Glutamate flavoring

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Crystalline monosodium glutamate (MSG)

Glutamate flavoring is a generic name for flavor-enhancing compounds based on glutamic acid and its salts (glutamates). These compounds provide an umami (savory) taste to food.

Glutamic acid and glutamates are natural constituents of many fermented or aged foods, including soy sauce, fermented bean paste, and cheese, and also occur in hydrolyzed protein such as yeast extract. The sodium salt of glutamic acid, monosodium glutamate (MSG) is manufactured in a large scale and widely used in the food industry.

Glutamic acid versus glutamates[edit]

When glutamic acid or any of its salts is dissolved in water, it immediately forms a solution of separate negative ions called glutamates, and positive ions like H
or Na+
. There is actually a chemical equilibrium among several ionized forms, including zwitterions, that depends on the acidity (pH) of the solution. At the pH ranges normally occurring in foods, the prevailing ion can be described as OOC-C(NH+
)2-COO, with a net −1 electric charge.

Only the glutamate ion is responsible for the umami taste, so the effect does not depend significantly on the starting compound. However, some crystalline salts such as monosodium glutamate dissolve much better and faster than crystalline glutamic acid, a property important for use as a flavor enhancer.


Although they occur naturally in many foods, the flavor contributions made by glutamic acid and other amino acids were only scientifically identified early in the twentieth century. The substance was discovered and identified in the year 1866, by the German chemist Karl Heinrich Ritthausen. In 1907 Japanese researcher Kikunae Ikeda of the Tokyo Imperial University identified brown crystals left behind after the evaporation of a large amount of kombu broth as glutamic acid. These crystals, when tasted, reproduced the ineffable but undeniable flavor he detected in many foods, most especially in seaweed. Professor Ikeda termed this flavor umami. He then patented a method of mass-producing a crystalline salt of glutamic acid, monosodium glutamate.[1][2]


Only the L-glutamate enantiomer has flavor-enhancing properties.[3] Manufactured monosodium glutamate contains over 99.6% of the naturally-predominant L-glutamate form, which is a higher proportion of L-glutamate than found in the free glutamate ions of fermented naturally-occurring foods. Fermented products such as soy sauce, steak sauce, and Worcestershire sauce have levels of glutamate similar to foods with added monosodium glutamate. However, 5% or more of the glutamate may be the D-enantiomer. Nonfermented naturally-occurring foods have lower relative levels of D-glutamate than fermented products.[3]

Taste perception[edit]

Glutamic acid stimulates specific receptors located in taste buds such as the amino acid receptor T1R1/T1R3 or other glutamate receptors like the metabotropic receptors (mGluR4 and mGluR1) which induce the taste known as umami, one of the five basic tastes (the word umami is a loanword from Japanese; it is also referred to as "savory" or "meaty").


Natural occurrence[edit]

Glutamate itself is ubiquitous in biological life. It is found naturally in all living cells, primarily in the bound form as a constituent of proteins. Only a fraction of the glutamate in foods is in its "free" form, and only free glutamate can enhance the flavor of foods. Part of the flavor-enhancing effect of tomatoes, fermented soy products, yeast extracts, certain sharp cheeses, and fermented or hydrolyzed protein products (such as soy sauce and fermented bean paste) is due to the presence of free glutamate ions.[4][5]


Japanese cuisine originally used broth made from kombu (kelp) to bring up the umami taste in soups. Manufacturers, such as Ajinomoto, use selected strains of Micrococcus glutamicus bacteria in a nutrient-rich medium.[citation needed] The bacteria are selected for their ability to excrete glutamic acid, which is then separated from the nutrient medium and processed into its sodium salt, monosodium glutamate.


In the Roman Empire glutamic acid was found in a sauce called garum, made from fermenting fish in saltwater. The flavor enhancing properties of glutamic acid allowed Romans to reduce the use of expensive salt.[6][7]

Concentration in foods[edit]

The following table illustrates the glutamate content of some selected common foods. Free glutamate is metabolized differently from glutamate bound in protein, so they are listed separately.[8][9]

Food Free glutamate (mg/100 g) Protein glutamate (mg/100 g)
Makombu (kelp) 3190
Rausu kombu (kelp) 2286
Rishiri kombu (kelp) 1985
Hidaka kombu (kelp) 1344
Nori (seaweed) 1378
Marmite 1960
Vegemite 1431
Japanese fish sauce 1383
Roquefort cheese 1280
Parmesan cheese 1200 9847
Korean soy sauce 1264
Chinese soy sauce 926
Japanese soy sauce 782
Oyster sauce 900
Green Tea 668
Cured Ham 337
Sardine 280
Grape juice 258
Clam 208
Scallop 159
Squid 146
Oyster 137
Mussel 105
Peas 200 5583
Tomatoes 140 238
Corn 130 1765
Potatoes 102
Cow milk 2 819
Human milk 22 229
Eggs 23 1583
Chicken 44 3309
Duck 69 3636
Beef 33 2846
Pork 23 2325
Salmon 20 2216

Hydrolyzed protein[edit]

Hydrolyzed proteins, or protein hydrolysates, are acid- or enzymatically treated proteins from certain foods. One example is yeast extract. Hydrolyzed protein contains free amino acids, such as glutamate, at levels of 5% to 20%. Hydrolyzed protein is used in the same manner as monosodium glutamate in many foods, such as canned vegetables, soups, and processed meats.

