‘Likely culprit’ in celiac disease hidden in processed foods

Why is Ajinomoto trying so hard to keep transglutaminase unlabeled?

Over the past few decades celiac disease (CD) has morphed into a “major public health problem.” Along with it, other autoimmune conditions such as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and psoriasis, are also topping the charts as very common disorders with dozens of heavily advertised drugs created to treat them.

If you ask why, the knee-jerk response is typically that better testing has uncovered all these otherwise undisclosed conditions. But does that really explain things? And it certainly doesn’t take into consideration what experts refer to as large numbers of people with undiagnosed autoimmune diseases, especially CD.

Back in 2015 two researchers with expertise in metabolic diseases, Aaron Lerner, a professor at Tel Aviv University, and Torsten Matthias, affiliated with the AESKU.KIPP Institute in Germany, first sounded the alarm on a largely unknown, widely used food additive – an enzyme called transglutaminase (TG). At that time, they proposed a “hypothesis” linking TG used in food processing to celiac and other autoimmune diseases. Four years later, however, the pair stated that further research and observations have closed the “gaps” in our understanding of how TG is an “inducer of celiac disease.”   

Big Food’s favorite find to ‘glue’ things together

Transglutaminase, a.k.a. “meat glue,” is the darling of Big Food for lots of reasons: it can glue together scraps of fish, chicken and meat into whole-looking cuts (often called “Frankenmeats”); extend the shelf life of processed foods (even pasta); improve “texture,” especially in low-salt, low-fat products; make breads and pastries (particularly gluten-free ones) rise better, and, as one manufacturer puts it, allow for use of things that would ordinarily be tossed out — unappetizing leftovers and scraps of food that would “otherwise be considered waste ingredients, creating an added-value product.”

But more than just turning “waste ingredients” into new food products, there are a host of other reasons why you should do your best to steer clear of meat glue.

‘Tight junction dysfunction’

The 2015 research published by Lerner and Matthias detailed how certain food additives may be behind the steady rise of autoimmune diseases due to something called “tight junction dysfunctions,” which can set the stage for a wide variety of serious ailments, calling out transglutaminase as one of the commonly used food additives that can enhance “intestinal junction leakage.”

A subsequent study in 2019 recognized transglutaminase as a “likely culprit” in celiac disease.

In 2020, Lerner and Matthias published yet another paper on transglutaminase and celiac disease, calling it a “potential public health concern” and saying that they hope their review will “encourage clinical, scientific and regulatory debates on (its) safety to protect the public.”

Despite all the warnings and additional research, use of the enzyme is booming, and all its food uses are now considered GRAS (generally recognized as safe) by the FDA.

TG and MSG

The similarities between MSG and transglutaminase are quite noteworthy. Not only is the enzyme manufactured in great quantities by Ajinomoto (as is MSG) but the way TG is promoted by the company is remarkably similar to its long-running propaganda campaign claiming that MSG is a safe ingredient.

For example, Ajinomoto states on its websites and elsewhere that both MSG and TG are “found in food naturally,” are “safe,” used in many countries and considered GRAS in the U.S. by the FDA. And just as MSG supposedly in no way causes serious reactions, the company says that TG in no way causes celiac disease – in fact, under some circumstances the TG added to food can actually help CD patients, Ajinomoto says.

While transglutaminase is found naturally in the human body (as is glutamate), there is a significant difference between microbial TG (the manufactured additive) and “our own transglutaminase” says Lerner.  (Just as there is a major difference between manufactured MSG and the glutamate in your body).

That’s because the tissue TG produced in the body “has a different structure (from) the microbial sort, which allows its activity to be tightly controlled. Microbial transglutaminase itself could also increase intestinal permeability,” he says, “by directly modifying proteins that hold together the intestinal barrier.”

The FDA has “no questions”

While once the FDA pretended to look into the safety of a product before granting it GRAS status, not even that is done any more.  Now a company simply turns in a statement that a product should be referred to as GRAS, and it’s done.

Starting in 1998 Ajinomoto filed four notices of “self-determined” GRAS status for TG with the FDA. The first was to use TG in seafood. In 1999 they sent in more intended uses for hard and soft cheeses, yogurt, and “vegetable protein dishes/veggie burgers/meat substitutes.” In 2000 Ajinomoto sent another notice to the FDA regarding using transglutaminase in pasta, bread, pastries, ready-to-eat cereal, pizza dough and “grain mixtures.”

