to their lack of knowledge in biochemistry, and basic physics, they are also misleading the general population. In this article, I will show that their assertions defy the laws of physics and that they need to take down their articles and generate other different sources of click bait.

Argument #1: There is MSG in your whey protein

MSG stands for monosodium glutamate. To produce MSG, the free glutamic acid must bind with sodium to form a salt. 1 So does hydrolyzed protein contain MSG?  Well, this would be dependent on three things: 2

  1. There must be free glutamic acid.
  2. There must be free sodium ions.
  3. There must be an enzyme that acts as a catalyst to enable the reaction.

In whey protein, we are dealing with complete proteins, there are no free sodium ions, and there are no enzymes to complete the reaction. 3 Therefore, there is no MSG in whey protein unless, for some strange reason, the company put it there. Why would they do that? It would cost extra money, and it would give some of their customer’s severe side effects.

There is no MSG in your whey!

Argument #2: Free glutamate = MSG

Free glutamate is often added as a flavor enhancer and is naturally occurring in most plants and animals (including you). 4 How does this occur? Let us look at an example of how free glutamate is created in soy sauce:

In the process of making soy sauce, we need soybeans, table salt, and bacteria. The soybeans have proteins which are broken down by the bacteria for food. Some bacteria (particularly those in the Corynebacterium genus) produce MSG from the available materials. 5 How does it do this? C. glutamicum​, a member of the Corynebacterium genus​, contains genetic code to produce enzymes that isolate glutamic acid from complete proteins. Naturally, there is not enough Gibbs free energy to make this process chemically favorable (in thermal dynamics, stable molecules need a strong enough force to break the atoms apart). To break a protein down into individual amino acids, we need some force to make this happen. In the process of fermentation (no oxygen present in the environment), they use a part of their metabolism (the TCA cycle) called alpha-ketoglutarate to create an energy unit called NADP+​. This is then used to activate the enzyme glutamate dehydrogenase​ which separates glutamic acid from protein. 6 7 8 9

Free glutamic acid has a unique flavor. The Japanese call it “umami” which translates to “savory” in English. 10 The free glutamates act upon the T1R1 and T1R3 receptor sites on the tongue 11 These internet bloggers see no difference between the naturally occurring, free glutamates, and man-made monosodium glutamate. The key difference is that naturally occurring free glutamates are consumed in combination with other proteins. Many of these blogs contain the words, “Warning! Do not eat these glutamate containing foods!” suggesting a glutamate free diet. They list foods that contain naturally occurring free glutamate which is balanced out with other amino acids found in protein. Their action on mGluR4 and mGluR1 receptor sites are balanced by the other amino acids. 12 13 14 Soy sauce, for instance, which contains a high free glutamate content for the reason described in the above paragraph, only contains 926mg of free glutamate per 100g. 15 This is rather insignificant in general physiology as, in a healthy individual, free glutamate is found at 50–100 mol/L in human blood. 16 It is silly when you think about it. For a healthy person to have an adverse reaction to a free glutamate, they would have to ingest a significant amount of pure glutamic acid on an empty stomach. Who in their right mind would do that? In full disclosure, if someone were to have a compromised gut barrier or a GABA deficiency, they could have issues with some foods that contain large amounts of free glutamates. But they are going to have health problems anyway because they have a compromised gut barrier or a GABA deficiency! 17 18 19 20

Do not buy into the anti-glutamic acid hype. Remember, every plant and animal protein on Earth have free glutamates. You can not avoid them in your diet and live (you need protein to survive). You also have free glutamate in your blood, so stop being silly!

Free Glutamate does not equal MSG!

Argument #3: Hydrolyzed proteins have free glutamate.

What is “hydrolyzed” protein? Hydrolyzed protein has been partially digested, meaning that it has gone through an enzymatic process that breaks down larger proteins into smaller ones making it easier for people to digest. 21 22 Because of this additional process, it is a premium product and is more costly. Bloggers indicate that “anything hydrolyzed contains MSG,” which is a ridiculous argument beyond measure, so we are going to take this a step further: does the process of hydrolysis create free glutamates? That is more interesting, and spoiler alert, the answer is still no.

