Although they have similar-sounding names, monosodium glutamate, or MSG, and gluten are different substances. Many people have sensitivities to MSG, and many others are sensitive to gluten. Some people are sensitive to both, and others have no sensitivity to either. Understanding the differences between these two substances is vital to avoiding foods that could trigger a reaction.
Monosodium glutamate is a salt of glutamic acid, one of the most abundant amino acids. It occurs naturally in some foods, but is often used as a flavor enhancer. It produces a flavor that can't easily be provided by other flavor enhancers. It's often responsible for the "umami" or savory taste in prepared foods.
MSG has a reputation of causing many ill-effects, such as headaches, water retention, dry mouth and flushing. Because it is commonly used in Chinese food, the perceived effect of MSG has been called the "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome." In an article published in October of 2006 in the "Journal of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners," researchers conducted a meta-analysis of studies conducted during a 40-year period on the effects of MSG. The studies showed no consistent evidence of Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. Despite this, each individual is different. If you feel flushed or get a headache after consuming Chinese food or another food that contains MSG, you might have a sensitivity.
What is Gluten
Gluten is a protein that is found in wheat, barley and rye. Gluten is responsible for the elasticity, rising properties and chewiness of baked goods. So, while MSG is a salt-based flavor enhancer, gluten is a protein that results in the specific texture of baked wheat, barley and rye products.
While a clear consensus doesn't exist for MSG sensitivity, the existence of gluten sensitivity is well-documented. Gluten sensitivity ranges from severe intolerance in the form of celiac disease to mild sensitivity. Symptoms of gluten sensitivity can be present in the absence of celiac disease. These symptoms include headaches, stomach bloating and fatigue.
The Differences Between MSG and Gluten
Clearly, while MSG and gluten are different substances, if you're sensitive to one or both of them, you can have the same symptoms. One way to determine whether you have a sensitivity to a food is to avoid it for two weeks. If your symptoms clear up, you likely have a sensitivity to that food. If you suspect you have a more severe reaction, such as celiac disease, check with your doctor.