MSG Workshop 2002

Summary of presentations at the
MSG Mini Workshop
as presented at the SAAFoST Expo on 16 October 2002 in conjunction with
Glutamate Advisory Council of South Africa (GACSA)

Presentation by
Dr Ingrid van Heerden,
Private Nutrition Consultant and Chairman of the Professional Panel for (GACSA)

Title: MSG, Consumer Perceptions and Myths

  1. Human attitudes to food

    Human beings have many complex attitudes towards, and perceptions about, the foods and beverages they consume. In the 21st century, most people feel confident that they no longer believe in black magic and the Philosopher’s Stone, but the general public in the year 2002, has not progressed a great deal when it comes to the perceptions and beliefs they have about food.

  2. Mediaeval Perceptions
    • Garlic protects against werewolves and plague
    • Drinking urine will improve the completion
    • Menstruating women should not handle or prepare food
  3. New Millennium Perceptions
    • Drinking apple cider vinegar causes weight loss
    • Individuals with certain blood groups are ‘allergic’ to certain food groups
    • Inherited toxins can cause cancer
    • MSG is a ‘poison’ and responsible for a wide variety of unrelated symptoms, ranging from hives to hyperactivity
  4. Where do these erroneous perceptions about food originate?

    Nowadays, one would expect that most individuals who have had access to basic education would know something about food and nutrients and their relationship to good health. However, many members of the public are greatly confused about what constitutes a healthy diet and what foods and food products are truly harmful.

  5. Factors that contribute to ‘Food Confusion’

    The following factors contribute to modern ‘food confusion’:

    • Conflicting messages (if the experts can’t agree, then the public becomes more and more confused)

      Previously held knowledge changes and has to be adapted as scientific research unearths new facts – Example: previously all cholesterol was ‘bad’, nowadays we know that HDL-cholesterol is ‘good’, while LDL-cholesterol is ‘bad’.

      Experts are also only human and have their favourite hobbyhorses – Example: the ‘sugar-fat seesaw’ which is supported by some researchers and disputed by others.

    • The rapid rate of change

      At no other time in history has knowledge changed as rapidly as at present – what is a proven fact today, may be outmoded by tomorrow.

      Instant transmission of information via electronic media – food facts/myths/preconceptions are flashed around the world in days if not hours, at such a rapid rate that the public does not have a chance to assimilate knowledge or come to rational conclusions.

    • The influence of the media

      To sell newspapers/TV programmes/books, food messages must either ‘kill or cure’ – this is an unbalanced approach that contributes to public food confusion.

      The Internet contributes to food confusion by flooding readers with inaccurate and emotional messages – Scare chain letters on ‘Canola oil, Aspartame, GMOs’.

    • The influence of self-seeking manufacturers and retailers

      Use fear to sell products – certain retailers and manufacturers use negative advertising to boost sales of their products at the expense of truth – ‘MSG-free labelling’ is used to boost sales, not assist the public.

      Use of misinformation – other foods producers make claims and statements that imply that their products are superior or healthier than similar products made by rival companies.

  6. Public perceptions of MSG

    MSG is a food ingredient which is widely misunderstood and actively feared by many consumers. In May 2001, GACSA commissioned a study on ‘MSG Perceptions in SA Consumers’ – here are some of the results:

    The respondents believed that:

    • MSG causes hyperactivity and ADD
    • MSG causes migraine and headaches
    • MSG causes sickness
    • MSG is ‘bad for you’

    However, 86% of consumers questioned admitted to purchasing convenience foods in dried powder form – instant soups, gravies, etc, despite the fact that these foods are regarded as ‘not good for you’.

    The majority of respondents did not actually know what MSG is and what it does in the human body.

    The media and word of mouth were listed as the prime sources of information on MSG and its purported ‘bad effects’.

    Many respondents stated that Woolworths were adding to the negative perceptions of MSG by highlighting some of their products as ‘no added MSG’, which the public interpret as meaning ‘free of MSG’.

