Shoppers can often read statements such as ‘No flavor enhancers’, ‘Free from flavor enhancers’, ‘No flavor-enhancing additives’ on food packages.
The labeling of flavor enhancers is not easy to understand, and few consumers are aware that glutamate is a natural constituent of foods that contain protein.
TÜV SÜD explains the current food labeling regulations and why the claim ‘free from glutamate’ is impossible to fulfill.
Sources of MSG
The flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate (sometimes also referred to as sodium glutamate or MSG) is a sodium salt of glutamic acid and one of 20 amino acids – the building blocks of all natural proteins.
Vegetable protein contains up to 20% of glutamic acid, and animal protein up to 40%.
Proteins in the human body such as in muscle cells and brain cells also include the substance.
Glutamic acid occurs naturally in hen’s eggs, meat, soy bread, tomatoes and Parmesan cheese.
In European countries, the total intake of glutamate from food is around 8–12 g per day.
The food additive monosodium glutamate is produced as an isolate, and may be added – as regulated by law – to food products such as instant soups, snacks, meat products and Asian food items.
The glutamate protein isolate that is used as a food additive is chemically identical to natural glutamate, which is a protein building-block and as such a natural ingredient of food products and part of our protein metabolism.
A dangerous substance?
In the European Union, glutamate is a tested and approved food additive.
Its use in food products is generally permitted in quantities below 10 g per kilogram.
So far, scientists and authorities have been unable to confirm any health hazards caused by glutamate as an additive.
The Berlin-based Federal Institute of Risk Assessment has no objections to the occasional use of glutamate, but warns against using the flavor enhancer to replace normal table salt.
In rare cases, untypical ingestion (e.g. on an empty stomach) of large amounts of monosodium glutamate (3 g or more) may cause allergy-like reactions.
What is glutamate used for?
Although with no flavor of its own, glutamate enhances the flavor of food products.
The salt produces a protein-like taste sensation known as ‘umami’, which means ‘pleasant, savory taste’ in Japanese.
Food producers use MSG to compensate for the loss of taste caused by cooking, drying or processing of ready-to-eat food items or to increase overall taste and flavor.
How is glutamate declared?
According to legislation, glutamate must be declared on food packaging.
The E number 621 stands for monosodium glutamate.
By contrast, glutamate need not be declared as an additive on the food label if a glutamate-containing ingredient such as yeast extract and tomato, both of which contain natural glutamate, is added to the product.
In this case, producers must declare the addition of the natural, unprocessed ingredient.
“Glutamate as an additive is only prohibited in unprocessed food and food items in which no additives are permitted in general (such as fresh milk or butter),” says explains Dr Andreas Daxenberger, food expert at TÜV SÜD.
“However, the request that food products be ‘free from glutamate’ is impossible to fulfill for food products containing protein.”
The organization says consumers should study the information on the label, including the list of ingredients.
The statements ‘Free from flavor enhancers’ or ‘No flavor-enhancing additives’ inform consumers that the respective food product does not include the protein isolate of glutamate as a flavor enhancer.
However, this does not exclude the use of natural ingredients that include large quantities of glutamate (such as yeast extract).
The organization says only a glance at the list of ingredients will provide clarity in this case.