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Myths and Misconceptions: MSG

By Joe Dickson, July 25, 2008  |  Meet the Blogger  |  More Posts by Joe Dickson

Every week I see dozens of myths and misunderstandings about food and our company come across my desk, confused thoughts ranging from "Everything Whole Foods sells is organic" to "Canola oil is a secret poison" to "Whole Foods Market is owned by Paul Newman." This is the first in a series of posts aimed at sharing - and clearing up - some of the more popular misunderstandings floating around out there. Through these examples, I'd like to illustrate the lengths we go to "do the homework" about natural foods and to make sure that there's nothing in our products that you'd be surprised to find there. If you have any particular questions or topics you want to see covered, post a comment down below and let me know what you want to hear about.

Who we are and what we do Look around near the doors of any one of our stores and you'll likely find our commitment to "Selling the Highest Quality Natural and Organic Products Available" painted directly on the wall. This promise, the first of our company's core values, seems simple at first glance, but becomes complicated once you start to consider the words "natural" and "organic" and what they really mean. I'll save "organic" for another post, but what does "natural" mean, and who decides? Well, we do, and we take the job very seriously. I work as part of our Global Quality Standards Team. We set the company's standards for what we sell in our stores, including food ingredients, body care products, dietary supplements, meat, seafood, and virtually every other category of products in our stores. Our jobs are a sort of a hybrid of food science, chemistry and philosophy, as we review the ingredients, products and practices that go into our products. We're not just studying the nitty gritty of how the ingredients are made, but how they fit into our belief that minimally processed food is better, and our promise to only sell natural food. We consider ourselves buying agents for our customers, rather than as sales agents for our suppliers, which in my mind is one of the best descriptions of what we do. Our work always starts with our promise to sell "the highest quality natural and organic products;" no matter how deep we get into the chemistry of how a given ingredient is made, the questions we're trying to answer are "is this natural" and "would our shoppers be surprised to find this in a natural product?" Is it natural? How is it made? How is it extracted? Is it legal? Is it safe? Our buyers and stores are only allowed to bring in products that meet our strict standards.

Myth: There's Hidden MSG lurking in our aisles And now to this post's aforementioned myth and/or misconception: Ever since the TV show 60 Minutes aired a story about MSG in the early 1990s, we've been getting calls and emails from customers concerned that there's secret MSG hidden behind our labels. The short answer is that MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is an unacceptable ingredient at Whole Foods Market, thus not allowed in any of our products. We don't allow it because it's an artificial flavor enhancer that's inconsistent with the idea of natural food. But the ongoing confusion about the ingredient is complicated, and requires us to look at some of the chemicals responsible for food tasting good. The term "glutamate" refers to a number of forms of glutamic acid, an amino acid found naturally in many foods (and in our bodies). Cheese, milk, meat, peas, seaweed and mushrooms are a few of the foods containing the highest levels of natural glutamate, and this substance is largely responsible for the phenomenon of umami, the "fifth taste" of savory, meaty foods. In fact, the discovery of the link between glutamates and savory flavors led the Japanese food scientist Kikunae Ikeda in 1908 to the commercial development of monosodium glutamate. MSG is a synthetically derived and highly concentrated flavor enhancer that is almost completely made up of glutamates. It's so powerful that just a few drops can drastically change the flavor of a dish. As the 60Minutes story exposed, it's also so powerfully concentrated that it can cause severe reactions in people who are hypersensitive to it. While the scientific basis of the set of symptoms known as "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome" has been debated and doubted by many, the phenomenon has caused a lot of people to carefully and diligently avoid MSG. A number of consumer groups have claimed that certain food ingredients, such as autolyzed yeast and hydrolyzed protein, are MSG in disguise. They are not. Autolyzed yeast and hydrolyzed proteins, among other ingredients, are completely natural ingredients that happen to be have substantial amounts of glutamates, but nowhere near the concentration found in MSG. While a small subset of people may be sensitive to even these small levels of glutamate, these ingredients are always clearly identified on the labels so that, as with all food sensitivities and allergies, people can be aware of ingredients they'd like to avoid. These are natural ingredients that are definitely of grave concern for people who are sensitive to them, but they are not MSG. We draw a clear line between natural glutamate-containing foods, which we allow, and highly concentrated MSG, which we don't.

