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What you should know about ... monosodium glutamate.

For many people, dinner in a good Chinese restaurant is one of life's pleasures. Succulent seafood, tender chicken, crisp oriental vegetables and savory sauces have a subtle, delicate flavor that speaks of infinite care and centuries of culinary tradition.

More than 1200 years ago, oriental cooks knew that certain foods tasted better when prepared with a soup stock made from a type of seaweed. It was not until shortly after the turn of the 20th century, however, that scientists isolated in that seaweed the ingredient that had enhanced the flavor of the food prepared by ancient oriental cooks.

That ingredient is best known today by its scientific name -- monosodium glutamate (MSG). MSG is one of several forms of glutamic acid, a naturally occurring amino acid found in all proteins. MSG has been used to prepare foods in homes, restaurants and food processing around the world for years to enhance the taste of foods.

International scientific investigations have focused on MSG as a food ingredient in hundreds of studies. In the United States, the FDA categorizes MSG as "Generally Recognized As Safe" or GRAS. The Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization and the World Health Organization have placed MSG in the safest category of food additives.

Because MSG is widespread in the food supply and consumers often have questions about various food ingredients, this brochure provides answers to those questions most frequently asked about MSG.

What is MSG?

MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is the sodium salt of glutamic acid. This amino acid is one of the most abundant and important components of proteins. It is also produced by the human body and is an essential part of human metabolism.

Glutamate occurs naturally in protein-containing foods such as meat, fish, milk and many vegetables.

Why is MSG used?

MSG is a flavor enhancer that has been used effectively to bring out the best taste in foods. MSG enhances the taste of food by emphasizing its natural flavors. Many researchers also believe that MSG imparts a fifth taste sensation independent of the four basic tastes of sweet sour, salty and bitter. They call this taste "umami." This taste of glutamate is to tomatoes, cheese and meat what sweetness is to sugar, sourness is to lemons, saltiness is to anchovies, and bitterness is to coffee.

How does MSG work?

Glutamate is found in all protein-containing foods, but only enhances flavors when it appears in its "free" form, not bound together with other amino acids in protein. "Free" glutamate levels in foods vary greatly, but are high in foods such as tomatoes, mushrooms, and parmesan cheese. These foods have been known for their distinctive flavoring for many centuries.

When MSG is added to foods, it provides a similar flavoring function as the "free" glutamate that occurs naturally in these foods.

What is MSG made of?

In the early part of this century, MSG was extracted from seaweed and other plant sources to be used in foods much like other spices or extracts. Today, MSG is made from starch, corn sugar or molasses from sugar cane or sugar beets. MSG is produced by a fermentation process similar to that used for making products such as beer, vinegar and yogurt.

How is MSG handled by the body?

The human body does not treat glutamate which is added to foods any differently than the naturally occurring glutamate found in food. For instance, the body doesn't distinguish between free glutamate from tomatoes or added glutamate in tomato sauce.

Does MSG improve flavors in all foods?

MSG enhances many but not all food flavors. It works well with a variety of foods including meats, poultry, seafood, and many vegetables. It is used to enhance the flavor of some soups, stews, and meat-based sauces. MSG harmonizes well with salty and sour tastes, but does little for sweet foods such as cakes, sweet doughs or confectionery items.

Is MSG safe?

Yes, MSG is one of the most extensively researched substances in the food supply. International scientific evaluations have been undertaken over many years, involving hundreds of studies. Governments worldwide, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization and the World Health Organization, and the Scientific Committee for Food of the European Community support the safety of MSG as used in foods. It is possible that some people might experience a mild sensitivity to MSG.

In 1988, JECFA evaluated the scientific research on MSG and concluded, "On the basis of available data chemical, biochemical, toxicological and other) the total dietary intake of glutamates arising from their use at the levels necessary to achieve the desired technological effect and from their acceptable background in food do not, in the opinion of the Committee, represent a hazard to health."

Is MSG safe for children?

Yes. As stated by the European Community's Scientific Committee for Food in June 1991, "Infants, including prematures, have been shown to metabolize glutamate as efficiently as adults and therefore do not display any special susceptibility to elevated oral intakes of glutamate."

