Whole Story

The Official Whole Foods MarketĀ® Blog

Myths and Misconceptions: MSG
July 25, 2008

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.

144 comments

144 Comments

Christiany Chan says ...

hi feel friends and I were wondering when are you guys opening a store around the island empire? I mean around, Walnut, DiamondBar, or even Chino hills....We can't shop at Whole Foods Market because they are just too far from our homes and we were hoping to hear the good news from you guys! Please reconsider as we do have a big demand.
January 26, 2016

Lauren says ...

If you look into how yeast extract is made, it doesn't seem very "natural". I am one of those "hypsersensitive" people who gets terrible 4 day migraines from MSG so I have to be careful and the misleading labeling allowed by the FDA is a problem for me. For those who aren't "hypersensitive" though, MSG is still causing them to eat more food that would otherwise taste bad or bland at best. I just don't see how yeast extract and autolyzed yeast extract can be called natural. I expect my food to have ingredients like salt, pepper, garlic, onions, cinnamon, coriander... That's food. That's flavor. If you just google how yeast extract or autolyzed yeast extract is made, it still sounds highly processed and chemical, quite frankly. Also, if you don't know the history of MSG. It was invented/synthesized in Japan during the war to make rations (canned, old, bland food) palatable. Think about why they must use it now. I buy my food at the farmer's market and cook at home. I understand people think they need convenience, but the difference between five minutes microwaving and ten minutes steaming or sauteeing isn't enough to make it worth the processed, unneccesary ingredients. Sorry Whole Foods, keep your overpriced junk food.
January 7, 2016

Bree says ...

This article is full of misinformation! Are you seriously getting your science from an early 1990's episode of "60 Minutes"?! More reasons not to shop at Whole Paycheck. They'll say anything to charge you top dollar for the same food you can get at Trader Joe's or Safeway without all the nonsense pseudoscience and for much less money.
December 13, 2015

Dude says ...

Most of the folks getting "MSG reaction" are actually getting a sodium overdose! The glutamate occurs naturally in MANY foods. If folks figured out the sodium dosage they are getting in some of the foods blamed for "MSG reaction"..... They would be shocked!
October 28, 2015

Lars Day says ...

All of Goya Foods Products imported into this country from mexico contain MSG and the labels clearly state that one ingredient is MSG. So why does our government allow these products to be imported. GOYA foods is not hiding this ingredient but since we discovered a long time ago that this artificial MSG additive is very harmful in so many ways then why do we allow imports of products from other countries with MSG ?
October 26, 2015

Joseph Duffey says ...

This article is NOT true at all. Autolyzed yeast extract is artificially added to foods for the exact same purpose as MSG and is DEFINITIVELY used, historically, to CLOAK MSG... even the U.S. government's FDA will DIRECTLY admit this... http://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/FoodAdditivesIngredients/ucm328728.htm
October 25, 2015

Charles Hazen says ...

You are absolutely wrong about the forms of glutamates you claim are natural and acceptable. Yeast extract, maltodextrin, carrageenan, malted barley etc are all highly processed forms of free glutamates and are considered excitotoxins because of the affect they have on the brain's glutamate receptors. If Whole Foods was serious about avoiding potentially dangerous additives you would require your suppliers to avoid processed free glutamates as an additive. You focus way to much on gluten which is only a problem for a very few people because it is trendy and marketable. There are numerous scientific papers on the dangers of free glutamates however you MUST ignore the industry science because it is obviously biased.
August 23, 2015

cheryl says ...

I am one of those subset people who are sensitive to glutamates. Not all bad ingredients are listed on products!! I have found products that just list 'spices' (Sukhi indian food) and do not clarify ingredients I am sensitive to. You also put these products on the hot bar and do not list all of the ingredients . I have gotten migraines as a result of this. ALL ingredients including 'spices' should be clarified.
August 12, 2015

Nikki - Communi... says ...

@MARYBHALL - You can find more info about the difference at http://www.livestrong.com/article/512239-what-is-the-difference-between-glutamate-glutathione-glutamine/.
July 23, 2015

uslugi reklamowe says ...

Thank you for sharing your info. I really appreciate your efforts and I will be waiting for your further write ups thanks once again.
July 9, 2015

Elin says ...

In re: MSG in Whole Foods items, as someone who is EXTREMELY sensitive to MSG (can't even use L-glutamine because I get the same horrible symptoms), I feel I must point out that not all the items you sell are clearly labeled if they contain glutamate. For one example, Westsoy organic unsweetened vanilla soy milk contains "natural vanilla flavor" and "other natural flavors". I would not have suspected these to be hidden msg ingredients, but upon further research, I have discovered that unless it actually says, for example, "vanilla" instead of "vanilla flavor" it likely contains glutamate. I had been wracking my brain trying to figure out what the heck in my daily diet was causing the msg-like reactions I was experiencing, and when I isolated the problem to this product, the symptoms disappeared within hours. Using the plain Westsoy that is just made from soybeans and water does not cause any reaction. There are many products on your shelves that are similar in how they hide glutamate. I don't feel this is your fault. The list of ingredients that are "code" for msg grows longer by the day. If you look it up, you'll see that the list is far too extensive for any supermarket to be able to manage and still keep foods on their shelves. Truth un labeling laws would help, but as it stands, there is no warning for the sensitive on these products, and name changes keep getting approved that help manufacturers use glutamates in their foods without having to explicitly say so. I am lucky in that I am a careful shopper and know what to avoid (basically, just about anything processed), but someone not understanding this could easily be fooled by "natural flavors" for example. I don't expect you to do anything about this - it is not your responsibility. But, maybe make your msg disclaimer a little more clear regarding what the sensitive should look out for? Thanks for your time. Sincerely, Elin
July 8, 2015

LaVerne says ...

Thanks for the information on natural glutamate and the msg that is put into out foods.
June 30, 2015

Michelle Mader says ...

Hi, was reading about MSG. I'm wondering if you can suggest something natural to replace the MSG I have in my seasoning that I make? Thanks for you help!
June 18, 2015

Marybhall says ...

Is glutamate the same as L-glutamine?
June 15, 2015

Andrew says ...

So...MSG is bad because it's not natural...but hydrolyzed proteins are natural? Okay. Also, these 'high in glutamate' additives/foods (hydrolyzed whatever, etc.) aren't just 'high in glutamate'. They are high in FREE glutamate, which occurs because of a human cooking/fermenting/preserving process. Which is...NOT natural...at ALL. Free glutamate is the danger here, not foods 'high in glutamate'. Take organic chicken, a meat that is high in glutamate. You will not react to this glutamate because it is in its NATURAL, BOUND form. Not free. But I get why you wrote this. If you cut out all forms of free glutamate additives, you'd have nothing to sell!
June 5, 2015

Brian Sommers says ...

are completely natural ingredients that happen to be have substantial amounts leave the word 'be' out, yes?
May 5, 2015

nikki grace says ...

I still don't understand why products such as Near East rice add autolyzed yeast to their products, what is its purpose as an additive and what is the source of autolyzed yeast?
April 28, 2015

Sharon says ...

MSG
April 2, 2015

Katie says ...

I like your store because it's one of the few grocery stores that I can source 'clean' food, BUT PLEASE don't mislead your customers. Your shelves are filled with products that contain MSG in concentrated form or not. Just because the concentration in a pure crystal MSG is 100% MSG and hydrolyzed proteins is 20% does not negate the fact that there's glutamate or MSG in the product and people have the right to know that. MSG used to made by hydrolyzing gluten from wheat and is now made through a fermentation process. So now manufacturer's don't purify the MSG but it's still there in significant quantities (that should be labeled). This is why soy sauce, cheese (especially hard cheeses), and yeast extract contains MSG. Please don't be like the rest of the food industry and mislead the public on this issue. Glutamate blocker drugs are a trillion dollar industry treating the epidemic of glutamate diseases. You could be part of the solution by informing your customers of what ingredients do contain MSG (glutamate). Call it natural (as natural flavors ingredient) but the total amount in the diet is overload. Vague labels like 'spices', 'natural flavors' 'cultured dextrin' 'vegetable stock' should be required to list contents. I recently asked one of your employees what was in WF vegetable stock to make sure there was no hydrolyzed soy protein. Not a single employee was able to answer the question.
March 17, 2015

Bob Goldfarb says ...

Since this was written in 2008 , I'm not sure if I'll get a reply. Unfortunately the lack of Msg in products purchased by corporate or regional buying is not a reality. Please reply and I'll elaborate. Thank you Bob Gotleib
March 13, 2015