And in 2002, Ajinomoto asked that anything else it might have previously overlooked, referred to as “use in food in general,” be given GRAS status. None of these GRAS notices elicited any objections from the FDA.  Nothing that Big Food asks for is even questioned any more.

Included in the 2001 “everything else” notification from Ajinomoto were some details of a 30-day toxicity study using beagles. Despite findings that included dogs that had developed a pituitary gland cyst, discoloration of the lungs, an enlarged uterus and “significantly” lower prostate weights, all that was considered “incidental and unrelated” to TG. Why they bothered to include a study that shows that their product causes harm to the animals studied can only be understood if you know how Ajinomoto operates.  Having done a study, they can later refer to the study that they did as though it proved that their product was “safe,” knowing that no one will challenge them. Such claims have great propaganda value.

The FDA had “no questions.”

Transglutaminase, here, there and everywhere

Lerner and Matthias have been warning for years about TG hidden in processed foods, saying it’s “unlabeled and hidden from public knowledge.” As we mentioned in another blog on TG several weeks ago, aside from “formed” meat products sold in supermarkets in the U.S. where the enzyme must be called out on the ingredient statement, TG can easily go undercover. 

And Ajinomoto has even added its own tips to help food manufacturers avoid labeling by providing an explanation of how TG is just a “processing aid,” as well as making available a letter authored by a law firm in Germany stating that aside from use in “formed” meat or fish, transglutaminase is “no ingredient” and as such in the EU does not have to be included on a food label. In fact, the lawyers go so far as to state that if a substance (such as TG) is “without any function in the finished product,” listing it on the ingredient label can “mislead the consumer.”

The FDA told us that if TG is used as a “processing aid” it’s considered an “incidental additive” and is “exempted from ingredient labeling.”

Even organic products aren’t safe from TG, as TG is considered A-OK to use it in organic foods, falling under the “allowed” generic category of “enzymes” on the USDA “National list of allowed and prohibited substances” in organic food and farming.

Perhaps the most devious use of this enzyme is to improve the appearance of gluten-free bakery products. Manufactured, microbial transglutaminase “functionally imitates” natural-tissue TG, which is known to be an autoantigen (a “self” antigen, reacting to something produced by the body that provokes an immune response) in those who suffer from celiac disease.  

Steering clear of transglutaminase

The TG story could very well be called a case against processed foods, as the only sure-fire way to avoid this gut-wrenching enzyme is to make/cook all your food from scratch. That being a very unlikely prospect these days, the next best thing is to avoid the following:

  • Low-fat and low-salt products, especially dairy and dairy substitutes;
  • Chicken nuggets, along with any other “formed” meat products;
  • Expensive cuts of meat being sold much cheaper than they should be (that especially is true for restaurants);
  • Sushi from unreliable sources, formed fish sticks and balls;
  • Veggie and tofu burgers; and
  • Cheaply produced pasta (TG is said to help when using “damaged wheat flour”).

When asked what he would consider to be an important take-away regarding transglutaminase, Professor Lerner told us that it would be for the FDA to “reconsider the classification of (manufactured) TG as GRAS.”

A warning you won’t read in the mainstream press

Hey Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and National Public Radio, why aren’t you talking about this?

Nowadays, the lifeline of urban population has been formed by commercial foods due to industrialization, urbanization, and rapid increase in working class. Commercial foods are time and energy saving foods but it compromising the nutritional value of foods. The term adulteration refers to the deliberate addition of compound which is usually not present in food. These compounds are known as food additives or food adulterant. Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) is one of the most common food additives. Several studies revealed that MSG has toxic effect on fetal development/fetus, children’s, adolescent, and adults. Physiological complication associated with MSG toxicity are hypertension, obesity, gastrointestinal tract troubles, and impairment of function of brain, nervous system, reproductive, and endocrine system. The effect of MSG depends upon its dose, route of administration and exposure time. Public awareness may play a major role in controlling the food adulteration by working in collaboration with National testing facilities to scrutinize each commercial food article from time to time. The aim of this review article is to highlight the deleterious impact of MSG on human health.”

–Chakraborty SP. Patho-physiological and toxicological aspects of monosodium glutamate. Toxicol Mech Methods. 2019 Jul;29(6):389-396. doi: 10.1080/15376516.2018.1528649. Epub 2019 May 6. PMID: 30273089.

