Understanding Glutamate With the Help of an Expert
The following information comes from a Q&A session with Dr. Katherine Reid PhD, a Silicon Valley based biochemist doing amazing research about the relationships between free glutamate and our food. We have learned so much from her research and nonprofit work, which you can find at Unblindmymind.org. She discovered that removing excess free glutamate from her daughter’s diet completely eliminated her autistic symptoms. Moreover, while altering her daughter’s diet, she learned that excess free glutamate can be associated with all kinds of other health issues — not just autism. Read all about glutamate through the words of an expert, with her interview intertwined with our understanding.
What's the deal with Glutamate?
First, can we just say, we know this is super hard to accept and understand. It’s just another thing to add to our ‘what to watch out for in our diets’ list, but we have your back. We’ll never bring pre-processed ingredients into our kitchen or use cooking methods that risk increasing free glutamates so you can feel comfortable eating our products. We will also keep updating our resource pages as we learn new information that can help you while you’re getting ready to cook in your kitchen.
Excessive glutamate poses risk to everyone, especially children. It’s important to recognize, this hasn’t always been an issue, rather, it is the product of unhealthy food processing and consumption. Glutamate occurs when the amino acid, glutamic, loses a hydrogen molecule. It is an excitatory neurotransmitter naturally created in the brain, but also a flavor molecule.
As previously talked about in Minimizing Toxins & Securing Nutrients When Cooking Proteins, glutamate is used as a flavor bomb and has been in the center of attention to chefs around the world for a reason! Simply, glutamate is an easy way to make food taste really good (especially cheap food). It is used as an additive in food capable of giving addictive cravings by encouraging more flavor or add taste to filler foods. Biologically, glutamate functions as a neurotransmitter, so when consumed, a message is sent to the brain that registers (AKA is tricked) food as really good.
In food, glutamate comes in two forms, bound glutamate and free glutamate. Bound glutamate exists when bonded with other amino acids to create a protein, whereas, free glutamate exist as a single amino acid.
Free glutamate is what it sounds like--free of connection from any amino acid. Unlike bound glutamine, free glutamine is a source of problems ranging from headaches to neurodevelopmental disorders.
The two are quite different--bound glutamate is great for our diets. It is an important part of proteins, which are broken down slowly by the body with each amino acid being absorbed as the body needs it. Glutamic acid is a non-essential amino acid as it occurs naturally in our body, responsible for performing imperative roles. In the brain, glutamate is released by nerve cells, functioning as a signal between other nerve cells. When the brain is healthy and glutamate is operating under natural conditions, it’s purpose is crucial to learning and memory. Bound glutamate, in this regard, is incredibly important. Free glutamate, however, is widely available in many foods within obvious or hidden ingredients--MSG is legal after all (but more on that later).
Since free glutamate has no other amino acids attached, it is absorbed in the body much quicker. However, the body continues to respond to glutamate as if there were amino acids bound to it. Because glutamate is a neurotransmitter, when ingested, it sends signals to the body to get ready for protein digestion, but there is no proteins; these are false signals. Free glutamate causes overexcitement to the digestive and nervous system. Glutamate acts as an excitatory neurotransmitter, and too much leads to over-exciting the cells glutamate has signaled. Dr. Katherine Reid responded to our inquiries on excess free glutamate. Lets check it out:
How the body responds to too much glutamate?
“When there is too much extracellular glutamate in the brain, excitotoxicity can occur, which means to say your brain becomes overstimulated and symptoms such as anxiety or sensory overload may occur. In addition to effects in the brain, glutamate can exert effects elsewhere in the body. One example is in the gut, where excess free glutamate can bind receptors that cause insulin secretion, which has systemic effects on blood glucose regulation. Additionally, glutamate may have effects on the intestinal barrier to cause intestinal permeability (IP) by causing inflammation in the gut. IP is a condition where the intestinal barrier becomes “leaky” and allows things to enter the circulation that normally shouldn’t. IP can then lead to a variety of systemic inflammatory issues throughout the body in response to “invaders” coming through the intestinal barrier. Approximately 60% of the immune system is located within the lining of the GI tract! You can now imagine that compromising this barrier can have profound negative effects on the body.”
Sometimes glutamate’s effects are lessened by research indicating glutamate doesn’t cross the blood-brain barrier. However, these arguments simply don’t pan out. The thing about glutamate is that it doesn’t have to cross the blood-brain barrier to alter metabolic functions. Instead, our brains receive signals straight from the gut. So, even if glutamate itself doesn’t always cross the blood-brain barrier, when free glutamate is consumed in excess, the body respond by increasing the number of glutamate receptors overall. So going back to Dr. Reid’s insulin example, and her further explanation in a follow up interview. Glutamine receptors are responsible for regulating insulin secretion. Insulin and glucose can both cross the blood-brain barrier, thus when more receptors are expressed through the body, and more insulin is released, it cross the blood-brain barrier. Subsequently, the balance of the two are disrupted in brain cells. After prolonged symptoms, neurotoxicity can occur.
