Health professionals seldom include MSG on their list of foods to avoid for gout. It is considered safe if consumed in small amounts. The issue is that this controversial ingredient is used and disguised in so many popular food products. This post reveals how MSG hidden in food causes sneaky gout attacks.
1. What is Monosodium Glutamate and Umami?
Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is the sodium salt derived from glutamic acid. It is a naturally occurring non-essential amino acid composed of 78% glutamic acid, 21% sodium, 1% contaminant and water.
MSG is made from starch or molasses from sugar cane and sugar beet. It goes through a fermentation period, before a final purification and crystallization process. At room temperature, MSG appears white and crystalline like coarse salt.
It is widely used as a flavor-enhancing additive to bring out the natural flavors in food. MSG provides the purest taste of umami, which means “essence of deliciousness” in Japanese.
The Umami characteristics from MSG
Umami is the fifth taste recognized in addition to sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. MSG is odorless and somewhat tasteless by itself. However, it heightens the flavor of other ingredients in food.
When MSG dissolves in saliva, the glutamate stimulates umami taste receptors. This reaction creates a savory umami flavor and sensation.
These are three distinct characteristics of umami: 1) taste spreads across the tongue, 2) lasts longer than other basic tastes, 3) provides a mouthwatering sensation.
Learn why fructose is also a sneaky gout trigger: How Does High Fructose Corn Syrup Make You Prone To Gout?
2. The Misconception and Debate Over MSG
The misconception and controversy surrounding MSG all started 1968. The New England Journal of Medicine published a letter from a doctor experiencing numbness, weakness and palpitations after eating Chinese food. Although no clinical study could prove such claims, most of the American public had decided to blacklist MSG and Chinese food.
Not until the 1990s did the FDA state how much MSG is too much:
“… some short-term, transient, and generally mild symptoms, such as headache, numbness, flushing, tingling, palpitations, and drowsiness that may occur in some sensitive individuals who consume 3 grams or more of MSG without food. However, a typical serving of a food with added MSG contains less than 0.5 grams of MSG. Consuming more than 3 grams of MSG without food at one time is unlikely.”
I don’t know about you, but I usually feel those symptoms whenever I pig out at BBQs and buffets, with or without MSG!
Is MSG harmful to the Brain?
Monosodium glutamate is an excitotoxin because it overstimulates neuron receptors in the brain. Some animal studies showed excessive glutamate levels caused irregular nerve activity which can harm the brain. However, there is no evidence of MSG being toxic to the human brain when consumed in moderation.
A 2009 study established that an insufficient amount of dietary glutamate reaches the brain and spinal cord to have any effect. This continues to be a controversial topic in the scientific community. For every study or case claiming MSG harms the brain, there’s another pointing out it is safe. Nonetheless, a debate that goes way beyond this post.
Does MSG Cause Obesity?
There has yet to be a clinical study to directly link MSG to obesity. Fat cells and fat (leptin) receptors have not been found to be influenced by glutamate to cause weight gain. One study found the body mass index (BMI) of participants increased from consuming high amounts of MSG. However, the study did not consider total food consumption and exercise.
Since MSG makes everything taste better, any normal person would tend to overeat. Therefore, it’s more likely the extra calories, not MSG, increased weight and BMI.
3. How Does MSG Cause Gout?
The debate over the safety of MSG raises uncertainty to many people despite the FDA’s approval. For fellow gout sufferers, it should be a clear-cut decision to avoid MSG as much as possible. Glutamate not only activates the umami flavor, but also promotes purine production. When the body metabolizes purines, uric acid is created. Therefore, MSG causes gout by increasing uric acid levels.
Clinical studies have linked glutamates to purines as far back as the 1969. Due to the recent prevalence of gout, new studies are investigating the association of MSG and gout. One study discovered interactions of glutamate and other amino acids can identify the difference between asymptomatic hyperuricemia and gout.
Furthermore, monosodium glutamate has been found to induce kidney damage similar to salt. Weak or overloaded kidneys have a hard time filtering out waste products like uric acid.
