What is monosodium glutamate (E621)? And should you be afraid of it?

What is monosodium glutamate (E621)? And should you be afraid of it?

Monosodium glutamate is a flavor enhancer that is often added to convenience foods: noodles, instant soups, chips, canned goods. In most countries it is known as the food additive E621.

What is sodium glutamate made from?

In chemical terms, monosodium glutamate is the salt of glutamic acid. This is the name of one of the most important amino acids of which all proteins are built. Including those that make up our bodies.

Monosodium glutamate is naturally found in all protein foods, including meat, mushrooms, and dairy products. It is especially abundant in ripe tomatoes, Parmesan, meat broths, and breast milk.

In fact, this food additive was once obtained from natural products.

In 1908, Ikeda Kikunae, a professor at Tokyo Imperial University, became interested in what element gives the traditional Japanese dish, seaweed broth, its characteristic piquant taste. That substance turned out to be monosodium glutamate. The chemist was able to extract it from the broth. A year later, he began commercial production of the additive, selling it under the name “adzinomoto” (Japanese translation for “essence of taste”).

Later, scientists tried many times to synthesize monosodium glutamate artificially. But in the second half of the twentieth century a simple, cheap and natural way of production was found. Instead of extracting and crystallizing glutamate from broth, they began to obtain it by fermentation of starch, sugar beets, sugar cane.

The same fermentation process is used in the production of yogurt, vinegar, and wine. Therefore, E621 is not an artificial food additive, but a completely natural product.

Why does it taste so good?

Monosodium glutamate doesn’t just taste tangy, it has a very special, basic, desirable taste to our bodies.

Many people still believe that the human tongue is only sensitive to four types of taste: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. But we also have receptors that recognize glutamic acid and its salts. They allow us to sense a fifth taste, “umami” (the Japanese word for “spiciness”).

Umami is a marker of protein foods. It tells the body that the food contains a lot of vital protein (just as sweet tastes indicate calories and salty tastes indicate sodium and chlorine, which are critical to life). That’s why we like foods high in sodium glutamate so much.

What is the danger of monosodium glutamate?

Practically nothing. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) clearly lists monosodium glutamate as a safe food additive.

And justifiably so. Monosodium glutamate in supplements is chemically no different than the glutamate found in food proteins. The human body processes them in exactly the same way. It makes no difference if you get this compound from meat broth, cheese, tomatoes, or a package of salted peanuts.

Where did the myth that monosodium glutamate is harmful come from?

The origins of the myth lie in experiments on laboratory mice and rats. For example, in a 1969 study, newborn mice were injected with large doses of glutamate. Later it turned out that this caused neurological disorders, as well as obesity and infertility in females.

In 2002, another experiment was conducted, this time on rats. Scientists offered the animals a six-month diet, 20% of which was the sodium salt of glutamic acid. In some rodents this diet led to visual impairment.

However, it is incorrect to apply the results of both studies to humans. And here’s why:

  1. First, we don’t consume glutamate by hypodermic injection;
  2. Secondly, it is simply not possible to eat enough of this compound to make up 20% of the daily diet.

Assuming that the average person consumes about 2 kg of food per day – to feel like a guinea pig he would have to consume 400 g of monosodium glutamate. For comparison, a typical serving of food laced with E621 contains about 0.5 grams of this element.

Does this mean that monosodium glutamate is completely safe?

No. There are a number of likely problems associated with monosodium glutamate indirectly. The main one is overeating.

The E621 additive makes foods taste so good that we often have no sense of proportion. And we can’t stop until we’ve eaten an entire packet of chips or a packet of salted peanuts.

However, the link between the love of umami taste and subsequent weight gain as its consequence has not been established. And one small study even disproved it: its authors found that adding glutamate to food even reduced the total number of calories consumed. However, this does not mean that the passion for croutons or instant vermicelli should not be controlled: there is definitely nothing healthy in fast food.

The second problem is possible individual sensitivity. The same FDA regularly receives reports of mild adverse reactions to products containing monosodium glutamate.

The experts of the respected Mayo Clinic medical organization call such reports anecdotal. However, they describe a symptom complex associated with the sodium salt of glutamic acid:

  • headache;
  • sweating;
  • tingling, fever, numbness that is felt on the skin of the face, lips, neck;
  • rapid heartbeat;
  • nausea;
  • drowsiness.

It has been suggested that these short-lived sensations may occur in people who are sensitive to monosodium glutamate and who also receive at least 3 g of the substance at one meal. But no convincing evidence was found to link E621 to these symptoms.

So simple safety rules apply to this food additive. If after consuming chips, instant noodles, sauces and other products that include E621, you feel something wrong, just give them up. And in any case, limit the amount of such food, so that you don’t accidentally get carried away by the taste of umami and eat too much.


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