Everything You Need To Know About Glutamate And Monosodium Glutamate

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Eating is one of life’s pleasures. Taste and flavor are important to enjoying food. Think about a bowl of hot pasta with tomato sauce and parmesan cheese, a freshly grilled steak with a rich mushroom sauce, or stir-fried seafood and chicken with crisp vegetables in a savory sauce. These subtle, delicate flavors result from centuries of culinary tradition, including careful attention to ingredients and preparation. In all of these dishes, glutamate is one of the major food components that provides flavor.

What is Glutamate?

Glutamate is an amino acid, found in all protein-containing foods. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. This amino acid is one of the most abundant and important components of proteins. Glutamate occurs naturally in protein-containing foods such as cheese, milk, mushrooms, meat, fish, and many vegetables. Glutamate is also produced by the human body and is vital for metabolism and brain function.

What is Monosodium Glutamate?

Monosodium glutamate, or MSG, is the sodium salt of glutamate. When MSG is added to foods, it provides a similar flavoring function as the glutamate that occurs naturally in food. MSG is comprised of nothing more than water, sodium and glutamate.

Why is MSG used?

MSG is a flavor enhancer that has been used effectively to bring out the best taste in foods, emphasizing natural flavors. Many researchers also believe that MSG imparts a fifth taste, independent of the four basic tastes of sweet, sour, salty and bitter. This taste, called “umami” in Japan, is described by Americans as savory. Examples of each of these tastes are: Sweet – Sugar, Bitter – Coffee, Savory – Tomato, Sour – Lemon, Salt – Anchovy

How is MSG made?

In the early 1900s, MSG was extracted from natural protein-rich foods such as seaweed. Today, MSG is made from starch, corn sugar or molasses from sugar cane or sugar beets. MSG is produced by a natural fermentation process that has been used for centuries to make such common foods as beer, vinegar and yogurt.

How are Glutamate and MSG handled by the body?

The human body treats glutamate that is added to foods in the form of MSG the same as the natural glutamate found in food. For instance, the body does not distinguish between free glutamate from tomatoes, cheese or mushrooms and the glutamate from MSG added to foods. Glutamate is glutamate, whether naturally present or from MSG.

Glutamate Contents of Foods
Food Size Serving Glutamate
Tomato juice 1 cup 0.827
Tomato 3 slices 0.339
Meat loaf dinner 9 oz. 0.189
Human breast milk 1 cup 0.176
Mushrooms 1/4 cup 0.094
Parmesan cheese 2 Tbsp 0.047
Corn 1/2 cup 0.031
Peas 1/2 cup 0.024
Cow’s milk 1 cup 0.016
Canned tuna (in water) 1/2 can 0.008
Source: U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Does Glutamate or MSG improve flavors in all foods?

The natural flavor-enhancing levels of glutamate in food varies greatly, but is high in foods such as tomatoes, mushrooms and parmesan cheese. MSG enhances many but not all food flavors through the interaction between glutamate and other 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, meat-based sauces and snack foods. MSG harmonizes well with salty and sour tastes, but does little for sweet foods such as cakes, pastries or candies.

MSG can not improve bad-tasting food or make up for bad cooking. It does not allow a cook to substitute low-quality for high-quality ingredients in a recipe, and does not tenderize meat. It just makes good food taste better.

How is MSG used in the home?

When 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 of MSG 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.

How much Glutamate do people consume?

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. This amount of added MSG is the same as adding 1 to 1.5 ounces of parmesan cheese. In contrast, the human body creates about 50 grams of glutamate daily for use as a vital component of metabolism.

Is MSG high in sodium?

No. MSG contains only one-third the amount of sodium as table salt (13 percent vs. 40 percent) and is used in much smaller amounts. When used in combination with a small amount of table salt, MSG can help reduce the total amount of sodium in a recipe by 20 to 40 percent, while maintaining an enhanced flavor.

Are people sensitive to MSG?

MSG is not an allergen, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has found no evidence to suggest any long-term, serious health consequences from consuming MSG. It is possible that some people might be sensitive to MSG, just as to many other foods and food ingredients. There are some reports that mild, temporary reactions to MSG may occur in a small portion of the population, based on tests with a large dose of MSG in the absence of food.

If you have questions about food sensitivities or allergies, contact a board-certified allergist or your personal physician.

Is MSG safe?

Yes. MSG is one of the most extensively researched substances in the food supply. Numerous international scientific evaluations have been undertaken over many years, involving hundreds of studies. The United States and other governments worldwide support the safety of MSG as used in foods.

MSG Safety

  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA): Designates MSG as safe (Generally Recognized as Safe/GRAS), with common ingredients such as salt and baking powder. (1958)
    National Academy of Sciences: Confirms the safety of MSG as a food ingredient. (1979)
  • Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives of the United Nations World Health and Food and Agricultural Organizations: Designates MSG as safe and places it in its safest category for food additives. (1988)
  • European Community’s Scientific Committee for Food: Confirms MSG safety. (1991)
  • American Medical Association: Concludes that MSG is safe, at normal consumption levels in the diet. (1992)
  • FDA: Reaffirms MSG safety based upon a report from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. (1995)

Is MSG safe for children?

Yes. Infants, including premature babies, metabolize glutamate the same as adults. Research has shown that newborn infants are able to detect and prefer the taste of glutamate. Glutamate is actually 10 times more abundant in human breast milk than in cow’s milk.

How can I tell if Glutamate or MSG is added to foods?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires labeling of all ingredients on processed and packaged foods. When MSG is added to a food, it must be included on the ingredient list, as “monosodium glutamate.” Glutamate-containing food ingredients, such as hydrolyzed protein and autolyzed yeast extract, also must be listed on food labels. When glutamate is a component of natural protein foods, like tomatoes, it is not listed separately on the label.