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Glutamate: a dangerous substance swept under the rug?

What is Glutamate?

At a glance, many people might associate the term "glutamate" with the monosodium glutamate or "MSG", and some might also know that Chinese food sources contained this very ingredient that people tried to avoid. Surprisingly, this is the third most used enhancer of flavour in the food products found in North America. Before we dig deeper into this case, it is crucial to understand that glutamates or glutamic acid consists of two sides: one that is beneficial to your health- which of course was a creation of Mother Nature - and one that has been linked to several adverse health effects, which is also the one that was created in a laboratory, of course.

From a chemical point of view, Glutamate is a non-essential amino acid that occurs naturally in many food sources such as cheese, dairy, meat, eggs, wheat and vegetables that are high in protein (tomatoes, peas and mushrooms for example). When consumed, dietary proteins are broken down into smaller amino acids by the digestion in the body. Amino acids serve their physiological purpose by providing metabolic fuel for the various functions of the body. Glutamate is bounded by the whole protein, which is an important factor that will have light shed on it later on in this article. In short: we should not fear this process since it is completely naturally occurring.

The second kind of glutamate also goes by the name of "free glutamic acid" and was created by a Japanese University in the early 1900's during the evaporation process of kombu broth. The scientists at the university discovered that there were some brown crystals left behind and quickly came to know fo their potent abilities in terms of flavouring. These scientists succeeded in extracting the glutamate property from the source of whole food, which is the reasoning for why the name "free glutamic acid" came about and a method of mass production quickly was patented.

What are the differences and effects of Glutamate on health?

Now, we have been introduced to two version of the glutamate. Let's dig a little deeper into the matters. There is only one single similarity between Mother Nature's glutamates and the free glutamates, which is the fact that they are both subjected to the same metabolic processes after being absorbed by the intestines in the body. The natural glutamates have the whole protein source bound, meaning that the process of digestion and absorption into the bloodstream happens at a slow pace. These do not contain any sort of impurities either, but do contain a large number of antioxidative properties from the whole protein source.

The free glutamates are not bound but are rather in free form, meaning that the digestion and absorption into the bloodstream happens much quicker as opposed to the natural glutamates. Free glutamates are very powerful generators of free radicals, which basically are unstable atoms that cause damage to cells and can lead to various illnesses. These artificially manufactured free glutamates are always accompanied with other impurities, ie. D-glutamic acid, pyroglutamic acid as well as carcinogenic mono- and dichloropropanols. Because of the fact that free glutamate can be extracted separately, we are dealing with a highly concentrated additive at levels that are very well above what you would find naturally occurring in food sources. For you, this means that you are being exposed to higher concentration of the glutamic acid.

Other than having its' role in the building block of protein, the glutamates also serve their purpose as a neurotransmitter that is vital to the transmission of nerve impulses in the vast majority of the human central nervous system (CNS). The free glutamates are widely regarded as being neurotoxic, which means that they cause neuron degeneration and the death of cells; something that may be followed by neuroendocrine disorders (diseases that affect the interaction between the nervous system and the endocrine system [the system responsible for hormone production]) such as ie. diabetes insipidus, Kallman syndrome and neuroendocrine tumors (NETs) etc. The main and most major risks associated with the ingestion of free glutamate involves brain damage, endocrine disorders such as obesity and certain reproductive disorders, behaviour disorders, adverse reactions and certain neurodegenerative diseases. Furthermore, free glutamates also have an excitatory effect, meaning that they stimulate activity within the brain and thus create an addictive response.

In which food sources can free glutamates be found?

It is unfortunate yet necessary in this context to point out the fact that the free glutamates have made their way into many products that can be found on the grocery store shelves and restaurants in these days. If you wish to have a look at an updated and complete list, you can click the link hereto visit the "Truth In Labelling". Be aware of the fact that the Glutamate Association is a multi-million dollar lobbying group of a multi-billion dollar food industry. Since the free glutamates get metabolised in the same way as Mother Nature's glutamates, these people insist that there is no nutritional difference and thus the free glutamates do not pose any threat to health. The free glutamates are responsible for extended the shelf life of the food and also for preserving it, they enhance the flavour of food and actually make consumers eat more of it because they inhibit the release of the hormone called leptin. Leptin is hormone responsible for causing fullness and thus make you stop eating. In all actuality, the companies started adding these chemicals to food marketed for babies, ultimately making the babies eat more of the food, and this eventually led to the addition of free glutamates into just about every source of food we know and eat. It is predominantly canned and frozen foods that are known to contain the highest amounts of free glutamates.