Safety as a flavor enhancer[edit]

Monosodium glutamate is safe for consumption. [10] The controversy surrounding the safety of MSG arose starting in April 1968, when Robert Ho Man Kwok wrote a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine, coining the term "Chinese restaurant syndrome". In this letter he claimed:

I have experienced a strange syndrome whenever I have eaten out in a Chinese restaurant, especially one that served northern Chinese food. The syndrome, which usually begins 15 to 20 minutes after I have eaten the first dish, lasts for about two hours, without hangover effect. The most prominent symptoms are numbness at the back of the neck, gradually radiating to both arms and the back, general weakness and palpitations...[11]

The syndrome is often abbreviated as CRS and also became known under the names Chinese food syndrome and monosodium glutamate symptom complex.

Symptoms attributed to the Chinese restaurant syndrome have been determined to be false. Although many people believe that monosodium glutamate (MSG) is the cause of these symptoms, an association has never been demonstrated under rigorously controlled conditions, even in studies with people who were convinced that they were sensitive to the compound.[12][13][14] Techniques used to adequately control for experimental bias include a placebo-controlled double-blinded experimental design and the use of capsules to deliver the compound to mask the strong and unique after-taste of glutamates.[12]


In 1959, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classified monosodium glutamate as generally recognized as safe (GRAS).[15] This action stemmed from the 1958 Food Additives Amendment to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act that required premarket approval for new food additives and led the FDA to promulgate regulations listing substances, such as monosodium glutamate, which have a history of safe use or are otherwise GRAS.

Since 1970, FDA has sponsored extensive reviews on the safety of monosodium glutamate, other glutamates, and hydrolyzed proteins, as part of an ongoing review of safety data on GRAS substances used in processed foods. One such review was by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) Select Committee on GRAS Substances. In 1980, the committee concluded that monosodium glutamate was safe at current levels of use but recommended additional evaluation to determine monosodium glutamate's safety at significantly higher levels of consumption. Additional reports attempted to look at this.

In 1986, FDA's Advisory Committee on Hypersensitivity to Food Constituents concluded that monosodium glutamate poses no threat to the general public but that reactions of brief duration might occur in some people. Other reports have given the following findings:

  • The 1987 Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization placed monosodium glutamate in the safest category of food ingredients.
  • A 1991 report by the European Community's (EC) Scientific Committee for Foods reaffirmed monosodium glutamate's safety and classified its "acceptable daily intake" as "not specified", the most favorable designation for a food ingredient. In addition, the EC Committee said, "Infants, including prematures, have been shown to metabolize glutamate as efficiently as adults and therefore do not display any special susceptibility to elevated oral intakes of glutamate." Legislation in effect since June 2013 classifies glutamic acid and glutamates as salt substitutes and seasonings and condiments[16] with a maximum level of consumption of 10g/kg expressed as glutamic acid.[17]


European Union[edit]

Following the compulsory EU-food labeling law the use of glutamic acid and its salts has to be declared, and the name or E number of the salt has to be listed. Glutamic acid and its salts as food additives have the following E numbers: glutamic acid: E620, monosodium glutamate: E621, monopotassium glutamate: E622, calcium diglutamate: E623, monoammonium glutamate: E624, and magnesium diglutamate: E625. In the European Union, these enhancers are not allowed to be added to milk, emulsified fat and oil, pasta, cocoa/chocolate products and fruit juice. The EU has not yet published an official NOAEL (no observable adverse effect level) for glutamate, but a 2006 consensus statement of a group of German experts drawing from animal studies was that a daily intake of glutamic acid of 6 grams per kilogram of body weight (6 g/kg/day) is safe. From human studies, the experts noted that doses as high as 147 g/day produced no adverse effects in males when given for 30 days; in a 70 kg male that corresponds to 2.1 g per kg of body weight.[18]

United States[edit]

In 1959, the Food and Drug Administration classified MSG as a "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS) food ingredient under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. In 1986, FDA's Advisory Committee on Hypersensitivity to Food Constituents also found that MSG was generally safe, but that short-term reactions may occur in some people. To further investigate this matter, in 1992 the FDA contracted the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) to produce a detailed report, which was published in 1995. The FASEB report reaffirmed the safety of MSG when it is consumed at usual levels by the general population, and found no evidence of any connection between MSG and any serious long-term reactions.[19]

Under 2003 U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations, when monosodium glutamate is added to a food, it must be identified as "monosodium glutamate" in the label's ingredient list. Because glutamate is commonly found in food, primarily from protein sources, the FDA does not require foods and ingredients that contain glutamate as an inherent component to list it on the label. Examples include tomatoes, cheeses, meats, hydrolyzed protein products such as soy sauce, and autolyzed yeast extracts. These ingredients are to be declared on the label by their common or usual names.[19] The term 'natural flavor' is now used by the food industry when using glutamic acid. Because of lack of regulation, it is impossible to determine what percentage of 'natural flavor' is actually glutamic acid.