  7. Typical statements about MSG

    “Although there is no medical consensus about its effects on our bodies, MSG is known to cause side effects in MSG-sensitive or -intolerant people….” Symptoms may include: heart palpitations, angina, lowered blood pressure, fluid retention; bloating; depression; mood swings; attention deficit disorder (ADD); dizziness; disorientation; anxiety; panic attacks; hyperactivity; behavioural problems in children; rage; lethargy; sleepiness; insomnia; migraines; slurred speech; nausea; vomiting, stomach cramps; asthma; rashes; skin numbness and tingling, flushing; sweating; a dry mouth; visual disturbances.” SA Essentials, April 2002.

  8. Main concerns
    • Misleading the public into believing that a product labelled with ‘no added MSG’ which may contain high levels of glutamate derived from hydrolysed soya, tomatoes or mushrooms, is safe and can be used by those individuals who may be sensitive to glutamate
    • Creating the impression that MSG is somehow ‘unsafe’, when the vast majority of consumers are not sensitive to this product
    • Fuelling public hysteria about food products instead of providing the public with scientifically proven information and allowing them to make up their own minds
    • Adding to public confusion about foods, health and disease
  9. Suggested countermeasures
    • Education

      While 30% of the population believe that they are allergic to some or other food, less than 2% suffer from proven food allergy, and only a fraction of these individuals are sensitive to MSG.

      Self-diagnosis of a supposed ‘food allergy’ is dangerous and can deprive adults and children of valuable sources of nourishment and even lead to deficiencies. If a food allergy, intolerance or sensitivity is suspected, then appropriate tests need to be conducted by medical experts to obtain a diagnosis.

      The human body does not differentiate between glutamate derived from MSG that is added to foods and glutamate that occurs naturally in foods such as soya, breast milk, cheese, tomatoes and mushrooms.

      Foods labelled ‘no added MSG’ may still have a high glutamate content and cause reactions in the small percentage of individuals who are sensitive to glutamate.

      Target groups:

      • Dietitians, food technologists, food manufacturers, and healthcare workers
      • The general public
      • The media
    • Exposing unethical advertising and labelling

      Every food manufacturer, health professional and member of the public is entitled to complain to the Advertising Standards Authority about misleading or unethical advertising –
      Tel: (011) 781-2006.

      Complaints about labelling can be made to the Department of Health, Directorate: Food Control –
      Tel: (012) 312 -0000

  10. Safety of MSG
    • ‘Generally Recognised As Safe (GRAS) by the USA Food and Drug Administration since 1958
    • The Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives of the UN FAO and the WHO have classified MSG as safe for the general public.
    • Commercial MSG has been on sale for the last 97 years, but the flavour-enhancing tastiness of glutamate has been known and valued for millennia.
    • MSG is a safe and useful flavour enhancer, which has been used for close to a 100 years by millions of people throughout the world without ill effects.

Foodstuff Free glutamate mg/100g
Milk products/dairy
Cows’ milk
Human/breast milk
Parmesan cheese
Emmenthal cheese
Roquefort cheese

1 200

Poultry products

Cured ham


Corn (maize)
Chinese cabbage
Green asparagus
Grape juice




Presentation by
Maryke Herbst,
Principle Medical Natural Scientist of the Department of Health

Title: Labelling legislation of MSG

  1. Why does MSG need to be declared separately?

    Evidence indicates that a small number of people experience mild hypersensitivity when consuming small quantities of MSG in a single meal.

    The number of people sensitive to MSG is estimated at 1% of the population

    Typical reactions are thought to occur when MSG is consumed on an “empty” stomach

    No evidence of causing more serious adverse reactions as is seen in people that exhibit allergic attacks

  2. Is “No Added MSG” legal?

    This is only true if 100% of the food contains no natural MSG, but it is not regarded as ethical.

