Mono Sodium Glutamate (MSG) is a salt containing glutamate – an amino acid present in human bodies that plays a vital role in metabolism and communication of human neurons. It is a sodium salt of glutamate. Glutamate is an amino acid (building block of proteins) that occurs naturally in foods like tomato (246 ppm), cheddar cheese (182 ppm), corn (106 ppm), green pea (106 ppm), onion (51 ppm), cabbage (50 ppm), spinach (48 ppm), mushroom (42 ppm), chicken (22 ppm) and breast milk (19 ppm). Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda first produced it in the year 1908. Ikeda identified glutamate as the key compound that gives dried seaweed its flavour, and worked on to develop it in the form of MSG, which could easily be used in food.
Glutamate and its salts contain sodium, potassium, magnesium, ammonium or calcium, which are now added to foods as flavour enhancers on daily basis, and not just in continental or Chinese food. As per the regulations of FDA, PFA, FSSAI and other regulatory bodies, these salts are listed as E-numbers (E620 to E625) in food labelling. But foods with high levels of glutamate, such as mushrooms, cheeses and fruit juice, are not so labelled. Despite the popularity of MSG and its usage in the food industry worldwide, MSG has always been mired in controversies about its ill health effects.
Monosodium glutamate is commonly known as Ajino Moto and is the most widely used food additive for its flavour enhancing properties. In the human body, glutamate acts like a neurotransmitter in the brain which plays a crucial role in memory and learning. It also serves as a protein-building block and contributes greatly to the characteristic ‘umami’, ‘the fifth taste’ of foods. The tongue has five kinds of basic taste-sensing receptors: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and the most recently discovered one, umami. Table salt (NaCl) activates the salty sensors, MSG hits the “umami” sensors. This taste is often described as brothy, savoury, or meaty. Glutamates are found most often in fermented foods, like soy sauce or hard cheeses, and give them an added burst of flavour. Hydrolysed proteins and yeasts also yield glutamates. When used in small amounts (much less than table salt), MSG adds this additional dimension to the food’s flavour profile.
Overuse of MSG, often as a substitute for more expensive ingredients, can result in flavours that many people find unpleasant. Though an extremely small portion of the population (probably less than 1%) exhibits intolerance to MSG, it is a safe food ingredient in use for more than a century. Due to the presence of naturally occurring glutamate in our body, the body does not distinguish between natural glutamate from foods and the added ones.
Nowadays food items adulterated with MSG pose serious health hazards. The usage of MSG is strictly prohibited under law and any violation of the provisions of FSS Act/Rules & Regulations is liable for penalties as well as prosecution.
One of the studies conducted by researchers has confirmed after taking samples of so-called “taste enhancing powders” that MSG is added to many foods that people regularly eat, especially in restaurants and street-foods. “MSG is used in canned soups, crackers, meats, salad dressings, frozen dinners and much more. It’s found in restaurants, cafeterias and, amazingly, even in baby food and infant formula. While MSG’s benefits to the food industry are quite clear, this food additive could be slowly and silently doing major damage to the health of people,” says the study.
Researchers explain that MSG is an excite toxin, which means it overexcites your cells to the point of damage or death, causing brain damage to varying degrees and potentially even triggering or worsening learning disabilities, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease, and more. A Chinese-American doctor from Maryland reported that he had experienced symptoms of neck numbness, weakness and palpitations after eating foods containing MSG. Reviews from readers soon followed, claiming a wide range of side effects. Since then, other more common symptoms have been added, including headaches, migraines, numbness/tingling, chest tightening, heart arrhythmia, anxiety, irritability, irritable bowel syndrome, restlessness, sleep disturbance, flushing, muscle tightness and behaviour problems in children.
Regulations related to use
There has been some controversy in recent years about whether MSG is safe for human consumption. People who are intolerant to MSG would argue that MSG is bad for everyone and should be avoided at all costs. MSG has been studied for more than 30 years in Australia and the Food Standards Australia/ New Zealand (FSANZ) has ruled it safe for consumption at current levels. The US Food and Drug Authority (FDA) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) also agree that MSG is safe to add to foods. No country has banned the use of MSG in foods consumed by adults, but 50 countries have banned its use in baby food. 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 US-FDA, 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. The Food Safety Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) banned Maggi noodles a few years ago owing to presence of MSG in higher content. The FSSAI says that consumers should be facilitated to exercise informed choices in respect of what they eat. Paving the way for MSG in food stuffs, the FSSAI in an order has said, “Under regulation of the Food Safety and Standards (Food Product Standards and Food Additives), Regulations, 2011, MSG, a flavour enhancer, may be added to specific foods subject to Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) level and under proper declaration of the Food Safety and Standards (Packaging and Labelling) Regulations, 2011.”
At present, there are no specified limits fixed by FSSAI or by global standards for MSG. Presently, there is no analytical method to determine whether MSG was added to a product during its manufacture or was naturally present in the product. This can however be checked through inspection of the manufacturing premises. In order to ensure that consumers are facilitated to exercise informed choices in respect of what they eat, proceedings may be launched against FBOs only when the label states ‘No MSG’ or ‘No added MSG’ and MSG is actually found in the impugned foodstuff. FSSAI has issued instructions to the Commissioners of Food Safety that specific enforcement and prosecution may not be launched against the manufacturers of noodles or pasta on account of presence of MSG/ Glutamic Acid unless it is ascertained by the department that MSG flavour enhancer (INS E-621) was deliberately added during the course of manufacture without required declaration on the label as indicated.
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 at food safety issues including hygiene, microbial safety, contaminants, adulterants, additives and allergens, rather than bans on individual food items.
—The writer is Advisor, Food and Consumer Affairs, to Government of Madhya Pradesh, AIGGPA, Bhopal. The facts and opinions expressed in this article are based on scientific research and have nothing to do with the organisation he works for.