For further MSG reading: The New York Times ran a good story on this issue back in March, although I wish they'd made a clearer distinction between MSG and the other glutamate containing additives. Jordan Sands article "A Short History of MSG: Good Science, Bad Science, and Taste Cultures" appeared in the Fall 2005 Issue of Gastronomica (my very favorite food magazine). It's not available online, but I'd recommend getting your hands on it if you can - hopefully your library has a copy floating around.

Category: Food Issues




Tracy Robertson says ...
I've never, ever suspected that Whole Foods would "sneak MSG" into it's foods when they say that they don't have it. I'm sorry that anyone has even entertained that idea. The podcast on MSG was interesting though, especially learning the history of it.
07/25/2008 11:06:26 PM CDT
noah says ...
dear joe, it's funny that you posted on this subject as i was just having this discussion with a customer who was under the same impression, and had returned a product containing autolyzed yeast extract. thanks for clearing it up! p.s., come home soon, your mother and i miss you.
07/27/2008 5:30:52 PM CDT
Adam says ...
after years of hearing my dad say "NO MSG" at every chinese place we ate at...this post has made me intrigued to try some. few drops can massively enhance the flavor?!? hmm...as someone who loves trying food, i'm game!
07/28/2008 10:29:15 AM CDT
JL says ...
Are you trying to tell me that Paul Newman doesn't own WFM? I'm glad you're busting some of these natural food myths. I'm looking forward to more. Tanuki loves Umami!
07/28/2008 11:01:32 AM CDT
nika says ...
So let me get this straight, the reason WFs doesn’t “allow” MSG is because it is a non-natural flavor enhancer and thus doesn’t fit the ethic of whole healthy wholesome foods. How do you define what MSG is on the labels in WF? 1) overall concentration of free glutamates or 2) purified versus naturally sourced glutamates? There is nothing on the face of the earth that is not “natural”. One can find natural sources of cyanide, is that then a natural chemical or “industrial”, unnatural? If the MSG is sourced from long stewed tomatoes (and essentially broken down to the simple glutamate molecules) is it then natural? If MSG is sourced from some other protein source, say, autolysed yeast protein extract, is it then natural? I think that you and WF customers need to ask the real question when being so accepting of autolyzed yeast protein extracts and other greenwashing products and terms – if its not there to boost the taste (via the very same MSG mechanism as you would get from the MSG on Doritos, the very same) then why are they using autolyzed yeast protein extracts? A really good long stewed tomato-based pasta sauce has massive umami precisely because it has released glutamates. That should be enough, adding MSG to this natural preparation is the definition of unwholesome because MSG is proven to be unhealthy and it is an additive meant solely to bring you back to buy that product. Going by what the FDA approves (approved), especially back in the 1950-90s is not a sound method of determining a healthy diet. If you would like to delve deeper into MSG and it’s deleterious effects on fetus development, metabolism and other physiological dynamics, visit this post (Monosodium Glutamate: Bad for your brain, your figure, and your health http://nikas-culinaria.com/2007/02/21/monosodium-glutamate-bad-for-your-brain-your-figure-and-your-health/ ) on my blog Nika's Culinaria. Make sure to read all the comments too. I am not usually very emphatic with most things relating to food because people have the right to eat well or crappy, its up to them. But when it comes to the people who “should” know about wholesomeness, and who trade on a perceived wholesome ethic, I think its important that WFs be honest about MSG.
07/28/2008 11:04:51 AM CDT
dicksonj says ...
Hi, Nika. Thanks for your comment. We define MSG as monosodium glutamate, the sodium salt of glutamic acid. This is the highly concentrated form sold commercially as MSG, with levels of glutamates dramatically higher than those found naturally. Autolyzed yeast extracts have much lower levels of glutamate. Natural sources of glutamate may affect the same test receptors and mechanisms as MSG, but they are a far less concentrated form of glutamate.
07/28/2008 11:06:56 AM CDT
April says ...