The food additives disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate are usually used in synergy with monosodium glutamate-containing ingredients, and provide a likely indicator of the addition of glutamate to a product.

As of 2002 the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Dietary Reference Intakes had not set a NOAEL or LOAEL for glutamate.[18][20]

Australia and New Zealand[edit]

Standard 1.2.4 of the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code requires the presence of monosodium glutamate as a food additive to be labeled. The label must bear the food additive class name (e.g. flavor enhancer), followed by either the name of the food additive (e.g. MSG) or its International Numbering System (INS) number (e.g. 621)


The Canada Food Inspection Agency considers claims of "no MSG" or "MSG free" to be misleading and deceptive when other sources of free glutamates are present.[21]


Food ingredients that contain glutamic acid include:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Renton, Alex (2005-07-10). "If MSG is so bad for you, why doesn't everyone in Asia have a headache?". The Guardian. Retrieved 2008-11-21.
  2. ^ "Kikunae Ikeda Sodium Glutamate". Japan Patent Office. 2002-10-07. Retrieved 2008-11-21.
  3. ^ a b Rundlett KL, Armstrong DW (1994). "Evaluation of free D-glutamate in processed foods". Chirality. 6 (4): 277–82. doi:10.1002/chir.530060410. PMID 7915127.
  4. ^ U.S. Food and Drug Administration (19 November 2012). "Questions and Answers on Monosodium glutamate (MSG): How is it Made?". Retrieved 9 March 2017.
  5. ^ See column "Free glutamate" in the Concentration in foods subsection's table
  6. ^ Rossella Lorenzi (Sep 29, 2008). "Fish Sauce Used to Date Pompeii Eruption". Discovery News.
  7. ^ K. Kris Hirst. "Roman Empire Fish Sauce Garum".
  8. ^ "Sodium Glutamate: A Safety Assessment" (PDF). Food Standards Australia New Zealand. June 2003. Retrieved 2016-01-11.
  9. ^ "Umami Information Center". Retrieved 2012-02-02.
  10. ^
  11. ^ Robert Ho Man Kwok (1968). "Chinese restaurant syndrome". N. Engl. J. Med. 18 (178): 796. doi:10.1056/nejm196804042781419.
  12. ^ a b Tarasoff L.; Kelly M.F. (1993). "Monosodium L-glutamate: a double-blind study and review". Food Chem. Toxicol. 31 (12): 1019–1035. doi:10.1016/0278-6915(93)90012-N. PMID 8282275.
  13. ^ Freeman M. (October 2006). "Reconsidering the effects of monosodium glutamate: a literature review". J Am Acad Nurse Pract. 18 (10): 482–6. doi:10.1111/j.1745-7599.2006.00160.x. PMID 16999713.
  14. ^ Rosenblaum I.; Bradley J.; Coulston F. (February 1971). "Single and double blind studies with oral monosodium glutamate in man". Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology. 18 (2): 367–373. doi:10.1016/0041-008X(71)90129-3.
  15. ^ "Database of Select Committee on GRAS Substances (SCOGS) Reviews". U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Archived from the original on May 21, 2007. Retrieved 2008-03-22.
  16. ^ European Community. "Food Additives Database". DG Sanco, Bruxelles.
  17. ^ "COMMISSION REGULATION (EU) No 1129/2011". European Community.
  18. ^ a b Beyreuther K, Biesalski HK, Fernstrom JD, et al. (March 2007). "Consensus meeting: monosodium glutamate - an update". Eur J Clin Nutr. 61 (3): 304–13. doi:10.1038/sj.ejcn.1602526. PMID 16957679.
  19. ^ a b Meadows Michelle (January–February 2003). "MSG: A common flavor enhancer". FDA Consumer. United States Food and Drug Administration. 37 (1).
  20. ^ "Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids (Macronutrients)". 2003-06-01. Retrieved 2012-02-16.
  21. ^ "Canadian Food Inspection Agency - Chapter 4 - Composition, Quality, Quantity and Origin Claims Sections 4.1-4.6". 2011-03-03. Retrieved 2015-04-11.


  • Jordan Sand, "A Short History of MSG: Good Science, Bad Science, and Taste Cultures", Gastronomica '5':4 (Fall 2005). History of MSG and its marketing in Japan, Taiwan (under the Japanese), China, and the U.S.
  • Federal Register, Dec. 4, 1992 (FR 57467)
  • Federal Register, Jan. 6, 1993 (FR 2950)
  • FDA Consumer, December 1993, "Food Allergies: When Eating is Risky."