Here, Dr. Katherine Reid explains how excess glutamate can actually cause or prolong all over bodily issues. She uses just a few examples of the effects that glutamine can have. In addition to developing diabetes, inflammation of the gut, and leaky gut, excess glutamate problems can show up as small as headaches or as large as neurodevelopmental disorders, like autism. So it is both our recommendation and Dr. Reid’s that folks would benefit from watching their free glutamate intake.
Eating foods with free glutamate multiple times a day, everyday is what leads to the problem: excess glutamate. An excess of glutamate can be caused by a variety of processed foods or through cooking methods that introduce toxicity. In the Standard American Diet (SAD), free glutamate is mostly found in processed foods containing protein. When you have a protein and it undergoes a number of different processes, such as acid hydrolysis or enzymatic transformation, you start to hydrolyze (or cut) the peptide bond and it frees the glutamate molecules.
We recognize it takes a lot of trial and error to learn which foods are best for our individual performances. We applaud you and are thankful that you are learning and exploring with us! Because we think the tricky part is learning how to lead a healthy lifestyle when glutamate seems so pervasive in the SAD.
In our kitchen, we don’t use any processed foods, and make all our scratch cooking from whole foods. But we wanted to know how concerned we should feel about the ingredients we use. So we asked!
What's the deal with free Glutamate in whole foods?
“With whole foods containing glutamate, such as tomatoes, the glutamate content is typically very low (0.1% in a tomato, whereas the protein gluten is over 25% glutamate). Thus raw tomatoes themselves are very unlikely to pose any risk. The problem is when combining processed foods with the tomato, say a big doughy yeast-risen pizza dough with a bunch of salami and pepperoni with tomato sauce - you’ve got a pizza laden with MSG (mostly from the dough and processed meat). That’s when free glutamate becomes an issue. In a whole food diet, glutamate levels would not be in excess.”
Overall, whole ingredients are a good way to ensure you’re at healthy levels of glutamate. Just make sure you source your ingredients from quality process--organic (biodynamic even better), 100% grass-fed, no additional chemicals added. (Check out our How to Source page here to learn all about sourcing sustainably). With that being said, we were worried there are additional ways free glutamates can sneak into our food.
What are ways to reduce or minimize free glutamate to form when cooking whole food ingredients?
“The primary way that you might introduce free glutamate in the kitchen would be if you’re adding a lot of vinegar or using high, extreme heat [above 300 F] to cook any food high in protein. The longer the food is subjected to low pH conditions (acidity) or high heat, like wok cooking or high-heat skillet cooking, the more free glutamate you can create. Roasting and sautéing meats doesn’t create a lot of free glutamate because the peptide bonds in the proteins are fairly resistant to heat. Chemical processes are what really catalyze and speed up that reaction. Adding a little bit of lemon as a flavoring in meat is not going to free up glutamate because that’s not going to lower the pH significantly at all (this is referring to after the meat is cooked).”
At Mission Heirloom, we favor low temperature, high humidity, long cooking to minimize creation of free glutamate. Additionally, we do not use vinegars. Adding vinegar to bone broths lowers the pH, increasing the acidity, and degrades the proteins further, potentially freeing up more glutamate. With more vinegar and longer heating times, the bone broth will contain more free glutamate. When using vinegars on salads or in sauces, you want to choose a vinegar derived from a food low in protein, such as apple cider vinegar or coconut vinegar (as compared to something like rice vinegar). But only if you think you are not sensitive to acetic acid or have a higher threshold to free glutamates.
The Many Disguises of Glutamate
Free glutamate creates the same rippling effect in the body as a stand alone molecule or when bonded with another molecule. Monosodium glutamate, or MSG, is the most common form of free glutamate in our food due to the abundance of sodium found in foods. So, free glutamate and monosodium glutamate are frequently used interchangeably. It’s important to recognize, however, when glutamate is bonded with molecules other than sodium, it is not called or listed as MSG or glutamate, but as we mentioned above, it still causes the same troubling effects. This is just one way the food industry has learned how to sneak this flavor molecule into the foods of unsuspecting consumers.
When bonded to other molecules, look out for these different names on ingredient lists, including: monoammonium glutamate, monopotassium glutamate, natrium glutamate, magnesium glutamate, calcium glutamate, and of course glutamic acid or glutamate.
