Scientific evidence shows that MSG (monosodium glutamate) is safe for people of any age, including children, infants, and pregnant women.
The human body metabolizes added glutamate (MSG) in the same manner it metabolizes glutamate found naturally in many foods. Once glutamate is ingested, the body makes no distinction between the origins of the glutamate. Further, studies with infants and children in particular show they metabolize glutamate in just the same way as adults.
In June 1991, the European Communities Scientific Committee for Food stated, “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.”
Human breast milk, the sole source of nutrition for most children in their early months, is very rich in free glutamate. It is a taste infants naturally prefer. In fact, human breast milk contains 6 to 9 times more glutamate than cow’s milk. Also, a newborn, breast-fed infant consumes free glutamate at levels far higher, for its weight, than people do from food later in life.
What is the Relationship between Glutamate and Monosodium Glutamate?
Glutamate is one of the most common amino acids found in nature. It is the main component of many proteins and peptides, and is present in most tissues. Glutamate is also produced in the body and plays an essential role in human metabolism. Almost two kilograms (about four pounds) of naturally occurring glutamate are found in muscles, in the brain, in kidneys, in the liver and in other organs and tissues. It is a major component of most natural protein foods such as meat, fish, milk and some vegetables. Monosodium Glutamate, commonly known as MSG, is the sodium salt of glutamate and is simply glutamate, water and sodium.
The International Food Information Council (IFIC), in a detailed Review Paper, states: “The body does not distinguish between glutamate from foods like tomatoes or MSG added to a tomato sauce. In fact, research now shows that glutamate from food or MSG is important for normal functioning of the digestive tract and digestion.” Read the full IFIC Review of “Glutamate and Monosodium Glutamate: Examining the Myths” here (pdf).
In a Q&A posted on the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) website, in response to the question, “What’s the difference between MSG and glutamate in food?” FDA states, “The glutamate in MSG is chemically indistinguishable from glutamate present in food proteins. Our bodies ultimately metabolize both sources of glutamate in the same way.” Read more of the FDA’s Q&A here.
Why is MSG Added to Some Foods and How Much Do People Consume?
MSG does not have a distinct flavor of its own, but instead helps to intensify the natural savory flavor of foods. When MSG is added to enhance the flavor of food, the taste gained from naturally occurring or added MSG in foods is described as “umami” – the fifth basic taste after sweet, sour, bitter and salty. Umami is the savory taste that people enjoy in many foods.
Another primary reason that MSG is added is to help reduce the sodium content in the food while maintaining palatability. MSG contains only one-third the amount of sodium as table salt. Therefore the sodium content of processed foods can be lowered by using MSG to replace some of the salt.
The monosodium glutamate added to foods to improve taste represents only a small amount of the total glutamate present in most foods. For example, the average daily amount of glutamate consumed in bound form as protein from food is about 15 grams. In addition, about 1 gram of free glutamate in food would also be consumed during the same day. In contrast, average daily intake of added monosodium glutamate ranges between 0.5 grams and 3.0 grams a day, dependent upon local dietary customs and cuisine.
The IFIC Review Paper notes: “Current consumption data from the United Kingdom show that per capita consumption of MSG is 4 grams (less than one teaspoon) per week. This is comparable to U.S. estimates of roughly 0.55 grams for the average consumer, spread out through an entire day. In Taiwan, for example, per capita consumption figures are much higher, averaging 3 grams per day.”
Consensus that MSG is Safe for Pregnant Women and Children
There is general consensus in the scientific community, based on extensive toxicological and medical studies conducted over four decades, that MSG is safe for the general population, including pregnant and lactating women, and children.
Scientists have investigated the effect of MSG ingestion on lactation and breast-fed infants. Upon examination of lactating women who consumed MSG at 100 mg/kg of body weight, researchers noticed no increase in the level of glutamate in human milk, and no effect on the infant’s intake of glutamate. In December 1993 the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Drugs reviewed the effects of food and environmental agents on breastfeeding. In the report, the Committee stated that MSG has no effect on lactation and poses no risk to the consuming infant. Pediatrics, 93:137- 150, 1994.
In its Review Paper, IFIC notes: “It has been speculated that children would metabolize oral MSG more slowly than adults. However, research conducted by Stegink and colleagues at the University of Iowa showed that children as young as one year old metabolize glutamate as effectively as adults. In the study, infants were fed beef consommé providing MSG at various dosage levels of 0, 25 and 50 mg/kg of body weight. Researchers measured the infant’s plasma glutamate levels and, after comparing the children’s plasma levels to those of adults, found no higher plasma glutamate values for children.”
No Need for Any Limits on MSG’s Safe Use
The amount of glutamate used in foods is usually within the range of 0.1% and 0.8 % of the food as it is served. This is similar to levels of naturally occurring glutamate found in traditional dishes. The taste of monosodium glutamate is self-limiting. This means that once the appropriate amount has been included in a recipe, adding more contributes little, if anything at all, to food flavor. In fact, adding too much MSG can result in a worse taste.
Because MSG is one of the most thoroughly studied food ingredients in the food supply and has been determined by extensive research to be safe, the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization (WHO) has placed MSG in the safest category for food additives. Subsequently, in 1991 the European Commission’s Scientific Committee for Food reaffirmed the safety of monosodium glutamate. Based on the extensive scientific research, and in view of the large normal dietary intake of glutamate, the committee determined that it was unnecessary to set an Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) level.
To read more about the use of MSG by children, read this article by Dr. Keith Ayoob. “Kids and MSG: Relax, it’s ok, even good.” Dr. Ayoob is an internationally known nutritionist and an Associate Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, where he has maintained a clinical practice for more than 20 years.