I scoured the peer-reviewed literature looking for any evidence that there are free glutamates in hydrolyzed whey, hydrolyzed collagen, or hydrolyzed casein proteins. The only data that I can find is from a nutritional evaluation that compares the free amino-acids against the bound amino acids in the protein chains. 23 There is very little fluctuation in glutamic acid from the process of hydrolysis. Statistically, the variance is insignificant, so we have to assume that there is none.

There is no free glutamate in hydrolyzed proteins!

Argument #4: Glutamine = MSG

What about the amino acid, l-glutamine? Many bloggers are warning people against taking glutamine supplements because they will magically transform into MSG. L-glutamine is the most prevalent amino acid in the human body. 24 Our bodies produce an enzyme called glutaminase which converts l-glutamine to glutamic acid 25 This is such an important process that there is a built-in redundancy in the human genome. GLS and GLS2 are found on different chromosomes. From a purely evolutionary basis, the organisms that developed this redundancy lived on and the ones that did not are gone. That is how important l-glutamine is! Furthermore, there are very high concentrations of glutamine in the human heart. 26 How committed are you to your glutamine-free diet? Committed enough to walk into your physician’s office and ask to have your heart surgically removed and replaced with a mechanical one so that you have less glutamine in your body? Of course not. Do not be silly.

Glutamine is not the same thing as MSG!

The moral of the story is to maintain a healthy level of skepticism when reading internet blogs (even this one). Some red flags that should raise your level of caution are:

  • Fear provoking titles, or “clickbait” (“There is MSG in Your Whey!!!”)
  • Poor quality references or no citations at all.
  • No comment section or forum (completely one directional communication).
  • Based solely on anecdotal reports (“the glutamate-free diet cured my sister’s, friend’s, kid’s autism”).

Sorry, internet bloggers. Protein powders and even pure glutamine supplements do not contain MSG. In the interest of responsible journalism, please take down your articles and replace them with more accurate information. We all make mistakes, right?

  1. http://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/FoodAdditivesIngredients/ucm328728.htm
  2. http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/publications/documents/MSG%20Technical%20Report.pdf
  3. http://www.zju.edu.cn/jzus/2006/B0602/B060202.pdf
  4. http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/publications/documents/MSG%20Technical%20Report.pdf
  5. http://web.mst.edu/~microbio/BIO221_2007/C_glutamicum.htm
  6. http://chemed.chem.purdue.edu/genchem/topicreview/bp/ch21/gibbs.php
  7. http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/90/3/728S.full
  8. https://books.google.com/books?id=sMawO9ci1EAC&pg=PA1&lpg=PA1&dq=corynebacterium+produce+msg&source=bl&ots=uq-uqOThUk&sig=KZlDvbzANI7Wfcqo_3zIVnRQX_w&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi2mMDDrb_MAhWEPiYKHaTcAY8Q6AEIWDAI#v=onepage&q=corynebacterium%20produce%20msg&f=false
  9. https://books.google.com/books?id=vlfMBQAAQBAJ&pg=PA439&lpg=PA439&dq=corynebacterium+produce+msg&source=bl&ots=S8TLGDDqur&sig=s3YszEis-gLEQOaBCao–etr32w&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi2mMDDrb_MAhWEPiYKHaTcAY8Q6AEIWjAJ#v=onepage&q=corynebacterium%20produce%20msg&f=false
  10. http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2013/apr/09/umami-fifth-taste
  11. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25253867
  12. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7891082
  13. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22008743
  14. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2904507/
  15. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/229166830_L-glutamic_acid_content_of_fresh_and_processed_foods
  16. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3136011/
  17. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2904507/
  18. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3136011/
  19. http://scdlifestyle.com/2015/09/l-glutamine-7-dos-and-donts/
  20. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12467378
  21. http://www.mensfitness.com/nutrition/supplements/whats-that-hydrolyzed-whey
  22. http://www.zju.edu.cn/jzus/2006/B0602/B060202.pdf
  23. http://www.zju.edu.cn/jzus/2006/B0602/B060202.pdf
  24. https://examine.com/supplements/glutamine/
  25. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/gene/2744
  26. http://jn.nutrition.org/content/126/4_Suppl/1142S.extract