Something to think about: The IGTC

History tells us that in 1969, the International Glutamate Technical Committee (IGTC) was founded as an association of companies engaged in the manufacture, sale and commercial use of glutamates. It sponsored, gathered, and disseminated research on the use and safety of monosodium glutamate; designed and implemented research protocols and provided financial assistance to researchers; promoted acceptance of monosodium glutamate as a food ingredient and represented members’ collective interests. Those collective interests were to sell monosodium glutamate.  It would appear that the IGTC was the brainchild of Ajinomoto Co., a leading manufacturer of monosodium glutamate. Or possibly Andrew Ebert, long time chairman of the IGTC, thought up the whole thing.  Ebert had been with Minnesota Mining and Minerals when they were producing MSG.

It was reported in 1994 that the IGTC was an association composed of physicians and/or scientists either employed by producers or users of glutamic acid and its salts, or doing research on it in university laboratories. Its annual budget was $250,000. Membership was $2,000/year, with Ajinomoto making up any shortfall between member-provided funds and that quarter-million.

In 1977, the IGTC spun off The Glutamate Association, with both organizations having close ties to the Robert H. Kellen Company of Atlanta, Ga. and Washington, DC.  Kellen is a trade organization and association management firm that specializes in the food, pharmaceutical, and healthcare industries. In 1992, Andrew (Andy) Ebert, Ph.D., chairman of the IGTC, was also senior vice president of The Kellen Company.

Once established, the IGTC assembled a cadre of scientists and others who conducted research for them and/or spoke publicly about the safety of monosodium glutamate. In the 1970s and 1980s, research sponsors were acknowledged.

The names of researchers Altman, Anantharaman, Auer, Bunyan, Ebert, Fernstrom, Filer, Garattini, Geha, Germano, Giacometti, Goldschmiedt, Heywood, Iwata, Kelly, Kenney, Kerr, Matsuzawa, Morselli, Newman, Owen, Patterson, Pulce, Reynolds, Saxon, Schiffman, Simon, Stegink, Stevenson, Takasaki, Tarasoff, Williams, Woessner, and Yang were notable, although there were others. In the late 1990s the names Torii, Shi, Jinap and Hajeb were added to the roster.

Steve Taylor deserves special mention. Although a prominent representative of the glutamate industry, he’s not included with the others because his ties to the IGTC have not openly been acknowledged. Although Taylor has repeatedly spoken out about the safety of MSG, only once to our knowledge has he acknowledged his ties to the IGTC.

When he introduces himself, he typically refers to his University of Nebraska affiliation, but not to the fact that he’s an agent of the IGTC.

Until he was mentioned to the FDA as having been responsible for supplying placebos containing excitotoxic aspartic acid (in aspartame) to the researchers conducting glutamate-safety double-blind studies for him, Ebert had been key to the research operations of the IGTC. This professionally respected pharmacologist and toxicologist had been with the IGTC from the beginning, recruiting researchers to carry out the research designed for them. In each case, that research has enabled Ebert’s people to proclaim (without justification) that a new study has demonstrated that monosodium glutamate is a harmless food additive.

Ebert was the face of the IGTC, and his influence can still be felt at every level. He’s served on the FDA Food Advisory Committee; the Grocery Manufacturers of America (Technical Committee on Food Protection, the Codex Subcommittee on Food Additives and the GRAS-FASEB Monograph Committee); the National Food Processors Association; the Institute of Food Technology (Technology Toxicology and Safety Evaluation Division, and Scientific Lecturer); the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences Assembly of Life Sciences (Food and Nutrition Board: the Committee on Food Protection, and the GRAS List Survey); the AMA (Industry Liaison Panel); the FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Food Standards Program as an industry observer; and the International Food Additives Council as executive director.

As a food industry pharmacologist and toxicologist, Ebert has provided scientific and technical expertise for programs of many associations managed by The Kellen Company.

It looks like since he was exposed for supplying excitotoxin-containing placebos to his researchers, Ebert no longer sits as chairman of the IGTC. 

In 2009, his name appeared as being on the IGTC Executive Committee. His move from the glutamate industry limelight coincided with the posting of information on the Truth in Labeling Campaign website about his role in designing the IGTC’s “scientific” studies and supplying aspartame-laced placebos (placebos that cause reactions similar, if not identical, to those caused by MSG) to his researchers. Toward the end of the 1990s, we began to see the names of Takeshi Kimura and Yoshi-hisa Sugita, Ph.D., associated with the IGTC. Both Kimura and Sugita came from Ajinomoto. 