Free glutamate is abundant in human breast milk, which contains approximately 10 times more free glutamate than cow's milk. Researchers have shown that newborn infants are able to detect the taste of free glutamate.

What is "Chinese restaurant syndrome?"

The phrase "Chinese restaurant syndrome" is meant to describe a collection of symptoms some people believe to be associated with MSG in Chinese food. The symptoms have been described as a warmth, tingling or feeling of pressure in the chest and upper part of the body.

Are some people allergic to MSG?

It is possible that some people might be sensitive to MSG, just as to many other foods and food ingredients. In its 1988 report, the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee stated "Studies have failed to demonstrate that MSG is the causal agent in provoking the full range of symptoms of Chinese restaurant syndrome."

The Food and Drug Administration investigates all complaints in the United States about possible adverse reactions to MSG. It has concluded that there is some evidence that mild reactions to MSG may occur in a small portion of the population, but it is "not aware of any scientific evidence that establishes that monosodium glutamate causes particularly severe adverse reactions, or that reactions to low doses of monosodium glutamate occur and are life threatening." (Federal Register June 21, 1991)

Can people react to naturally occurring MSG?

If individuals experience hypersensitivity reactions to added MSG, it would be expected that they would experience similar symptoms from foods containing comparable quantities of "free" glutamate, such as tomatoes and mushrooms. Although such reactions are sometimes associated with Chinese food, there are few reports of reactions to Italian foods such as pizza or spaghetti that often have higher amounts of "free" glutamate.

How can I tell if MSG is added to foods?

By FDA regulation, all foods with added MSG must list the ingredient on the label as monosodium glutamate.

Is MSG "hidden" under other names on the label?

When glutamate is a natural component of other foods or ingredients such as tomatoes and parmesan cheese, it is not listed separately on the label.

MSG is also a component of individual food ingredients, such as hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP) and yeast extract.

In June 1991, FDA confirmed that its regulations do not allow hydrolyzed vegetable proteins to be listed as "natural flavors." It also proposed that the specific source of HVP (such as soy protein) be listed on the label for consumers who might be allergic to such ingredients. However, it concluded that there was no health reason to require that MSG be listed separately on the label when it is a component of other foods and ingredients.

Is MSG high in sodium?

MSG contains only one-third the amount of sodium as salt (13 percent vs. 40 percent) and is used at much lower levels. MSG can be used in many foods to reduce the total amount of sodium by 20-40 percent, while maintaining an acceptable flavor.

How is MSG used in the home?

If you buy MSG in the grocery store, you will find suggested uses on the container label. MSG is generally added to foods before or during cooking. As a general guideline, about half a teaspoon per pound of meat or four to six servings of vegetables should be sufficient. Once the proper amount is used, adding more contributes little to food flavors, although it is not a safety concern.

How much MSG do people consume?

The glutamate added to foods for flavor represents only a small fraction of the total amount of glutamate consumed in the average daily diet. The average person consumes about 10 grams of bound glutamate and 1 gram of free glutamate from daily meals. In contrast the added intake in the United States of glutamate from MSG usually is less than 1 gram per day.

The human body creates about 50 grams of free glutamate daily for use as a vital component of metabolism.

Is there anything MSG does not do for food?

MSG does not "cover up" bad-tasting food or make up for inept cooking. It does not allow a cook to substitute low-quality for high-quality ingredients in a recipe, and does not tenderize meat. All it does is make good food taste better.

How can I tell if I'm sensitive to MSG?

The only way for physicians to determine whether someone is truly allergic or hypersensitive to a food ingredient is through double-blind, placebo-controlled studies. These studies are used to compare a patient's reaction to the ingredient in question (MSG in this case) with his reaction to another substance (a placebo) known not to cause reactions. It's also important that neither the patient nor doctor know which substance is being tested, to avoid the power of suggestion in stimulating reactions.

For more information or questions about your personal health, contact a physician or certified food allergist. It's important that individuals don't ignore medical symptoms in the belief that they're allergic to food ingredients, when such symptoms might be related to a serious condition.

COPYRIGHT 1991 International Food Information Council
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Pamphlet by: International Food Information Council
Article Type:Pamphlet
Date:Sep 1, 1991
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