Despite the popularity of Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) in the food industry worldwide, the recent controversy highlights the need to demystify myths around MSG. How safe is MSG?; Is it safe for children to consume?; The permissible levels of use and consumption of MSG?– are some of the key concerns to most consumers.
Although glutamate is naturally occurring in many foods, it is frequently added as a flavour enhancer. Monosodium glutamate, commonly known as aginomotto, is the most widely used food additive valued for its flavour enhancing properties. It is a sodium salt of glutamate.
Glutamate is an amino acid (building block of proteins) that occurs naturally in foods like tomato (246 mg), chedar cheese (182 mg), corn (106 mg), green pea (106 mg), onion (51 mg), cabbage (50 mg), spinach (48 mg), mushroom (42 mg), chicken (22 mg) and breast milk (19 mg).
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The body uses glutamic acid as a fine – tuner of brain function, as well as a protein building block and contributes greatly to the characteristic ‘umami- the fifth taste’ of foods. Glutamate is also produced in the body and plays an essential role in human metabolism. The body does not distinguish between natural glutamate from foods and the added ones.
A review of the data from the world’s top scientific sources reveals that MSG is safe for human consumption. Numerous international scientific evaluations undertaken over many years have placed MSG on the GRAS (generally regarded as safe) list of food additives approved by the USFDA, along with many other common food ingredients such as salt, vinegar and baking powder. Under the Indian food laws, MSG is a permitted additive in foods. The European Community’s Scientific Committee for Food confirmed the safety of MSG. The Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation and World Health Organisation also placed MSG in the safe category for food additives.
Given these facts, it is no surprise that MSG is greatly popular among chefs and the food industry across the world.
Another issue that has cropped up in the debate over MSG is whether it is an allergen or not. According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, it is not. The US Food and Drug Administration has found no evidence to suggest any long-term, serious health consequences from the consumption of MSG. However, it is true that some people might be sensitive to MSG, just as to many other foods and food ingredients. Because of any individual sensitivity that may occur, the food labels are required to indicate the presence of MSG. The phrase “contains glutamate” appears on labels of foods containing MSG. There is general consensus in the scientific community that MSG is safe for the adult population. While MSG may be considered safe for children, it may be prudent to limit its intake during pregnancy. Some preliminary scientific studies suggested an association with high doses of MSG and increased risk of obesity and metabolic syndrome. However, more empirical studies are needed to elucidate causal inference. But by no means can MSG be categorised as a toxic, unsafe ingredient. The ongoing confusion about MSG requires us to differentiate and distinguish this from the natural glutamate present in foods.
What is needed is a complete relook on the food safety issues including hygiene, microbial safety, contaminants, adulterants, additives and allergens, rather than bans on individual food items.
Author is a clinical nutritionist and founder of http://www.theweightmonitor.com and Whole Foods India