Jumping ahead to 2022, it looked like the IGTC had moved its offices to Brussels, with Michael Rogers, IGTC chairman, leaving The Glutamate Association and its International Glutamate Information Service (IGIS) to run Ajinomoto’s U.S. operation while the IGTC continues to focus on whatever it will take (no holds barred) to keep MSG profitable. According to the Global Civil Society Database the IGTC’s aims are to “study, assemble and disseminate scientific data and information related to all aspects of the safety, quality and use of glutamate and its salts, particularly monosodium glutamate with a particular emphasis on their use in foods for human beings; promote the uses of glutamates as food ingredients especially on an international level.”  The six organizations that carry out its work are:

European Committee for Umami (ECU)

Amino Acids Seasoning Alliance of Northeast Asia (ASANA)


Taiwan Amino Acid Manufacturers Association ROC (TAAMA)


Institute for Glutamate Sciences in South America (IGSSA)


Regional Committee for Glutamate Sciences (RCGS)


The Glutamate Association United States (TGA)

The IGTC no longer sponsors studies alleging to demonstrate the safety of MSG.  Instead, they sponsor consensus meetings to which they send delegates who discuss the safety of MSG and submit reports of their meetings to any media that will take them.

Something to think about

As the glutamate industry pumps out ever increasing amounts of excitotoxic free glutamate to be used in food, the incidence of glutamate-induced disease and disability has been growing.

Check it out.  You’ll find the numbers in market reports and at the national library of medicine’s PubMed.gov.

And don’t be put off by the fact that there are other toxins in the environment that surely contribute.  That doesn’t make glutamate’s harmful role any less a factor.

Will the real poison please stand up!

If MSG is bad for you – as Jeffrey Steingarten, food critic for Vogue once asked, “why doesn’t everyone in China have a headache?”

Why? Because at the time Jeffrey Steingarten was conducting his often quoted “investigation” as to the headache status of people in Shanghai, the Chinese didn’t use a lot of processed food, meaning they didn’t have exposure to large quantities of manufactured free glutamate (MfG), the toxic ingredient in MSG.  And the little that they used was sprinkled onto the dish they were making as they were finishing it. So, you wouldn’t expect everyone is China to have a headache.

I wonder what Mr. Steingarten, who claims to be “not” an “unbiased observer” of “phony food allergies and intolerances” would say if he knew that in 1969, it was discovered that glutamate is an excitotoxic – brain damaging — amino acid.  It is a Jekyll and Hyde chemical that when ingested in quantity kills brain cells in the arcuate nucleus of the hypothalamus as well as elsewhere.

Since 1957, virtually unlimited quantities of this manufactured free glutamate (MfG) have been added to processed and ultra-processed foods.  That was when the Japanese company Ajinomoto began producing MfG using carefully selected (patented) genetically modified bacteria to feed on carbohydrates such as sugar, and excrete glutamate through their cell walls. And Big Food recognized that there was profit to be made by producing MfG to enhance the flavor of food, and started mass producing their own MfG-containing hydrolyzed proteins, yeast extracts, maltodextrin and more than 40 other MfG-containing ingredients to be used as flavor-enhancers.

Even today, not everyone in China gets MfG-induced headaches.

Warnings the FDA isn’t sharing

In 1992, a study done by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) on the safety of amino acids in dietary supplements warned about the use of manufactured free glutamate (MfG) in supplements.

That information was never shared with the public.

As early as 1990, the FDA became aware that MfG produced through acid hydrolysis of proteins contains carcinogenic mono and dichloro propanols that contribute to the development of cancer.

That information was never shared with the public.

Since 1990, the FDA has been thinking about sharing it.

Waiting on the FDA, an exercise in futility

Are you still waiting for the FDA to remove MSG and MfG — manufactured free glutamate — from the FDA’s GRAS (generally recognized as safe) list?  So are we.  But it won’t happen.  The FDA is on record as not doing anything that the Glutes don’t want them to do.  So the chances that the FDA will ever respond to Citizen Petition FDA-2021-P-0035 are next to none.

There is a great deal of evidence that attests to the fact that MSG and its MfG component cause brain damage as well as adverse reactions like heart irregularities, asthma, and seizures.  And there is absolutely no evidence that either MSG or MfG is harmless.

It’s all there for you to read on the pages of The Truth In Labeling Campaign Website (www.truthinlabeling.org).  But to save you time here are a number of resources for easy access.