Be warned: if you view the list found in the link given above, you are going to see a bunch of very familiar items in it. Let's have a look at a couple of items found in the list that you will most likely scratch your head over - all protein powders are most likely listed in there! During the process in which whey is derived from milk, the free glutamates are being formed. Almost all of the commercial whey products are processed with heat/and or an acid wash. A lot of companies also add artificial flavourings and/or additives in addition to the manufacturing process of their products, and these are in fact also free glutamates. The message here is: be very careful when choosing your next protein powder product. Be on the lookout for whey products that have been cold-processed, cross flow micro filtered, minimally processed, naturally sweetened, and possibly also ones that are made from unpasteurised raw milk, since its' whey contains an important component known as glycomacropeptide or GMP. GMP naturally contains immuno components that are vital for the health and functioning of your gut bacteria flora (probiotics).

Another popular sort of chemical food additive are artificial sweeteners, which also reside within the family of free glutamates. These function in the same way as any free glutamates and posses a great deal of unpleasant side effects. Splenda, which is sucralose and a very common sort of artificial sweetener, has recently been linked to the reduction of good bacteria (probiotics) in the gut by as much as 50% in clinical studies. To preserve an optimal level of health and well-being, it is absolutely vital to have a healthy flora of bacteria in the gut. Artificial sweeteners also posses excitatory effects which cause an increase in appetite, leading to overconsumption of calories from food. They also cause neurotoxicity and have been linked to various unpleasant side effects such as migraine headaches, seizures, mental disorders, blurry vision, dizziness and allergic reactions.

How do we protect ourselves?

To put it in fairly simple terms, you should eat wholesome and nourishing foods, ie. pasture raised organic meats, raw dairy products, raw nuts, organically grown fruits and vegetables, and wild caught fish, since all of these will surely be free of any sorts of chemical additives. It is absolutely crucial that you are extremely conscious of the labels on your food sources. The vast majority of people will simply check for macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fats), but go on to ignore the actual ingredients listed on the food product they have in their hands at the grocery store. To be exact; the ingredient list is the absolute most important element to consider. Look for the free glutamate that might be in the food and make smart choices accordingly. In general, labels that list minimal amounts of ingredients in the food sources will always be the best choices for you to make.

There are also certain individuals who can be supersensitive to glutamates, meaning that they experience adverse allergic reactions to the food containing free glutamates after consuming it. Typical symptoms of these adverse allergic reactions include numbness located on the back of the neck, shoulders and arms (a sensation that might be experienced as generalised weakness), and heart palpitations (perceived abnormality of the heartbeat). Other symptoms can be seen as facial pressure, headaches, nausea, chest pain and drowsiness. In cases of seriously bad allergic reactions, the allergic person in question must seek immediate therapy from a medical professional.

Sadly, the free glutamates have come to saturate the food industry and culture, hence why it would be very difficult indeed to always and completely avoid consuming them. We should not be obsessive, though. Our bodies are incredibly good at protecting itself from free glutamates when eating a healthy, balanced diet. The body also synthesises the compound known as "betaine" to inhibit the glutamate excitotoxicity. Betaine is produce from choline, which can be found in high quantities in food source such as liver, eggs and raw dairy.
The take-home message then is; limit your intake of any processed food and make sure you are eating plenty of wholesome and nourishing foods.

Are Glutamates and Glutamine the same thing?

They may initially seem like the exact same thing, but the truth is that glutamic acid and L-Glutamine are two entirely different types of amino acid classifications. Firstly - as mentioned earlier - glutamic acid is a non-essential amino acid while L-Glutamine is a conditionally essential amino acid, meaning that it is not usually essential, except when the body is exposed to stress for example: something that a rigorous training regime certainly does. L-Glutamine is mostly produced by muscle tissue in the body (approx. 90% of the L-Glutamine synthesis happens here). Cells found within the intestines, activated immune cells and kidney cells are the major physiological consumers of L-Glutamine. Maintaining a proper condition of the intestinal mucosa is one of L-Glutamine's primary functions, and this is vital for a healthy and well-functioning digestion and immune system. Additionally, L-Glutamine also helps aids in the transport of nitrogen - especially to cells undergoing division.

Only Approved Supplements offer a high quality selection of L-Glutamine supplements, ie. the "L-Glutamine" by Full Force Nutrition, the "L-Glutamine" 100% L-Glutamine Amino Acid and the "BCAA + Glutamine XPRESS" Amino Acids & L-Glutamine formulas by Scitec Nutrition. Click on the name of each individual product to view it.

[Image credit: Public Radio International (PRI)].