Moreover, there are also tons of names used to disguise glutamate into an ingredients list. For example, ingredients are added to final products that always have free glutamate in them, look out for these: AuxiGro (sprayed on conventional fruits and vegetables), barley malt, bouillon & broth, brown rice syrup, calcium caseinate, carrageenan, citric acid, citrate, cornstarch, corn syrup, dextrose, enriched (anything), enzyme modified (anything), enzyme (anything), fermented protein, flavors or flavoring (i.e. natural flavors, etc.), gelatin (more about that soon), hydrolyzed (anything, including protein), lipolyzed butter fat, malt extract, maltodextrin, milk powder, reduced fat milk, skim milk, modified food starch, pectin, protease, protein fortified, rice syrup, industrial-grade spices, or seasonings, sodium caseinate, soy protein isolate, soy protein, soy protein concentrate, soy sauce & soy sauce extract, stock, textured protein, any ultra-pasteurized proteins, vetsin, vinegars, vitamin enriched, whey protein isolate, whey protein, whey protein concentrate, xanthan gum, yeast (autolyzed), yeast extract, yeast food, yeast nutrient. (List organized by Dr. Katherine Reid.)
As you may have noticed, gelatin is included in the list above. Gelatin is derived from collagen of animal by-products and is loved by many due to an array of associated benefits. In many cases, gelatin comes in the form of hydrolyzed collagen, a type of protein. The process of hydrolysis breaks down the fibrous proteins into smaller peptides.
Gelatin is definitely a trendy addition to food right now. Curious about this trend, we looked into different brands, but first, like all of our products we think about using, they must pass our rigorous scrutiny. Upon getting in touch with one company to see if they have their products tested for free glutamate, we were told yes, their gelatin was investigated and found to have a 0.09% free glutamate level. Sounds good, right? Well, we had to do more investigation ourself, which lead us to Katherine Reid, again! Turns out Dr. Reid had some important news to us. She explained, even if MSG isn’t directly found and their free glutamate level is seemingly okay, we still have to be skeptical, this time of hydrolyzed proteins.
Umami receptors are located on the tongue, they’re activated by free glutamate. These receptors promote desire for foods that target them, and the food industry knows it. This is another way the industry attempts to sneak whatever they can to encourage food cravings. Protein hydrolysates can actually stimulate the umami receptors as well, in turn sending signals to the gut, as if free glutamate was being consumed. Another way the industry can encourage food additions! Take a look here to learn more details.
Be vigilant! There are ways to legally introduce toxins into ingredients and staying in the loop of which ingredients have free glutamate is essential for good health. Check out that list created by biochemist, food researcher, and healer through food, Dr. Katherine Reid, in a printable form here, and search around her nonprofit’s website to learn more.
I feel fine, should I worry about free glutamates?
If you’re wondering if this stuff is useful for you, or who should be concerned about free glutamate consumption, we think it’s a good idea to at least consider the benefits you could face. Especially if there is still something missing in your health, and you can’t quite figure it out, this might be another place to look into.
While there is active research looking at the effect of free glutamate in certain conditions and disease states such as autism, free glutamate intake may be an important consideration for everyone. We think that everybody should be aware about free glutamates in their food because they can impact people differently depending on their biology and physiology. There are many people with allergies, asthma, obesity, diabetes, digestive issues, and autoimmune diseases. While lowering glutamate may not get rid of an autoimmune disease, it may reduce the inflammation to help you manage it better. It’s worth give it a try!
Psss! Btw if you are interested in this subject, we heard she’s writing a book! Go to her website, send her an email expressing interest in it! Or even better, make a donation to her nonprofit to help cover with editing and publishing costs.
Biological terms for understanding glutamate
Proteins: Proteins are large biological molecules consisting of one or more long chains of amino acids. Meat, eggs, dairy, legumes, nuts, seeds are all high in protein.
Amino acid: Amino acids are the molecular building blocks of proteins. They consist of anywhere from 10 to 40 atoms, which are mainly carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Every amino acid must contain at least one nitrogen as part of an amine group (NH2); it is this group of atoms that give each amino acid their name. Each protein molecule can contain up to hundreds of these molecules, and many proteins consist of a wide array of different amino acids.
Glutamic acid: Glutamic acid is a non-essential amino acid (meaning, we can make it in our bodies in small amounts). It is found in many different proteins, and is found in high concentration in gluten and casein (a protein in dairy).
Glutamate: Often referred to interchangeably with glutamic acid, glutamate occurs when glutamic acid is bound to an anion or salt. Glutamate can bind to various receptors in our bodies. It can activate our nervous system because it’s an excitatory neurotransmitter. In other words, glutamate is a chemical signal for our nervous system, and under normal conditions is involved in learning and memory. Either too little or too much glutamate can be problematic. Like everything in our bodies, balance is key. If consumed in excess, the signals for important glutamate-mediated metabolic functions could be completely over activated and desynchronized. This is what we are concerned with when it comes to the ingredients we use and the cooking techniques we apply to avoid excessive levels of free glutamate.
Monosodium glutamate: MSG is the abbreviation for an unbounded molecule of glutamic acid and sodium, frequently used as a flavor enhancer. MSG is also often referred to interchangeably with glutamic acid and glutamate.