  3. Future MSG labeling regulations

    The following preservatives as well as tartazine and added glutamates must be indicated on the label by the common chemical name in the list of ingredients:

    • monosodium glutamate (MSG)
    • L-glutamic acid
    • sodium hydrogen L-glutamate
    • potassium hydrogen L-glutamate
    • mono potassium glutamate
    • calcium dihydrogen di-L-glutamate
    • calcium glutamate
    • Monoammonium glutamate
    • Magnesium diglutamate
    • Where a compound ingredient is used in the preparation of a foodstuff the names of the ingredients of the compound ingredient shall be listed in close proximity to the compound ingredient on the label of any foodstuff instead of or in addition to the name of the compound ingredient.


Presentation by
Gavin Jacobs,
Managing Director of McCormick South Africa

Title: MSG – Reformulation issues and considerations

  1. Umami timeline

    Umami has been an integral part of cuisine for centuries

    • Is the fifth taste after sweet, sour, salt, bitter
    • Represents “savouriness”, enhancement, more-ish

    Three chemical pillars of umami

    • Glutamate
    • Inosinate
    • Guanylate

    All occur naturally – meat and vegetable
    All started commercial manufacture early in 1900s

  2. Is reformulation possible?

    Of course, but there are a number of things to bear in mind

    • MSG is a very capable flavour enhancer
    • MSG is a very cost effective ingredient
    • MSG is already used in combination with other ingredients to optimise flavour enhancement
  3. Reformulation alternatives

    MSG can be replaced with a number of alternatives:

    • HVPs – contain variable levels of glutamates
    • Chloropropanol risks/perceptions are negative
    • Enzymic hydrolysis is still relatively slow and expensive
    • Yeast Extracts – contain variable levels of glutamates (4-6%) and ribotides/nucleotides (2-6%) post hydrolysis, are also fermented/cultured
    • Nucleotides – various combinations, fermented
    • Reaction flavours – still based on HVPs and/or yeasts
  4. Nucleotides
    • IMP – inosine monophosphate, E631
    • GMP – guanosine monophosphate, E627
    • Initially found in mushrooms and seaweed
    • Today are fermented commercially – as per MSG
    • Both are stronger flavour enhancers than MSG
    • More difficult to dose and distribute evenly – especially dry products, e.g. snack dustings
    • Utilising IMP/GMP ratios in conjunction with yeast extracts has shown some potential in replacing MSG
    • Costs have risen dramatically in 2002

      Oct 2001 – R80/kg
      Oct 2002 – R250/kg

    • Worldwide shortage
    • Impact on replacing MSG is significant

      Rule of thumb 0.1% ribotide = 1% MSG
      Incremental cost = 100%

    • Consumer is paying this increased cost
  5. Consequences of MSG replacement
    • Loss of synergistic relationship between MSG and nucleotides
    • Glutamate removal = loss of fullness/boldness of flavour (reduced umami)
    • Easier to replace MSG in products naturally high in amino acids. e.g. tomato, dairy, mushroom, meaty flavours.
  6. Why not use more flavour?
    • Umami is unique
    • Taste mechanism not fully understood
    • Only the umami pillars contribute to umami
    • MSG does not enhance bitter, sweet, sour, salt
    • Can increase all flavour components in formulation to make up for MSG removal
    • Difficult to perfect/ balance
    • Costly
  7. Why reformulate?
    • Consumer pressure – YES
    • Improved flavour delivery – NO
    • Improved cost efficiency – NO
    • Ease of manufacture – NO
    • Rationalised recipe – NO


Presentation by
Professor Harry Seftel,
Emeritus Professor of Medicine, Wits Medical School

Title: Health & safety of MSG

  1. What is monosodium glutamate?
    • Monosodium Glutamate is a salt of sodium plus glutamic acid.
    • Glutamate is found naturally in foods eg cheese, milk, tomatoes, mushrooms
    • Commercially produced by natural fermentation of sugar cane molasses, sugar beet, starch or corn sugar and added to foods
  2. What does MSG do in food?

