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New Rule Would Warn of Glutamate

Regulations: There is disagreement, however, over how much of the MSG ingredient is too much in food products and whether it is harmful when it occurs naturally.

March 12, 1997|RUSS PARSONS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A new labeling rule proposed by the Food and Drug Administration would require food producers to disclose whether their products contain free glutamate--the active ingredient in monosodium glutamate.

Currently, monosodium glutamate must be disclosed only if it is added to food in its pure, ingredient form. But free glutamate is present in many ingredients other than monosodium glutamate, including hydrolyzed protein, gelatin, plant protein extract, sodium caseinate, calcium caseinate, yeast extract, textured protein, yeast food and autolyzed yeast.

It can even be present in soy sauce, pectin and other ingredients commonly listed on the labels of processed foods. Some of these include malt extract or flavoring, barley malt, bouillon, stock, broth, carrageen, maltodextrin, whey protein, natural flavors and flavoring, soy protein, anything ultra-pasteurized, anything protein-fortified, anything enzyme-modified and anything fermented.

In fact, some foods that proudly advertise "No MSG" actually contain large amounts of free glutamate.

A stroll through your supermarket will show that these ingredients are more common than one might expect. Indeed, it is difficult to find a brand of canned tuna that does not include hydrolyzed soy protein--a particularly potent source of free glutamate.

Under the proposed rule, manufacturers of prepared foods made with additives that contain free glutamate would have to disclose its presence on the label. Further, foods that contain those additives would no longer be able to advertise themselves as MSG-free.

Glutamic acid is an amino acid, one of the building blocks of protein. It is most commonly found in food in its salt form, glutamate, which comes in two forms--that which is bound to protein and that which is free of protein.

Free glutamate is used as a flavoring, yet it has no flavor itself. Instead, it affects the way the brain senses flavors. Exactly how is not clearly understood. Many scientists believe that it stimulates receptors in the tongue to augment meat-like flavors. Other studies have shown that the body uses glutamate as a nerve impulse transmitter in the brain.

The exact chemical basis for some people's reactions to free glutamate is still unclear. Some scientists say it only becomes a problem when it becomes unbound in the manufacturing process. Free glutamate that occurs naturally in vegetables like tomatoes, they say, isn't harmful.

The FDA says there is no difference. And according to the agency's Advanced Notice of Proposed Rule-Making, or ANPR, on MSG, the new regulation would "apply to foods that contain free glutamate from any source."

MSG--the first product making use of free glutamate--was first isolated in Japan in 1908 by Kikunae Ikeda, who had noticed that the seaweed kombu was used as a flavor enhancer. It did not become popular in the United States until after World War II.

Then its popularity spread rapidly, especially with food manufacturers who found it to be an inexpensive way to develop better flavors. Today, estimates of the amount of pure MSG used in the United States range as high as 45 tons a year.

The issue of individual sensitivity to monosodium glutamate and similar products is highly controversial and has been the subject of books, newsletters, petitions and even lawsuits.

Critics say the presence of free glutamate can trigger reactions in people who are sensitive to it ranging from dizziness and shortness of breath to headaches and drowsiness.

But at least one neuroscientist, Washington University's John W. Olney, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, claims free glutamate can cause brain damage--particularly in children.

The Glutamate Assn., the Institute of Food Technologists, the Meat Institute and other food industry groups, both in this country and abroad, say these claims are unfounded.

"While anecdotal reports of adverse reactions . . . exist," representatives of the Meat Institute wrote to the FDA, "there [are] no verifiable scientific data establishing that the levels of these ingredients used in the food supply could cause adverse reactions in the general population."

Moreover, the food industry says glutamate labeling would unfairly stigmatize products many consumers have been happily eating for a long time. "The proposed warning statement would carry with it the implication that the average consumer, who has been consuming free glutamate-containing products for years, should now, suddenly, be concerned," wrote one.

The FDA's proposal is based, in part, on a two-day panel by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, or FASEB, that was called in 1993 to review the existing scientific literature on glutamate. It released its report in 1995, finding that, though MSG is safe at normally consumed levels for the public at large, there are people who are sensitive to it.

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