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Food and Nutrition

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) - Questions and Answers

What is MSG?

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is the sodium salt of the naturally occurring amino acid, glutamic acid which makes up 10 to 25 % of all food protein, from both animal and vegetable sources. In addition to being an ingredient intentionally added to foods, glutamate occurs as a natural part of proteins, including vegetable and animal proteins. These proteins, when broken down (i.e.: by cooking) release free glutamate and are themselves used as ingredients in various prepared meat products, soups, broths and gravy mixes.

Is monosodium glutamate a food additive?

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is not regulated as a food additive. It is considered a flavour enhancing ingredient used to enhance the natural flavour of various foods. While there is no regulatory limit to the amount of MSG that may be added to food, the amount of MSG added should be at levels consistent with Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP). In other words, only the smallest amount needed to enhance the flavour should be added to the food.

Is MSG safe?

In general, the use of MSG is not a health hazard to consumers. The safety of MSG has been reviewed by regulatory authorities and scientists worldwide, including Health Canada. However, some individuals who consume MSG may exhibit an allergic-type reaction or hypersensitivity. For those people, the effects of consuming food containing MSG may include: a burning sensation, facial pressure, headache, nausea and chest pains appearing about 20 minutes after consumption and disappearing about two hours later. Such reactions have generally been reported to be temporary and not associated with severe adverse health effects. People sensitive enough to be affected are advised to avoid the use of this substance.

Are there other sources of glutamate in food?

Consumers may believe that MSG is the sole source of glutamates, and thus the only source of concern to sensitive individuals who may react to glutamates. However, any foods that are inherently high sources of free glutamates may also be of concern to sensitive individuals. The Federation of American Societies of Experimental Biology (FASEB)Footnote 1, in its report on adverse reactions to monosodium glutamate, concluded that there is no difference in the physiological response to synthesized and natural glutamates.

Other claims about the safety of MSG

The safety of MSG has been studied worldwide. The Joint Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations / World Health Organization Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) (1987), and the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (1995) conducted thorough evaluations and concluded that the use of MSG does not constitute a health hazard to consumers. Health Canada scientists concur with these views. In addition, there is no scientific evidence linking obesity in humans with the consumption of foods containing MSG. Nevertheless, some individuals may exhibit an allergic-type reaction or hypersensitivity when exposed to MSG. For those who suffer from this sensitivity, avoiding MSG is recommended.

How is MSG labelled?

When MSG is added to prepackaged foods, it must be declared on the list of ingredients of food labels, even when it is a component of flavouring preparations, spice mixtures, food flavour-enhancer preparations and other preparations or mixtures. This permits individuals who are sensitive to MSG to avoid this substance.

Claims pertaining to the absence or non-addition of monosodium glutamate such as "contains no MSG", "no MSG added" and "no added MSG" are considered misleading and deceptive when other added sources of free glutamate are present (e.g., hydrolysed vegetable protein (HVP), hydrolyzed plant protein (HPP), hydrolyzed soy protein (HSP), soya sauce or autolysed yeast extracts). There are also a number of common food ingredients that contain high levels of naturally-occurring free glutamate, including tomatoes and tomato juice, grapes and grape juice, other fruit juices, cheeses such as Parmesan and Roquefort, and mushrooms. There are no labelling requirements for naturally-occurring free glutamates.

Why is MSG used in food preparations?

When used in small quantities, MSG enhances the natural basic flavour in foods such as soups, casseroles, salads, gravies, meat, poultry, seafood, and vegetable dishes. It does not add any characteristic flavour of its own. Adding excess amounts of MSG does not further improve overall flavour.

How to avoid excessive use

  • Read the labels: MSG is a food ingredient; therefore it would appear in the list of ingredients which are identified in decreasing order. Also, look for the presence of hydrolysed vegetable protein (HVP) or hydrolysed plant protein. MSG will most likely be found near the bottom of the ingredient list.
  • Use in moderation: MSG does not perk up the flavour of fruit, fruit juice, candy, sweet baked goods, milk and butter. For those foods that benefit from its use, such as vegetable and meat dishes, a general guideline is to allow no more than 5 mL (5 mL is equivalent to one teaspoon) per kilogram of food or 2 mL per six servings of vegetables.
  • Avoid adding MSG to commercially-prepared foods. Since many prepackaged foods already contain MSG, further addition should not be necessary.

What is the government's role in ensuring that MSG is used and labelled properly?

Health Canada is responsible for establishing health and safety standards and the development of food labelling policies related to health and nutrition under the Food and Drugs Act and Regulations. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is responsible for the administration of food labelling policies and enforcement of regulatory labelling requirements. Consumers may wish to contact their local CFIA office should there be questions with regard to the labelling of specific food products that they may have purchased.

Footnotes

Footnote 1

Analysis of Adverse Reactions to Monosodium Glutamate (M.S.G.). Prepared for Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, Food and Drug Administration, Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C., July 1995.

Return to footnote 1 referrer