Munich - Shoppers can often read statements such as “No flavour enhancers”, “Free from flavour enhancers”, “No flavour-enhancing additives” on food packages. The labelling of flavour enhancers is not easy to understand, and few consumers are aware that glutamate is a natural constituent of foods that contain protein. TÜV SÜD's food experts explain the current food labelling regulations and why the claim “free from glutamate” is impossible to fulfil.
The well-known flavour enhancer monosodium glutamate (sometimes also referred to as sodium glutamate or simply 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 per cent of glutamic acid, and animal protein up to 40 per cent. Proteins in the human body, e.g. in muscle cells or 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 grams 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 which 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 EU, glutamate is a tested and approved food additive. Its use in food products is generally permitted in quantities below ten grams 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 flavour enhancer to replace normal table salt. In rare cases, untypical ingestion (e.g. on an empty stomach) of large amounts of monosodium glutamate (three grams or more) may cause allergy-like reactions.
What is glutamate used for?
Although with no flavour of its own, glutamate enhances the flavour of food products. The salt produces a protein-like taste sensation known as “umami”. “Umami” is a loan word from the Japanese and can be translated as “pleasant, savoury taste”. 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 flavour.
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 - e.g. yeast extract or 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). However, the request that food products be “free from glutamate” is impossible to fulfil for food products containing protein“, explains Dr Andreas Daxenberger, food expert at TÜV SÜD.
Consumers should study the information on the label, including the list of ingredients. The statements “Free from flavour enhancers” or “No flavour-enhancing additives” inform consumers that the respective food product does not include the protein isolate of glutamate as a flavour enhancer. However, this does not exclude the use of natural ingredients which include large quantities of glutamate (e.g. yeast extract). Only a glance at the list of ingredients will provide clarity in this case.