Thank for you for posting this very informative and clear article. I am wading through the mountains of info out there on MSG and am trying to make heads and tails of it. Would you please address the connection between MSG and aspartame -- how aspartame reportedly affects us in ways similar to MSG? Thanks. I have been obese for 30 years and only recently came to understand the role between obesity and disease and food processing/additives. Since I recently started eating a healthy, whole foods diet, I have consistently lost one pound per day, without counting calories. The weight is just melting off. I feel so energetic now, my constant headaches have disappeared, along with my anxiety, rapid heart rate, and jitters. I also find myself much less hungry now, and am eating less food as a result, while feeling very satisfied for the first time in my life. Thanks for this blog. It's really helping me find my way back to good health and good weight.
07/28/2008 11:26:45 AM CDT
dicksonj says ...
Thanks, April! Congratulations on your new healthy diet – it sounds like you’re feeling well. MSG and aspartame are both very controversial ingredients. In both cases, the FDA says that they're safe food ingredients, while a number of groups believe that they deserve more scrutiny. I’m happy to say that both ingredients are unacceptable at Whole Foods Market for the simple fact they’re synthetic ingredients that have no place in natural food.
07/28/2008 11:28:59 AM CDT
April says ...
Joe-Thanks for the great blog segment. I find it very useful, as we do get many emails from our guests about this issue. It's great to be able to send them here, so they can read more. What an easy and informative read!
07/28/2008 12:23:31 PM CDT
Jen says ...
Please do not be mistaken these substitutes are not MSG in hidden form. Those who react to MSG also react to these substances and should be labeled as such. The fact they are using hidden names does not negate their detrimental effect on the human body. They are just using them in small amounts so people do not react enough to realize their is a problem. Over time you will see more and more people having reactions to these substances. Whether or not it is natural I guarantee autolyzed yeast is NOT found in nature in this form. It has been altered.
09/15/2008 11:39:39 PM CDT
dicksonj says ...
Jen, thanks for your comment. I’d like to reiterate what I wrote above: “...these ingredients are always clearly identified on the labels so that, as with all food sensitivities and allergies, people can be aware of ingredients they’d like to avoid.” Autolyzed yeast extract and similar ingredients have levels of glutamate similar to those found in natural ingredients, and we are not aware of any scientific evidence of “detrimental effects” at these levels. Using a natural substance to improve the taste of food is a practice that we’re fine with, but again, these ingredients are clearly labeled for anyone looking to avoid them.
09/17/2008 11:08:32 AM CDT
Brett says ...
Joe It seems the 2 forms of "hidden MSG" I come across the most in the 365 brand is Citric Acid and Natural Flavors. They are very hard hard to avoid in any product. can you please define what natural flavors are and why they are necessary. Would the product taste so horrible that poeple would not purchase the product if this ingredient was left out? It is a very vague term. I came across an articel that said Newmans own was being sued for false advertising of "no MSG". Some of their cookies that are very good have Natural Flavors and some dont. The mint OREO like cookies and Ginger cookies dont but the regualar OREO like cookie does. I have to say that I am in the camp that believes if you have to hide the ingredient then it shouldnt be added. Especially taking into consideration the premium I am paying to try and avoid these products.
10/07/2008 4:24:17 PM CDT
Shelley says ...
As the author points out, the autolyzed or hydrolyzed products may have less glutamates, but it is still there. In a nutshell, WF allows it's products to contain a known neurotoxin, no matter how small the amount is. It's like saying, "this baby formula is alright because there are only trace amounts of heroin in it." No amount is acceptable. It doesn't matter if they are natural, cocaine is 'natural', they are poisons! I had a terrible reaction to a product I purchased on the deli line, assuming there would be no neurotoxins in WF's recipes. My mistake, since corrected.
10/13/2008 8:05:15 PM CDT
dicksonj says ...
@ Brett The term “natural flavors” is strictly regulated and essentially means what it sounds like; natural flavors do not and cannot contain monosodium glutamate. The FDA’s definition restricts natural flavors to natural substances – plants, meat, dairy products etc. – and their extracts and derivatives: The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional. (21 CFR 101.22(a)(3) )
10/14/2008 9:01:07 AM CDT
jacquie vw says ...
hey joe - i missed the last paragraph of my verbose comment. it was this -- in the meantime, Whole Foods does a darn fine job of labeling their products. it's one of the reasons I shop at WF's. when i travel i look them up in whatever city i happen to be in, too. thanks for providing a great role model as to how labeling should be done!
