In this day and age of “information overload” – in part thanks to the Internet and multitudes of ways to communicate – often times keeping information as simple as possible is best. So, to help consumers sort through the massive amount of content about monosodium glutamate (MSG) floating around the Web, I have narrowed the information down, to answer four of the most common questions.
Q.: What exactly is monosodium glutamate (MSG) and how is it different from “glutamate”?
A.: Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is the sodium salt of glutamic acid, one of the most abundant amino acids in our diet. It has been used for more than a hundred years to enhance and balance the savory taste of food. Glutamate is found in two forms: “bound” glutamate (linked to other amino acids in protein) and “free” glutamate. Foods which are high in free glutamate, like ripe tomatoes and cheeses, are considered tasty. In fact, mother’s milk is rich in glutamate. The glutamate from MSG seasoning and the glutamate occurring naturally in food is exactly the same, and the body treats glutamate in the same way no matter what its source.
Q.: Why is MSG used to make foods taste better?
A.: MSG cannot and does not improve bad-tasting food! What it does do is make good food taste better by imparting an incomparable, savory taste known as “umami.”
There are umami receptors on the tongue that are uniquely receptive to glutamate, which explains why free glutamate is effective in enhancing the tastiness of food. Umami is our fifth taste, along with sweet, sour, salty and bitter… and gives food a rich, savory character. By increasing the level of free glutamate (with MSG) in a recipe during cooking or processing, you can increase the umami taste and balance of that food. Because the umami taste is savory, the umami flavor is not found associated with sweet foods. Best said? It harmonizes well with two of the other five tastes: salty and sour. Also, check out some of the recent MSGdish news articles about umami, featured here: www.MSGdish.com/news/ (including “Have We Entered an Umami Renaissance?” in the New York Times).
Q.: How much glutamate do people consume?
A.: Glutamate (from the amino acid glutamine) is found naturally in protein-containing foods such as meat, vegetables, poultry and milk. See here for a list of glutamate-rich foods. The human body also produces glutamate as part of normal metabolism. The muscles, brain and other organs store about four pounds of glutamate.
The average American consumes about 11 grams of glutamate per day from natural protein sources and less than 1 gram of glutamate per day from MSG (monosodium glutamate), according to the International Food Information Council (IFIC). IFIC further states that this small amount of added MSG is the same as adding 1 to 1.5 ounces of Parmesan cheese to one’s daily diet. In contrast, the human body creates about 50 grams of glutamate daily for use as a vital component of metabolism.
Q.: Are people really sensitive to MSG (related: does MSG cause side effects, is there such a thing as MSG allergy)?
A.: The glutamate in MSG (seasoning) and the glutamate in many favorite foods like vegetables, cheese, fish and meat, is treated by your body in exactly the same way no matter what the source. For this reason it is unlikely that people are sensitive to MSG — monosodium glutamate has not been shown to cause side effects or allergy. According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, MSG is not an allergen.
The US Food and Drug Administration, in its Q&A about monosodium glutamate, notes: “Over the years, FDA has received reports of symptoms such as headache and nausea after eating foods containing MSG. However, we were never able to confirm that the MSG caused the reported effects.”
Research on MSG, conducted for over decades now, has found that most people who believe they respond adversely to MSG, with symptoms that range from mild and transitory to more severe, do not have these reactions when evaluated in carefully controlled tests. Nonetheless, if you believe you react to a particular food or ingredient, you should seek a proper medical diagnosis.