  • Review of animal studies done in the 1970s that have demonstrated the toxicity of MSG and MfG: evidence that the glutamate in MSG and other flavor enhancers and protein substitutes becomes excitotoxic – brain damaging – when present in amounts that exceed what a healthy subject needs for normal body function: https://www.truthinlabeling.org/assets/seven_lines/Seven_Lines_Lines2.pdf

The most effective weapon

Probably the most effective weapon in the arsenal of glutamate industry claims that monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a “safe” food additive is the often-repeated statement that “FDA considers the addition of MSG to foods to be ‘generally recognized as safe’ (GRAS).”

According to The Glutamate Association:

Over the years, there have been numerous reports or complaints from people claiming they had side effects from foods that have MSG. Those include stomach upset, heart palpitations or headaches. In the 60s and 70s, some used the derogatory term “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” because they believed that people experienced these side effects after eating Chinese food. 

However, researchers have done numerous studies, and there’s been no concrete evidence that MSG causes these ill effects unless consumed in large quantities — 3 grams or more. Typically, an average food serving has 0.5 grams or less of MSG. 

Because of this research, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classified MSG as GRAS or “generally recognized as safe.”

The flaw in industry’s argument lies in the fact that there actually is no research that demonstrates that MSG is “safe.”

There are several dozen studies that demonstrate that MSG, which contains an excitotoxic – brain damaging – amino acid, kills brain cells in the arcuate nucleus of the hypothalamus causing gross obesity, infertility, behavior disorders and more.

There are a handful of human studies and a myriad of reports that MSG causes migraine headache, asthma, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel, nausea, vomiting, seizures and more. 

There are a dozen or so badly flawed double-blind studies wherein, among other irregularities, the placebo used was not of some inert material, but triggered reactions identical to those caused by MSG. 

Moreover, by the FDA’s own admission, there are no studies that demonstrate the safety of MSG.  Or, to say it more precisely, the FDA has not identified even one study that they have used to back their claim that MSG is “safe.”

According to law, to be designated FDA GRAS (generally recognized as safe), an ingredient must be tested for safety using scientific procedures (with the same evidence as required for food additive approval), unless it is known to be safe through common use in food prior to January 1958.

Since the MSG in use today only entered the market in 1957, no claim can be made that it was known to be safe through common use in food prior to January 1958.  That leaves the requirement that ingredient must be tested for safety using scientific procedures.  A requirement that has not been met.

How do we know? We asked the FDA to point to the studies they used in making the claim that MSG is GRAS.  And guess what?  They haven’t responded with a single study. 

We also asked the FDA to removed MSG and its manufactured free glutamate toxic component (MfG) from the GRAS “list.”  And guess what?  They haven’t responded to that either.

So how does the FDA get away with declaring that MSG is GRAS when doing so puts them in violation of the law?  Who is the glutamate industry operative at the FDA in charge of making it happen?

FDA violates its own rules in calling MSG ‘safe’

BY FDA REGULATIONS: According to Sections 201(s) and 409 of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and FDA regulations 21 CFR 170.3 and 21 CFR 170.30, the use of a food substance may be GRAS (generally recognized as safe) either through scientific procedures or, for a substance used in food before 1958, through experience based on common use in food.

In short, to be designated FDA GRAS an ingredient must be tested for safety using scientific procedures (with the same evidence as required for food additive approval), unless it is known to be safe through common use in food prior to January 1958.

FACT: Neither the monosodium glutamate in use prior to 1957 (MSG-1) nor the monosodium glutamate in use today (MSG-2) has ever been tested for safety.

FACT: The monosodium glutamate in use today (MSG-2) is not the same monosodium glutamate that was grandfathered GRAS in 1958 (MSG-1), yet the FDA seems not to have noticed.

FACT: Glutamic acid is an excitotoxic amino acid. When ingested in controlled quantities, glutamic acid is essential to normal function of the body. But when ingested in excess, it causes brain damage, leading to a variety of abnormalities. Prior to 1957, when MSG-1 was the source of monosodium glutamate, there was not enough manufactured free glutamate added to food to cause glutamate to become excitotoxic. That changed with the introduction of MSG-2.

FACT: MSG-2, the monosodium glutamate in use today, could not have been grandfathered GRAS in 1958 because it didn’t exist.

CONCLUSION: To be designated FDA GRAS, an ingredient has to be tested for safety using scientific procedures – unless it was known to be safe through experience based on common use in food prior to January 1958. MSG-2, the monosodium glutamate in use today was neither.

For more details, and to read the FDA rules as they appear in the Federal Register and the Code of Federal Regulations go here.

Adrienne Samuels, Ph.D.