Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) is a flavour enhancer that is added to food to bring out the savoury taste. It is a food additive used commonly in many foods and has been always associated with some or the other controversies.
What exactly is MSG?
MSG is the sodium salt of glutamate which is an amino acid made in the body. Glutamate is also a neurotransmitter in the nervous system. Glutamate is found naturally in some protein-containing foods like meat, peas, yeast extracts, soy sauce, mushrooms and cheese. It is made commercially through fermentation of molasses from sugar beet or sugar cane and starch.
Which foods contain MSG?
Glutamates occur naturally in protein foods such as meat, fish, poultry and vegetables. Free glutamates are found in foods like tomatoes, tomato paste, cheese and mushrooms. So, many natural foods which we add to dishes to make them tasty are high in free glutamate. Glutamates are added to food to enhance its flavour. They are added in the form of MSG in hydrolysed vegetable protein, yeast extracts, flavours and fermented soy products such as soy sauce. Common foods that can contain added MSG include savoury foods such as stocks, seasonings, soup, sauces and savoury snacks/meals.
Why is MSG added to some food?
MSG does not have a distinct flavour on its own, but it helps to intensify the natural savoury flavour of foods. The taste gained from naturally occurring or added MSG in foods is described as ‘ Umami’ – the fifth basic taste after sweet, sour, bitter and salty. Umami is the savoury taste that people enjoy in foods.
One of the other reasons that MSG is added to food is to help reduce the sodium content. MSG is lower in sodium than table salt. Therefore the sodium content of processed foods can be lowered by using MSG to replace some of the salt.
Is MSG safe?
Over the past 40 years or so, there have been reports of adverse reactions to MSG, notably the so called “Chinese restaurant syndrome”. However there is no scientific evidence to suggest that MSG has any adverse effects in general population in the amounts normally consumed as part of the diet.
If you believe that you have experienced problems you may want to limit your intake of foods high in glutamates either as an additive or naturally occurring glutamates. Advice from your medical practitioner can help establish if you have food intolerance or sensitivity and if you need to change your diet you may benefit from advice from an accredited practicing dietitian.
What does added MSG mean?
Many products and restaurants claim “no added MSG” due to the consumer demand for products without MSG. This claim means that the manufacturer has not added MSG into the food. It is important to remember that there may be naturally occurring glutamates in the food even if it has a “no added MSG” claim.