Glutamate acid or glutamate, is one of the most common amino acids found in nature. It is a major component of many protein-rich foods such as meat, fish and milk, as well as plants such as wheat, corn and sugar beets. Virtually every food contains glutamate. It is also produced by our bodies, and plays an essential role in human metabolism.
Glutamates can be made into Monosodium Glutamate, MSG, a white, crystalline powder, which has little taste of its own, but enhances and points up the flavor of foods. In the early l900s, scientists isolated this flavor enhancing ingredient in seaweed and other plants. Today, MSG is produced in many countries around the world from sugar cane or sugar beets, corn sugar or wheat starch. MSG contains only one-third the amount of sodium as regular table salt.
Consumption of MSG
Data from the United Kingdom shows that per capita consumption of MSG is 4 grams (less than one teaspoon) per person and Canadian estimates are similar.
In Taiwan, the per capita consumption figures are much higher, averaging 21 grams per week.
MSG and Metabolism
The human body metabolizes glutamate added to foods in the same manner it metabolizes glutamate found naturally in many foods.
For example, the body cannot distinguish between glutamates found naturally in tomatoes from added MSG in tomato sauce.
Is MSG a Safe Food Additive?
In l958, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration designated MSG as a Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) substance, along with many other common food ingredients such as salt, vinegar and baking powder. Because consumers continue to have questions regarding MSG’s safety, scientists over the last several years have done many studies and concluded that MSG is safe for the general population, including pregnant and lactating women, and children.
The IFIC Review, the International Food Information Council Newsletter, Washington, D.C., Oct. l995, states, “It is apparent that there is no shortage of research conducted on this ubiquitous ingredient and its potential health effects.Because MSG is one of the most intensely studied food ingredients in the food supply and has been found safe, the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization and WHO placed it in the safest category for food additives. Subsequently, in l991 the European Community’s Scientific Committee for Food confirmed the safety of MSG. Based on the extensive scientific data, and in view of large normal dietary intake of glutamates, the committee determined that specification on an Acceptable Daily Intake was unnecessary.
The American Medical Association’s Council on Scientific Affairs, the National Academy of Sciences, as well as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), have all determined that MSG, at current consumption levels, is safe.”
A fact sheet from Health Canada states that “scientists in the health protection branch and in the international community generally agree that no hazard to public health results from the moderate use of MSG under current practices and levels of use.
However, some individuals who consume MSG may have some unpleasant reactions. These may include a burning sensation, facial pressure and chest pains appearing about 20 minutes after consumption of food containing MSG and disappearing about two hours later.
This temporary condition is not harmful. People sensitive enough to be affected may choose to avoid the use of this substance.”
Avoiding all use of glutamates can be difficult. Glutamate occurs naturally in protein-containing foods such as meat, fish, milk and many vegetables, it is not listed separately on the label.
It is also part of hydrolyzed vegetable protein used in seasoning commercially prepared meat products, soups, sauces, bouillions and gravy mixes.
According to federal regulations in Canada, the presence of MSG or hydrolyzed vegetable protein or hydrolyzed plant protein must be listed on the label. United States Food and Drug Administration does not allow hydrolyzed vegetable protein to be listed as “natural flavors”.
Remember that the label reflects the contents in decreasing order of proportions.
If MSG is near the top of the list, it is one of the main ingredients in the product. In most formulated food, MSG will be found near the bottom of the list.
To avoid excessive use of MSG we can read labels, use in moderation, avoid adding to commercially prepared soups and question restaurants regarding their use of MSG.
MSG does not perk up the flavor of sweet foods such as fruits, fruit juices, candy and sweet baked goods, and milk and butter.
For those foods that benefit from MSG, such as vegetable and meat dishes, it is more likely to be added. Many prepackaged soups and gravy stocks already contain MSG so further additions are not necessary.
Restaurant soups sometimes contain higher levels of MSG than those prepared commercially for retail sale. Sensitive persons might avoid soup as a first course or eat soup with bread or crackers as these may lessen the effects of MSG. Also people sensitive to MSG should choose meal items carefully when eating out.
The Allergy/Asthma Information Association has chapters across Canada. The office for the Prairies/NWT/Nunavut is located at 16531- 114 Street NW, Edmonton, AB Y5X 3V6, phone 1-866-456-6651, E-mail: .
Health Canada website: www.hc-sc.gc.ca; phone 416-973-1447; Fax 416-973-7794.