10/17/2008 7:48:05 PM CDT
Barbara Healy says ...
The NY Times article linked to this blog states: “....Since the 1970s, MSG has sidled back onto American supermarket shelves, UNDER ASSUMED NAMES: hydrolyzed proteins, yeast extracts, protein concentrates and other additives that are not labeled as MSG but, according to nutritionists and the United States Department of Agriculture, ARE ESSENTIALLY THE SAME THING: synthetically produced glutamates.... The whey protein concentrate and liquid aminos that many Americans buy at health food stores are also, ESSENTIALLY, PURE GLUTAMATE, .... ” Unfortunately, as the WF blog and the responses to the comments indicate, WF has chosen to ignore these statements and is interpreting “MSG under an assumed name” to be less toxic than the article they, themselves, recommended says it is. I also do not understand how they can possibly categorize anything autolyzed or hydrolyzed as “natural”… do they not know how these ingredients - which are used PURELY as flavor enhancers - are processed? Joe (the moderator) states that "Autolyzed yeast extract and similar ingredients have levels of glutamate similar to those found in natural ingredients..." But, since any given quantity of autolyzed yeast extract will OBVIOUSLY have less MSG in it than the same amount of pure MSG, and the quantity used as an ingredient will add the same amount of MSG to the product as if it were added in its pure form, Joe's statement implies 'safety' where none exists. Joe also says, "we are not aware of any scientific evidence of “detrimental effects” at these levels..." First of all: WHAT LEVELS? Does WF limit the amount of autolyzed or hydrolyzed ingredients PER SERVING? I doubt it. So how do you know what the detrimental effects are of the levels in any given product? Secondly: Joe, have you read Dr. Russell L. Blayloc's book, Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills, which references HUNDREDS of studies PROVING the toxic effects of these ingredients at any level? The studies REFERRED TO IN THE MARCH 12 CORRECTION TO THE NY TIMES ARTICLE? I have, and I'm sorry, not only have I lost faith in your 'quality standards' I also disagree strongly that you are "buying agents for our customers, rather than as sales agents for our suppliers". As the NY Times article says, manufacturers will go to great lengths to disguise MSG in their products because they know so many people will not buy products containing it. If WF does not also prohibit those ingredients used to sneak MSG into products then WF is supporting the manufacturer’s deceptive practices and if that doesn’t make them ‘sales agents for their suppliers’ then I don’t know what does. Joe's claim that toxic ingredients are "clearly labeled for anyone looking to avoid them" makes WF no different than any other grocery store; but, at least in 'those' stores, I KNOW I have to read every label. It now appears that I have to read every label in WF as well. To paraphrase another comment, it's time for WF to revise their position on MSG in ALL its guises to reflect current scientific knowledge, not that which was approved by the (fallible) FDA 50 years ago. WF's current policy uses semantics - 'MSG' vs. the 'glutamate' in autolyzed/hydrolyzed products, as though they were different things - to justify an unsupportable position. You either don't allow MSG in your stores or you do. Apparently, you do.
12/22/2008 5:16:09 AM CST
Brenda Sargent says ...
Hi there. Say what you will about autolyzed yeast extract, calcium caseinate, textured protein, and others. They all contain MSG, and the FDA is aware of this, though they allow food manufacturers to call these forms of MSG by their own distinct names. Why? Because they have up to 99% MSG in them, but are not pure form. People will not stay ignorant forever. I think it is a crime to deceive people by adding carcinogens and neurological toxins into the food so that it will be "tasty" to the consumer. As a consumer, a mother, and someone in my field of study, I will make it my life's goal to make people aware of the potential dangers of the food they consume. People trust the label "organic," they trust the phrase "No MSG," they believe that things actually contain "natural flavors," and they have faith in the FDA. What a shame that all these labels are deceiving them.
01/17/2009 8:00:59 PM CST
Thomas C. Halle, D.C. says ...
