Thoughts on MSG, Glutamates, and Bone Broth

Monosodium glutamate (D-glutamic acid, MSG) is a man-made substance with a mixed reputation. Some think it is evil; some scientists say it is not; I won’t weigh in that hornet’s nest! Glutamates, which include compounds such as glutamine and L-glutamic acid, are naturally occuring compounds present in many high-quality foods. Glutamates are a natural source of savory or umami flavors. Much as the phytic acid in legumes may cause gastrointestinal upset for some but not others, some people may have extreme sensitivities to glutamate. If you are sensitive to MSG, this does not necessarily mean you will automatically be sensitive to glutamates. Let’s discuss glutamate in the context of bone broth.

Many people who want to make bone broth are doing so to heal a leaky gut or other autoimmune issues. There are a few different perspectives on natural glutamates (including glutamine, glutamic acid, and L-glutamic acid) to consider. In particular, the Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPS) diet initially restricts bone broth that has higher amounts of glutamine. If you are following the GAPS diet, you may wish to begin your broth journey with a shorter-simmered meat stock. If you are not following the GAPS protocol, the following may be of no concern to you. There are many ways to heal a leaky gut. Your healthcare practitioner, as always, should be your first port of call in making important health decisions.

Long-simmered bone broths develop deeper savory flavors, and as many foods such as high-quality turkey and salmon do, more natural glutamates are created by heat-based cooking. In fact, glutamates are in nearly every food we eat.  Then The Healthy Home Economist published an article about health concerns with naturally occurring glutamates. A related article provides an actual lab analysis of proteins in short vs. long-simmered bone broths. Short-cooked stock is listed as having 366 mg of glutamic acid. Long-cooked broth has 1013 mg. Long-cooked broth has about three times the amount of glutamic acid as short-cooked broth.

However, these numbers do not paint the entire nutritional picture of glutamic acid and glutamates. First, no context for these numbers is given. While one option may be three times higher in glutamic acid, the information we’re missing is: how much natural glutamic acid is harmful?

Glutamic acid is one of the most important amino acids in the human body. Our bodies make it naturally. Glutamine is an important neurotransmitter. It is present in breast milk. It’s in almost all of the foods we eat. One roasted chicken breast has 8620 mg of glutamic acid. A serving of sunflower seeds has 1210 mg. Salmon has 1294 mg. Gelatin, the desirable goal of making any kind of broth or stock, itself contains 10% glutamic acid by weight.

Is it relevant to you whether your bone broth has more or fewer glutamates? That’s a question for your healthcare practitioner. If you decide to avoid long-simmered broth because of the glutamic acid levels, you may wish to evaluate the rest of your diet for other problematic foods that also contain this compound. It’s not really a snap decision unless you have been diagnosed and have a treatment plan in place.

There are some medical conditions where glutamic acid is beneficial and others where it is bad. Some immune conditions are helped by glutamic acid. Sometimes patients even need to take glutamic acid supplements. Other patients, such as those with very specific types of brain cancers, are cautioned away from glutamic acid. This does not mean that glutamic acid causes brain tumors. If it did, every living human being would have one because we are full of glutamine! Remember, we are literally made of glutamic acid and glutamine. For some people, glutamic acid might be an anti-nutrient that works against you – much like phytic acid, the anti-nutrient we reduce when we soak beans and nuts to avoid stomach upset. Does phytic acid cause cancer? No. But if you are very sensitive to it, then do what you can to avoid it – soak your seeds, for example.

Is glutamic acid or glutamine harmful  for us to consume? On this question, follow the advice of a healthcare practitioner who knows your medical history. For the majority of people, if you are able to drink broth and not experience stomach upset or headaches, you can do so if you enjoy it and if you feel healthier when you consume it.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed with all of the conflicting information on the interwebs and in books. Many of us have participated in discussions where you think you have a handle on everything, until someone comes along and tells you that you are doing absolutely everything wrong. Those moments are difficult to say the least.

If you are consuming bone broth but are not getting the health results you wish, it’s time to seek more healthcare advice. Certainly do not take medical advice from a bone broth addict and blogger like me. I only encourage you to look at all the facts, make informed decisions, and lean on your healthcare professional as needed for guidance.

Most importantly, remember that the Internet and its many strangers should never, ever be a substitute for real medical advice from someone who knows you and your medical history.

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