In 1908, a Japanese chemistry professor determined that monosodium L-glutamate (MSG) was responsible for the characteristic meaty or savoury taste of the broth of dried bonito and Japanese seaweed. Since then, various salts of glutamic acid including MSG (all of which are also known as ‘glutamates’) have been commercially produced and deliberately added to food as a flavour enhancer.
Glutamates also occur naturally in almost all foods, including meat, fish, vegetables and mushrooms. Even breast milk contains naturally occurring glutamate. In general, protein-rich foods such as meat contain large amounts of bound glutamate, whereas vegetables and fruits (especially peas, tomatoes, and potatoes) and mushrooms tend to contain high levels of free glutamate. Certain cheeses, such as Parmesan, also contain high levels of free glutamate.
There is no chemical difference between added and naturally occurring glutamate.
Is MSG safe?
MSG is considered safe and is an authorised food additive in the EU and Australia and New Zealand in line with good manufacturing practice (GMP). This means that a food manufacturer can use a food additive only up to the limit that achieves its specific purpose.
A small number of people may experience a mild hypersensitivity-type reaction to large amounts of MSG when eaten in a single meal. Reactions vary from person to person but may include headaches, numbness/tingling, flushing, muscle tightness, and general weakness. These reactions normally pass quickly and do not produce any long-lasting effects.
If you suspect that you might be reacting to MSG, you should confirm this through an appropriate clinical assessment. Seek advice from your GP or a dietitian who can arrange for an assessment. Specialist clinics in most states and territories and in New Zealand perform such assessments.
Glutamates safety assessments
The safety of MSG has been reviewed by FSANZ, the Joint Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) and the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB).
Each of these reviews concluded that MSG does not represent a health concern for the general population. An acceptable daily intake (ADI) was not established by JECFA on the basis of the low toxicity of MSG and its use levels in foods.
FSANZ is aware of the recently published scientific opinion by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) on glutamic acid and glutamates added to food. The opinion does not raise new safety issues not considered as a part of the FSANZ assessment.
How can I tell if a food has MSG in it?
Food manufacturers must declare when MSG is added, either by name or by its food additive code number 621, in the ingredient list on the label of most packaged foods. For example, MSG could be identified as:
- ‘Flavour enhancer (MSG)’, or
- ‘Flavour enhancer (621)’.
Ingredient labelling also applies to other added permitted glutamate food additives, which have food additive code numbers 622 - 625.
MSG doesn’t have to be declared when a food is not required to bear a label, for example in restaurant or takeaway food, but if you ask the staff whether or not it is added to food they should be able to tell you.
When glutamates and glutamate salts are naturally present in a food (e.g. in meat, or in mushrooms), or in an ingredient of a food (e.g. in yeast extract, or hydrolysed vegetable protein (HVP)), they don't have to be labelled.
Can claims such as ‘MSG free’ be made about food?
The Food Standards Code does not specifically regulate the claims ‘No added MSG’ and ‘MSG free’. In Australia, such labelling claims are subject to the Australian Consumer Law, as administered by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). In New Zealand these claims are subject to the New Zealand Fair Trading Act 1986, as enforced by the New Zealand Commerce Commission (NZCC). Care may be needed in using these types of claims, as MSG can be naturally present in some foods.