An interesting discussion, indeed. And, a good exercise in general semantics, as well as scientific method. The question at issue here is whether scientific studies show that MSG specifically has been implicated in the arising of a multitude of physical signs and symptoms. MSG is a normal amino acid (one of the building blocks of protein), glutamic acid..with an additonal atom of sodium attached, and studies do show a real health risk for many people. Yet, does the problem lay only with MSG in the human diet, or does this also apply to any food substance which contains free glutamates? Some sites devoted to MSG problems list so many substances that purportedly are the same as MSG, that--to any scientist or physician--the lists are simply laughable. Such things as soy powder or powdered milk. Anyone who highlights documentable problems with certain foods or food additives certainly renders a valuable service. Yet, an alarmist, who bases his/her argument on undocumented sources (or no sources at all), or takes a small body of data and blows it up so as to seem to apply to many cases not contained in the cited studies does us a disservice. At the same time, I am skepical of most anything added to a product that is not easily recognizable, and perhaps has no reason to be there. Nothing wrong with a dialog on a subject like this, but--please--let us base our arguments on science, not on supposition, nor on a kind of paranoia.
03/13/2009 5:22:32 PM CDT
Bruce says ...
I'm afraid I have to agree with Nika and Barbara - I think you're splitting hairs by saying "no MSG" but "added glutamates ok". As someone who's sensitive to MSG...ok, let me rephrase that - as someone who's sensitive to *glutamates*, I don't really care whether they come from MSG or autolyzed/hydrolyzed whatever. The mere fact that they are in a product means that I can't eat it. One of the main reasons I started shopping at your store was the hope that I could find MSG-free...that is, glutamate-free, products. I can understand that you can't ask the manufacturers of the products you sell to cut out the glutamates, but when I discovered that your own store-made products (such as your pot pies) contain autolyzed or hydrolyzed sources of glutamates, I was very disappointed. If you're going to have an "MSG-free" policy, why not enforce it to the limit where you can? And even if you don't, it would be *very* helpful to glutamate-sensitive people (a friend of mine can be put in the hospital by the smallest amount of glutamates!) to put a warning "Contains glutamates" on your store-made products that have autolyzed or hydrolyzed ingredients.
03/31/2009 5:07:28 AM CDT
Beth says ...
I concur with Bruce and think his point was well stated. Just list it please where you can. I would like to add that if in your own 365 brand products if you could just please list the contents of "spices" and "natural flavorings" it would be immensely helpful. I cannot eat those products because of the risk of hidden free glutamates in those vague terms. The earlier interpretation of the FDA guidance is incorrect. The FDA considers MSG and free glutamates to be natural and allows them to hide within these terms for a "cleaner" label.
04/03/2009 3:10:45 PM CDT
Allie says ...
I work at Whole Foods for eight years and have been involved with natural foods since the 1970's, when I studied macrobiotic cooking and worked in a macrobiotic restaurant (Souen), and began to eat more healthfully. I must admit that I am sad to see so many products on the shelves of our stores be made with flavor enhancers called "natural flavors." Let's nolt fool ourselves; these are chemicals, formulated in laboratories, and even though they originated from any "essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof," they still are chemicals, formulated with the purpose of enhancing flavors or creating flavors where flavor did not exist. Chemical flavor enhancers, whether they are artificial or natural in origin, are used to fill a gap in flavor. If a raspberry yogurt has raspberries in it, why add "natural raspberry flavor?" Why? Because it is cheaper than adding enough real raspberries or real raspberry concentrate to provide an authentic raspberry flavor. If a potato chip has sea salt and vinegar, why add autolyzed yeast extract? If a dried tea comes from good green tea, or black tea, or good herbal sources, why add "natural pineapple flavor, or "natural lime flavor" or "natural peach flavor", for example? From my experience, a lot of WF customers are concerned about their health. I am a Whole Foods customer as well as a team member, and I care about the foods I buy. I have a keen sense of taste, and can discern between a food or a drink with "natural flavors" and one made from real food sources. A drink that contains real pomegranate juice or real passion fruit or real green tea is a very different taste than one that contains "natural