Glutamate – MSG – Monosodium glutamate – E 621
Glutamic acid is abundant in nature. And we eat it. Seafood, chicken, meat, milk, tomato, corn, cheese and mushrooms are the greatest contributors in a normal diet. Glutamate is derived from glutamic acid.
Glutamic acid and glutamate in the natural environment
Glutamic acid is one of the most common amino acids, and it is absolutely essential to life. It is a building block in naturally occurring proteins (including in ourselves), which we need to grow and develop. A person with a body weight of 70 kg has approximately 1.8 kg of glutamic acid in his/her body at any time. Most of it is bound in proteins.
The brain and the nervous system contain a relatively high proportion of free glutamic acid. Glutamic acid plays a vital role as a transmitter of nerve impulses (transmission of signals between the nerve cells), and it is essential for the nervous system to function and develop. Glutamic acid and glutamate have the same physiological effect on the body, but glutamate provides an additional (small) supply of sodium. An interesting point in this context – especially for those who believe that glutamate is harmful to children – is that mother’s milk contains a relatively large amount of free glutamic acid.
What actually is glutamate?
“Monosodium” is a combination of mono (one) and sodium (Na). “Glutamate” is the negatively charged ion of the amino acid glutamic acid. “Monosodium glutamate” therefore means that one sodium ion is bound to glutamic acid. It has a distinctive flavour that in technical terms is called 'umami' (meaning savouriness), which is a flavour that is different from the other four basic flavours sour, salty, bitter and sweet. When glutamate is added to food, it is considered an additive (number E621). In foods it is used for flavour enhancement.
Do Rieber & Søn’s products contain glutamate?
After July 2011 there is no added glutamate in Rieber & Søn’s products. Previously, a traditional Rieber & Søn soup or sauce contained 0.3% of added glutamate. In 2008, Rieber & Søn decided not to add glutamate to new products and initiated a programme to remove added glutamate from existing products. The project will finish by summer 2011.
Although Rieber & Søn and other food companies announce that we remov glutamate from our products, we all agree that there is no health hazard associated with its use. See below.
What does research tell us about glutamate?
The research we refer to is based on independent studies. Extensive new and interesting research on this topic is being conducted. We cannot rule out the possibility that new knowledge will lead to a new understanding both for those who support the use of glutamate and those who oppose it. The conclusion of the extensive research that has been conducted in the last few decades is that glutamate can be used freely in food.
What do the authorities and the legislation say?
Before the medical importance of glutamic acid became known, legislation stipulated that its use should be limited. This act was later repealed when new research showed that glutamate can be used freely in foods. With the exception of a few countries, there is no regulation of its use today.
All the international and independent experts who have studied the use of MSG in foods have concluded that, used in normal quantities, MSG is harmless. The expert committees include JEFCA (the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives, which is administered by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)) and the World Health Organization (WHO); the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA); the Codex Alimentarius (the global organisation for the regulation of food legislation); the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA); the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA); all the Scandinavian supervisory authorities, and many, many more. They all agree.
But isn’t it dangerous? What about the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome?
In the 1980s, it was reported that some people experienced unpleasant symptoms after visiting Chinese restaurants, and they believed glutamate to be the cause. This was given the medical term ‘the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’. Many of those who had experienced such reactions were invited to participate in a research project to try to find the connection between MGS and their symptoms, but no connection was found. There was no basis for stating that glutamate had such an effect. Some cases of mild symptoms of intolerance have nonetheless been found, but there is uncertainty if glutamate alone is to blame.
Some people say that glutamate can damage the nerve cells. Is this true?
All types of food, nutrients, additives, minerals and vitamins, no matter how healthy and necessary they are, become dangerous or toxic when you have too much of it (amount/time), while you develop deficiency diseases or dysfunction if you have too little. MSG is no exception. Recently, research has shown that large amounts of glutamic acid (through active feeding of experimental animals) are detrimental if you already have damage to the brain that has affected natural membranes. But this concerns special circumstances and otherwise very serious damage. Normal consumption does not produce such effects in healthy animals.
Can glutamate cause allergic reactions?
Single amino acids are incapable of causing allergies. As mentioned above, glutamic acid is absolutely necessary for the body and brain to function, and every cell in the body contains this type of acid. After all, you cannot become allergic to yourself. Nevertheless, we have seen examples of intolerance, asthma-like reactions and other symptoms that may be caused by added glutamate, but the evidence is insufficient.
Can glutamate cause overweight?
It has been claimed that glutamate stimulates the appetite so that people overeat, and that it should therefore be prohibited. The EU has recently requested that this claim be investigated through research. But if this claim is true, i.e. that MSG as an individual component causes obesity, the Chinese, the Japanese and other Asians who have been using this for hundreds of years should be overweight. In addition, only a small amount of our daily intake of glutamate comes from added MSG; most of it comes from natural food. Until further investigation is done, the question remains open. But whatever the outcome, it is too simple to find one ‘guilty’ ingredient and thereby relieving individuals of their responsibility for creating an imbalance between their diet and physical activity.