Monosodium glutamate (MSG) and other sources of glutamate in foods
On this page
- About glutamate and MSG
- How safe are glutamate and MSG
- How to avoid consuming too much glutamate and MSG
- How to identify glutamate sources on food labels
- Canada’s role
About glutamate and MSG
Glutamate is an amino acid and a component of animal and vegetable food proteins. It is naturally present in many of the foods we eat daily, such as:
- cheeses such as parmesan and Roquefort
- fruit juices (such as grape juice) and tomato juice
Glutamine is a related amino acid that can occur naturally at high levels in some foods. It changes into glutamate when the enzyme “glutaminase” is added to food. Glutaminase can be used in wheat flour, bakery products, pasta, hydrolyzed proteins, some egg products, yeast extracts and some flavouring preparations.
Glutamate may also be added directly to foods in the form of monosodium glutamate (MSG). MSG is used to enhance the flavour of foods, such as:
- vegetable dishes
- broths and gravy mixes
- prepared meat products
- meat, poultry and seafood
MSG does not have a characteristic flavour. Adding excess amounts does not further improve a food’s overall flavour. For this reason, food manufacturers or consumers should use the smallest amount needed to enhance the flavour.
In Canada, glutaminase is regulated as a food additive and must be declared on food labels in the list of ingredients. Although MSG is not regulated as a food additive, it must also be declared in the list of ingredients. This is the case even when it is part of flavouring preparations, spice mixtures, food flavour-enhancer preparations or other preparations or mixtures.
How safe are glutamate and MSG
Most people can safely consume foods that contain high levels of glutamate. However, some people may develop symptoms, such as:
- chest pain or heart palpitations
- pressure or tightness in the face
- nausea or feeling drowsy or weak
- numbness in back of neck that radiates to arms and back
- burning sensation in the back of neck, forearms and chest
- tingling, warmth or weakness in face, temples, upper back, neck and arms
People with asthma may experience bronchospasm.
Other reactions include hives or nasal congestion, runny nose, sneezing and itching. These symptoms are usually temporary and are not associated with severe adverse health effects. In these reported cases, the people had consumed between 3 and 5 grams of MSG on an empty stomach without food.
The safety of MSG has been studied worldwide. All studies found that MSG does not pose a health hazard to people.
How to avoid consuming too much glutamate and MSG
Glutamate may occur naturally in some foods, may be added or may be the result of glutaminase activity.
Be sure to read the labels. Both MSG and glutaminase must be declared in the list of ingredients of food labels.
- eating foods that have a lot of glutamate
- adding MSG to commercially prepared foods, as many prepackaged foods already contain MSG
- adding MSG to food where it does not enhance its flavour (MSG only perks up the flavour of certain foods such as vegetable and meat dishes)
- a general guideline is to allow no more than 5 mL (1 teaspoon) per kilogram of food or 2 mL for a dish of vegetables serving 6 people
How to identify glutamate sources on food labels
There are no labelling requirements for foods that contain naturally occurring free glutamate.
MSG is a food ingredient. It would appear in the list of ingredients, which are in decreasing order.
Claims such as "contains no MSG", "no MSG added" and "no added MSG" are misleading. Other added sources of glutamate include:
- soya sauce
- autolyzed yeast extracts
- hydrolyzed plant protein (HPP) or hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP)
Also look for glutaminase in the list of ingredients as an indication of potential sources of glutamate. Canada allows this enzyme to be used in wheat flour, bakery products, pasta, hydrolyzed proteins, certain egg products, yeast extracts and certain flavouring preparations.
Health Canada establishes health and safety standards and develops food labelling policies on health and nutrition under the Food and Drugs Act and its Regulations.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) administers food labelling policies and enforces regulatory labelling requirements.
You may contact your local CFIA office if you have questions about the labelling of food products you have purchased.
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