pomegranate flavor." Try it yourself and see! Make your own "soda" by mixing real pomegranate juice with sparkling water. Add a squeeze of lime. Then compare that to a flavor-enhanced pomegranate drink. Two very different tastes! I would like to ask all food manufacturers why would you want or need to use flavor enhancement other than to drive profits? I would love to see a new company say "NO WAY!" to natural flavors, and use only whole foods and whole food concentrates instead. There are some new ice creams on the market that are saying "No" to "natural flavors" and I am so proud of them for their courageous commitment to their integrity of product! Let's think about this from the perspective of a chef in a restaurant: Would any respectable chef in any respectable restaurant ever add "natural chocolate flavor" to a chocolate souffle? Or "natural cheese flavor" to a pasta dish? Or "citric acid" to a cerviche? Or "autolyzed yeast extract" to tuna tartare? It is time that we take a deep breath, step back, and look hard at what we are promoting by turning more and more to flavor enhancers instead of real food. By choosing flavor enhancers over real food sources, we are choosing what to support with our dollars. We are supporting laboratory-based food-simulation instead of real, and ideally, locally-grown food. We are supporting chemical food simulation rather than real food production. We are training our taste buds to expect a bubblegum-type of fruit flavor instead of the genuine tartness of a fresh blueberry, the tang of a fresh raspberry, the multitude of textures and tones and levels of sweetness in different types of apples. "Natural flavors" are now in many products produced for babies and toddlers! I am also concerned about vegans, and those who keep Kosher, and vegetarians, and those who refrain from any food group for whatever reason, because they are not able to tell what exactly is in the food they are eating when it says "natural flavors" or "other natural flavors." It would be a conscientious and responsible position to take if WF committed to being the first grocer to develop a policy of transparency about food labeling. What if WF listed the chemicals used to create "natural blueberry flavor", for example? Are we really worried that someone will go out and use the exact same chemicals to create the same blueberry "flavor", or are we worried that the list of chemicals used in "natural blueberry flavor" may be way too long a list? WF took many courageous stands in terms of creating a more humane policy in terms of pulling out lobster tanks from stores, and stopping selling fois gras, for example. Going forward, I would like to see us begin to commit to both reducing the use of flavor enhancers as well as increasing the use of real foods in our 365 and private label products. I would also like to see us begin by stating whether the "natural flavors" in any of our 365 or Whole Foods line of products contain any meat, pork, shellfish, dairy, soy, nut, or gluten derivatives so that consumers can make wise, informed choices that do not compromise their own dietary, religious, or philosophical integrity.
05/03/2009 9:06:59 PM CDT
Kevin says ...
It would be nice for WFM to be specific and clear with its labeling - if there is a MSG-like substance (glutamate) in the product used to enhance the flavor, please say so. Especially, disconcerting are ingredients like "spices" or "natural flavors". I don't want to know the secret recipe, I only want to know if there is MSG (or if you want to parse language, a glutamate) included in the spices or natural flavoring (or not). Or better yet, don't allow these additives in your products anymore and advertise that! I like your store, but I am skeptical of your products over this issue. Kudos to Allie!
06/29/2009 8:29:13 PM CDT
Salha Mishaan says ...
"Natural Flavors" is exactly what I am worried about... I am allergic to wheat species and CORN products and by products. Unless the ingredients are listed, I can't tell if I'm going to poison myself with a seemingly innocent product. There is corn in just about everything disguised under a myriad of other names. I've learned most of the names, but how does one determine what's really in "natural flavors"?
07/31/2009 3:04:28 AM CDT
Inquiring Minds Want To Know says ...
Why list Aspartame as an unacceptable ingredient while failing to list NutraSweet, Equal, and Spoonful?? Aren't they the same ingredient with different names? Does this mean that foods containing ingredients listing the alternative names DO make it onto the shelves of Whole Foods Market?
08/04/2009 6:44:40 AM CDT
hsiaw says ...
@Inquiring Minds Want to Know - You are correct that aspartame is on our Unacceptable Ingredients list. The product you list are brands of aspartame and also do not make it on to our shelves. Thanks for your question and we hope this provides clarification.
08/10/2009 9:48:32 AM CDT