MSG’s Silent Partners: Inosine Monophosphate (IMP) and Guanosine Monophosphate (GMP)
What’s not discussed enough are the two food additives regularly combined with MSG. Inosine monophosphate (IMP) and guanosine monophosphate (GMP) have umami flavor enhancing capabilities. Consequently, these two silent partners of MSG also cause gout.
IMP and GMP are the precursors or building blocks of purines; hypoxanthine, guanine and xanthine. (See Figure below)
While MSG gets the notoriety, IMP and GMP also contribute to raising uric acid. The challenge is in deciphering all of their different names and derivatives listed on food labels.
4. MSG Is Disguised In Many Ingredients & Additives
Monosodium glutamate is sold under the brand names Accent (B&G Foods) and Ajinomoto. Two major seasoning manufacturers, Badia Spices and McCormick & Company, sell their own line as well.
The FDA does not require MSG to be specified on food ingredient lists. It must be listed when added as a pure and separate substance. Evidently, many food companies will use other additives that naturally contain MSG in order to exclude it from their labels. Since MSG, IMP and GMP can raise uric acid levels and cause gout, it is critical to be aware of their aliases and derivatives.
Here are some popular additives used to hide MSG: (* indicates an excitotoxin)
- Hydrolyzed soy protein
- Hydrolyzed corn protein
- Hydrolyzed veg. protein
- Sodium caseinate
- Calcium caseinate
- Yeast extract
- Autolyzed yeast protein
- Autolyzed plant protein
- Protein isolate
- Enzyme modified
- Soy protein isolate
- Protein fortified
- Vegetable extract
- Glutamic acid*
- Calcium glutamate*
- Monopotassium glutamate*
- Magnesium Glutamate*
- Xanthan gum E415*
For starters, remember anything named hydrolyzed, autolyzed, and extracts will have MSG (glutamate) in it.
IMP and GMP has Aliases Too
Inosine monophosphate is also called inosinic acid can be modified into various salts, including disodium inosinate, dipotassium inosinate, and calcium inosinate.
Guanosine monophosphate, also known as guanylic acid can form salts such as disodium guanylate, dipotassium guanylate, and calcium guanylate.
Subsequently, if inosinate and guanylate salts are listed on a food label but MSG is not, the glutamic acid (glutamate) is probably hidden in another ingredient.
5. What Kind of Foods Contain MSG?
MSG Is Naturally Present In Many Foods
Foods with an umami taste usually contain monosodium glutamate. Here are some common foods with naturally occurring MSG and glutamate:
- Seafood: tuna, sardines, anchovies, mackerel, cod, scallops, shrimp, and shellfish
- Meats: pork, beef, lamb, turkey, chicken, organ meats (liver, kidneys, tripe), wild game meats (venison, pheasant, quail)
- Cheese: parmesan, compte, cheddar, cabrales, roquefort, emmental, gouda, brie, blue cheese
- Beans: soy, edamame, kidney, mungo, pinto, lima, black, fava, lentils
- Vegetables: garlic, corn, potatoes, green peas, mushrooms, tomatoes, onion, sweet peas, seaweed
Notice the seafoods and meats with high MSG are known to be rich in purines!
The Umami and Purine Connection
Researchers determined high-purine foods are umami foods because of their glutamate and protein content. The table from the study shows the foods with purine and umami similarities.
Note the foods considered high in purines, like organ meats and shellfish, are also high in umami. Organ meats have more protein and glutamate compared to beef, pork, and poultry. Additionally, the naturally occurring IMP in red meat and shellfish raises their purine levels.
Beans, cheese, and vegetables have glutamate, but contain a low-to-moderate amount of purines. This is likely because of their low protein content. Also, research has determined the purines in vegetables do not increase uric acid levels.
Packaged Foods Hide MSG
MSG is frequently added to a wide range of processed and packaged food. In addition to boosting flavor, it is added to many meat products to reduce salt content yet maintaining flavor.