    In the mouth it enhances food flavours by stimulating the 5th sense of taste –


    • Japanese for tasty
    • Described as meaty, spicy piquant, hearty or simply delicious!
  3. What is glutamic acid?

    A natural amino acid found

    • – in free form as MSG (Ig/d)
    • – in bound form in almost all proteins (10 -20g/d)

    After eating food containing MSG all glutamic acid is free:

    • – directly from MSG
    • – after digestion of protein

    and body does not distinguish the two

    What happens to the pool of free Glutamic Acid in the Intestine?

    Like other amino acids it is absorbed and performs a variety of important functions in the body

  4. What then is the problem with MSG?

    Problem is with Commercial MSG (CMSG) added to food.

    CMSG is alleged to cause:

    • allergy eg. asthma, urticaria
    • Chinese Restaurant Syndrome
      numbness at back of neck, both arms and back

      general weakness
    • Various other symptoms
  5. What is the evidence for harm from CMSG added to food?
    • Largely anecdotal and based on flawed studies in humans – e.g. asthma after CMSG in asthmatics whose essential medication was stopped at the same time
    • Meaningless studies in animals pickled in CMSG
  6. What have better studies of CMSG shown?
    • CMSG is an unlikely or uncommon cause of either asthma or urticari Large doses of CMSG – up to 5g-
    • May cause CRS symptoms but only in the absence of food
  7. Caveats
    • CMSG may contain not only MSG but other organic compounds depending on source
    • There may be some people who do react to CMSG
    • Still need large double-blind placebo-controlled studies in persons with and without a history of reactions to CMSG
  8. What should be done about CMSG?
    • Continue flavouring food with CMSG
    • Use it with moderation – mg per meal
    • You don’t need more
    • Choose the supplier of CMSG carefully – view specifications before purchasing.


Presentation by
Bill Paterson,
APR, Public Officer, GACSA

Title: Overview of GACSA, the way forward

Perception Study

The study was done to establish whether there was an MSG perception problem and how bad that problem might be. As a starting point it was agreed to survey women in the LSM (Living Standards Measurement) 6 to 8. This was the ‘old’ LSM classifications which have now been expanded from 1 to 10.

Perceptions studies were done of

  • Black females – Johannesburg
    Shoppers in LSM 6 to 8 profile stores
  • Indian females – Durban
    Shopping in selected LSM 6 to 8 profile stores
  • White females – Johannesburg
    Shopping in selected top end profile stores
  • White mothers – Johannesburg and Durban
    Mothers with young children

Details of the methods used are available and we can make copies of the survey if you could give your name to Christine Leighton or Rochelle Putter.
Bear in mind that this was a pilot study. There were 360 interviews and 150 successful interviews. Some pointers follow below although many of the questions asked have been omitted because of time constraints.

  1. What food ingredients are you aware of that are perceived to be unhealthy? (%)


    ‘Other’ includes Flavourants / Sugar / Fat / Caffeine / Salt / Tomatoes / Sodium Benzoate

  2. Are you familiar with any of the following food ingredients? (%)


  3. Rank the following from most unhealthy to least unhealthy (weighted average)


  4. What do you understand about the effects of MSG? (%)

    Hyper- activity
    Unhealthy / bad
    Blood pressure

    ‘Other’ includes Migraine / Heart conditions / Asthma / Insomnia / Bad for Children / Blocks release of toxins / Affects brain / Affects immune system / Affects diabetes / Contains toxins / Creates flatulence / Affects concentration

  5. How did you become aware of the effects of MSG? (%)

    Friend / Family
    GP or Med Rep

    ‘Other’ includes Personal experience / Literature

  6. Do you actively seek out ‘MSG / free’ products? (%)


  7. How concerned are you about the effects of MSG? (%)

    Not at all
    Very concerned

  8. More concerned about MSG than a year ago? (%)


(Complete perception study is available from GACSA)

The researchers concluded that, although many respondents successfully translated ‘MSG’ as ‘monosodium glutamate’ (or a close enough version) there was much confusion over what MSG really is ‘not sure but know it’s bad for you’ and the word was spontaneously associated with health concerns.

