What is the flavour enhancer sodium glutamate?
Mono sodium glutamate is the chemical name for a flavour enhancer. It is the salt of an amino acid- glutamic acid. Almost all foods contain glutamate, especially meat, fish, vegetables, mushrooms, cheese and milk.
Glutamate can occur in the body and in foods in two different forms: in a “bound” form, i.e. tied to other protein elements, and in “free” form, i.e. not bound.
Only free glutamate influences flavour and is therefore used as a flavour enhancer. This characteristic was discovered around 1500 years ago in Asia. Chefs made very flavoursome soup stocks by using algae. Only, they did not know that algae are naturally rich in free glutamate. Glutamate was first isolated in 1908 in a Japanese university.
The term “umami” (Japanese: pleasant, savory taste) now describes the typical glutamate flavour.
Glutamate is obtained by the fermentation of sugary substances, e.g. sugar beet or corn. The fermentation is a biological process that is also used for the production of beer or sauerkraut, for example. As natural origin sources are used for the production of glutamate, there is no difference in naturally occurring glutamates and industrially produced glutamates.
Is glutamate harmless?
The human body produces glutamic acid itself. Glutamate is therefore not a foreign substance for the body, but rather a normal metabolic product that is necessary, especially in the brain, intestines and muscles.
Scientists estimate that the amount of bound glutamate that we ingest daily is approximately 8 – 12g. In contrast, 1g of free glutamate is ingested and only a fractional amount, namely about 0.3 – 0.6g is ingested in the form of flavour enhancers.
Due to its important role as a flavour enhancer, numerous scientific studies regarding its toxicology have been executed. Its findings show that sensible use of glutamate does not contradict a “healthy diet”. Sodium salt is used, but the sodium content of glutamate is noticeably less than that of table salt. Moreover, glutamate is used more sparingly than salt and thanks to its flavour enhancing effect it can actually enable a decrease in salt use.