Monosodium glutamate is most often disguised in yeast extract or hydrolyzed vegetable protein, with disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate. Here are popular processed foods that use MSG and its aliases:
- Processed meats/cold cuts: ham, bacon, sausages, hot dogs, beef jerky, , smoked meats, salami, pepperoni, luncheon meats, and meat snack sticks Meats are naturally high in glutamate, but they can contain even more when aged or cured with added MSG.
- Potato chips/salty snacks: Pringles, Cheetos Puffs, Doritos, Funyuns, Utz, Herr’s. (Cape Cod Chips and most pretzel brands do not list MSG, IMP, GMP derivatives)
- Seasonings/condiments: marinades, rubs, barbecue sauce, gravy, Maggi, soy sauce, dips, ketchup, mustard, Marmite spread, salad dressings, and broth/bouillon.
- Convenience meals/packaged foods: microwave foods, instant noodles/soups, frozen dinners/pizzas, mac and cheese, breakfast meals.
- Canned soups: Progresso, Cambell’s, Dinty Moore, Kraft Heinz, and Hanover.
- Fast Food:– Chik-fil-A chicken: chicken sandwiches, chicken nuggets and even salad! McDonald’s: Crispy Chicken Sandwich, chicken nuggets. Popeyes: Nearly all items. KFC: Nearly all items. Arby’s: chicken tenders, au jus gravy. Domino’s Pizza: sandwiches, pasta meals. Wendy’s: chicken breaded fillet, chili, chicken nuggets.
Keep in mind most food manufacturers sell other products without MSG, you just need to take the time to read the ingredient lists. The question still remains, how do we know how much MSG is actually used in a food product?
Want to know more about glutamate? Check out this great infographic Glutamate: The Purest Taste of Umami by The International Glutamate Information Service.
Regardless of the ongoing debate over the safety of monosodium glutamate, it’s certain for gout sufferers to avoid this infamous food enhancer as much as possible. Is it avoidable? Yes. Will it be easy? No. That’s because food manufacturers continue to use and disguise MSG in countless products.
MSG, similar to fructose, is harmless if consumed in small amounts. However, if eaten excessively, it will raise uric acid levels without you noticing.
Back in the oblivious days, my diet was primarily made up of fast food and packaged meals. To keep it real, I occasionally eat all-time favorites, Pringles and Doritos. When I say occasionally, I mean for months at a time. Remember, there are plenty of similar gout-friendly chips and snacks.
I used to question and blame one meal, like a surf ‘n turf dinner (with just one beer), for a gout attack. In actuality, it was my overall poor diet with MSG foods and fructose drinks, that set up a dinner as the finishing blow. If gout strikes hard, its usually means your uric acid level was already very high. The last meal just pushed it passed your gout threshold. As result, there was too much uric acid for your kidneys to filter out.
Be aware of the many names and additives that MSG hides in. Take the time to read ingredient lists to reduce the amount of gout-causing food in your diet. MSG causes gout and should be on every gout sufferer’s list of foods to avoid. It’s a small diet tweak that pays off in the long run in becoming GOUTPROOF!
- Daily consumption of monosodium glutamate pronounced hypertension and altered renal excretory function in normotensive and hypertensive rats – PubMed 2022
- A review of the alleged health hazards of monosodium glutamate – PubMed 2019
- Serum Metabolomics Identifies Dysregulated Pathways and Potential Metabolic Biomarkers for Hyperuricemia and Gout – PubMed 2021
- Glutamine reliance in cell metabolism – PubMed 2020
- Increased production of inosine and guanosine by means of metabolic engineering of the purine pathway – BioMed Central 2015
- MSG, umami, and the foods you love that contain them – Atlanta Magazine Blog 2013
- Which Restaurants Use MSG causes gout In Their Food – Menu And Price 2021
- Umami: The Taste That Drives Purine Intake – The Journal of Rheumatology 2013
- Glutamine: Metabolism and Immune Function, Supplementation and Clinical Translation – PubMed 2018
- Alteration in plasma free amino acid levels and its association with gout – PubMed 2017
- Everything You Need to Know About Umami – Umami Publications 2022
- The International Glutamate Information Service (IGIS)