There was very little recognition of MSG among Black and Indian respondents – signalling that this was not an area for concern.

The most commonly mentioned MSG effect was ‘hyperactivity in children’ followed by generally ‘unhealthy’ perceptions in the form of ‘not good for you, not sure why’. Allergic reactions, especially in children, also featured prominently, along with migraine, asthma and negative effects on the immune system. More serious allegations including ‘cancer forming tissues’, heart conditions and high blood pressure concerns.

What was to be done?

Before detailing the action we are taking, we came across a notice for an independent conference set to take place on October the 17th, to which GACSA was not invited in time, covering the following perceived ‘issues’:

  • ‘The effects of MSG on the health of children’
  • ‘MSG – The consumer needs to know how he is protected’
  • ‘Testing for MSG and problems associated’
  • ‘Retailers statement’
  • ‘The general industry perspective of organic food and the law regarding the use of MSG in organic food’

This gives us all a good idea of unsettling forces at work.

Authoritative recognition of MSG safety

From what you learnt earlier today, monosodium glutamate is recognised as Generally Recognised As Safe by the American Food & Drug Administration (FDA), along with salt, vinegar and baking powder.

The European Community’s Scientific Committee has also confirmed the safety of MSG and established that setting a so-called Acceptable Daily Limit was unnecessary.

Similarly, the WHO has placed MSG in the safest category for food additives, therefore safe for the general population.

You have also learnt that claims pertaining to the absence or non-addition of monosodium glutamate are considered misleading and deceptive when other sources of free glutamate are present. The claim ‘no MSG added’ implies that the product does not contain any glutamate and in many cases where such a phrase is used, it is not true.

The Glutamate Advisory Council (GACSA) was formed as a Section 21 company not for profit, dedicated to educating healthcare professionals, food manufacturers, retailers and LSM 8 to 10 (new categories) women consumers, including those with children.

The next step was to complete a perception study (covered above) to establish what needed to be done to rectify a very negative situation.

A further more detailed study remains to be done.

Based on the research, a communication plan was prepared to reach

  • Food Manufacturers
  • FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) retailers
  • (Restaurants)
  • Healthcare professionals
    nursing sisters

  • LSM 8 to 10 women including those with children

Professional Advisory Panel

Guided by leading healthcare professionals, including physicians, gastroenterologists and nutritionists, food scientists and cookery experts, GACSA assembled a distinguished panel of advisors to assess the effects in humans of monosodium glutamate and other glutamates, to ensure statements made and actions taken concerning glutamates were in the best interest of consumers.

It must be recognised that the statements made by the Council do not necessarily reflect the opinions of individual members of the Professional Panel. However, all statements issued by GACSA will have been circulated to members of the Professional Panel for their comments and changes.

The Professional Panel comprises – in alphabetical order

  • Heinz Brunner – President of the SA Chefs Association
  • Aubrey Parsons – A Past-President of SAAFoST and the only person from Africa on the Governing Council of the International Union for Food Science and Technology
  • Professional Harry Seftel – LLD Honoris causa, Emeritus Professor of Medicine, University of the Witwatersrand.
  • Dr Harris Steinman – Specialist in Allergic Reactions to Food Additives and a Member of the Allergy Society of South Africa.
  • Dr Ingrid van Heerden – (Chairman of the GACSA Professional Panel) a leading private nutrition consultant and a member of the Association of Dietetics of South Africa
  • Dr Pieter van Twisk – Food Scientist and a leading consultant in the food industry.
  • Professor Trevor Winter – A leading gastroenterologist, parenteral & enteral nutrition specialist, