Bound Glutamate vs Free Glutamate

Proteins contain the amino acid, glutamate. When glutamate is “bound” to the protein or in whole form, it is rarely problematic, even for those highly sensitive to glutamate.  However, glutamate often becomes problematic when the proteins are degraded and glutamate is “freed” from the protein chain. MSG is the most common form of free glutamate in our food, and the terms, free glutamate and MSG, are frequently used interchangeably.  Historically, MSG and its various names have been added to our food to provide a competitive edge over other manufacturers by making food taste better and more addictive. Due to the public backlash against MSG in the 1980’s, many food manufacters started to utalize different food processing techniques that would increase the amount of free glutamate in processed foods, while avoid having to add MSG as an additive to the ingredint list. Additionally, the FDA only requires ingredients over 99% free glutamate to be listed as MSG. Therefore, anything under 99% free glutamate doesn’t have to be identified as MSG and can be hidden or disguised in well over 50 different names. These names can be as innocuous and deceptive as “natural flavors” or “spices”, leaving the consumer completely unaware of their neurotoxic properties.

Commercial processing techniques like acid hydrolysis, fermentation, high heat extraction, lysing, pasteurization, etc. can substantially degrade proteins and will ultimately result in free glutamate. This processing makes certain foods problematic for those more sensitive to glutamate and/or those with already high intrinsic glutamate levels (high levels of glutamate produced by the body in response to immune activation, infection, etc).  Because glutamate is also a neurotransmitter, consumption of a large amount of free glutamate alters glutamate-mediated metabolic functions, triggering a cascade of dysfunction- including immune dysfunction

The Real Problem With Glutamate

The real problem with glutamate comes when it is in excess, especially when you have high levels of intrinsic glutamate produced by the body. However, determining what “excess” means for an individual can be challenging as underlying factors such as inflammation, infection, and age all need to be considered. Excess glutamate poses risk to everyone, but especially children as their brains are about 4xs more sensitive to it than an adult brain.

Glutamate Levels in Whole Food

By strictly eating a whole food diet, glutamate levels would not be in excess, but when one already has high glutamate levels and whole foods naturally containing some amount of free glutamate are altered or processed, it will result in excess free glutamate. “For example, the amount of free glutamate naturally found in a tomato is reported to be 0.1%, but the tomato isn’t the issue. If you only ate tomatoes, you might accumulate a bit of excess glutamate; however, if you’re eating tomato and cheese on a big thick yeast-risen pizza dough loaded with salami and pepperoni, you now have a pizza laden with MSG.”- Dr. Reid

Gluten, casein, and to a lesser extent, soy and corn, contain roughly 25% glutamic acid as part of their protein structure. In the bound protein, raw and unprocessed form, this amount of glutamate should rarely cause an issue. The issues arise when these proteins are degraded (pasteurization, fat removal, fermentation, acid hydrolysis, etc). The protein degradation breaks down the amino acids, freeing up glutamate, leading to a high amount of free glutamate. Because of this, these foods in the processed form should be avoided.

So How Do We Navigate This?

We have personally had to rely heavily on symptoms and behavioral reactions as an indication of overall glutamate/inflammation and exposure to dietary sources of glutamate. Without a lab, it is hard to know exactly how much free glutamate will be found in a particular product due to different types of processing and/or how much of the individual ingredient is added to the packaged food. The way that we have found to balance this, is by consuming a variety of whole real foods and strictly avoiding gluten, dairy, soy and to a lesser extent, corn, and working to lower overall glutamate and inflammation.  For us, the “bucket” concept can be applied to our glutamate levels.  We may be able to tolerate small amounts (maybe a surge as a result of yeast or a surge from a loose tooth, etc) but we will see a behavioral reaction when the “bucket” tips or overflows (maybe from consuming a portion of food with free glutamate, or an active infection, etc.).

There is very little scientific evidence to back my chart below, but this is closely how we have personally viewed glutamate levels based on behavioral reactions with our son.  Disclaimer*** reactions will very much be based on individual sensitivity. Not all sources are listed below but I will work to make it as comprehensive as possible.


Most of these “Heck No’s” are food additives used in processed foods

Amino acid chelates (citrate, aspartate, glutamate)Annatto
Aspartame (excitotoxin)
Aspartate (excitotoxin)
Aspartic acid (excitotoxin)
Autolyzed anything
Autolyzed yeast
Autolyzed yeast extract
Barley (flakes, flour, malt, pearl)
Beet concentrate
Breading (bread stuffing)
Brewers yeast
Brown rice syrup
Calcium caseinate
Calcium glutamate (E 623)
Carrageenan E 407) (or vegetable gum)
Citrate (E 330) amino acid chelate
Citric acid
Chicken/pork/beef “base”
Chicken/pork/beef “flavoring”
Corn processed
Corn starch
Corn syrup
Dehydrated egg
Dehydrated protein
Disodium caseinate
Disodium guanylate
Disodium inosinate
Dough conditioner(s)
Egg powder
Enzyme modified/containing enzymes
Fermented Soy

Fermented protein(s) (grains, sea veggies, lentils, etc)
Flavor enhancer
Fortified vitamins/nutrients Fu
Glutamate (E 620)
Glutamic acid (E 620)
Graham flour
Guar gum (most all “gums”)
Hydrolyzed anything*
Hydrolyzed oat flour
Hydrolyzed plant protein
Hydrolyzed protein
Hydrolyzed vegetable protein
Hydrolyzed wheat protein Isolates
Kombu/kombu extract
Lipolyzed butter fat
Low-no fat
Magnesium glutamate (E 625)
Malt extract (malt syrup)
Malt flavoring(s)
Malted anything
Malted barley flour
Malted barley/barley malt
Matzo, matzo meal
Meat flavorings (chicken, beef etc.)
Milk powder/reduced fat milk
Modified food starch
Monosodium glutamate (E 621)
Monoammonium glutamate (E 624)
Monopotassium glutamate (E 622)
Natrium glutamate
Natural flavor(s)
Natural flavoring(s)
Nutritional yeast
Pea protein
Pectin (E 440)
Plant protein extract 1-cysteine
Protein fortified
Protein powder
Protein solids
Rice syrup

Rye bread and flour
Seasoned salt
Seaweed extract
Smoke flavoring(s)
Sodium caseinate
Soup base
Soy extract
Soy lecithin
Soy protein
Soy protein concentrate
Soy protein isolate
Soy sauce
Soy sauce extract
Spice(s) as an ingredient
Splenda (excitotoxin)
Spice mixes that contain glutamate or MSG as an ingredient
Sweetn’low (excitotoxin)
Tangle extract
Textured protein
Vegetable gum
Vital gluten
Vinegar (malt)
Vitamin enriched
Wheat (bran, flour, germ, starch)
Yeast or autolyzed yeast
Yeast food
Yeast extract
Yeast nutrient
Whey protein
Whey protein concentrate Whey protein isolate
Xanthun Gum (most all “gums”)

Beet Sugar
Liquid Aminos
Kelp/kelp meal
Potato Flakes
Sea Vegetables
Spirulina, Spirulina Powder
Beet Powder
Fermented Grains
Fish Sauce
Grain Alchohol
Tapioca flour/starch
Baking Powder
Cream of Tarter
Regular Bacon/Cured meat

Raw Dairy

Vinegar (balsamic, white, wine)

Dried mushrooms
Dried Peas
Sundried tomato
Tomato paste
Cocoa Powder
Cured Meat (clean meat + salt)
Homemade Smoked Meat (clean meat +salt)
Gluten Free Noodles (one ingredient)
Processed Corn

Apple Cider Vinegar
Wine  (unknown ingredients)
Chocolate Liquor
Coconut Aminos (MANY react to this..we do okay with small* amounts)
“Clean” luncheon meat (meat/salt)
Extracts- Rosemary Extract
Arrowroot Flour
Potato Starch
Canned Items

We are cautious not to go overboard with these due to glutamate content:

Beef (claimed to have the highest amount found in animal protein)
Roasted Nuts
White Rice
Coconut Flour
Almond Flour
Paleo Flours
Maple Syrup
Broccoli (we don’t avoid going overboard with this one but are aware that it has very low levels)
Homemade Low Glutamate Broth  (glutamate in the liquid form will allow for higher sustained levels)
Cacao Nibs/Cacao Powder
Fresh Organic Corn
Coconut Sugar
Cured Olives
Cured Capers
Bee Pollen
Dried Fruit
Cashews, pistachios, peanuts (claimed to have some of the highest levels)

You may enjoy this 60 Minutes video from the early 1990’s on MSG in our our food supply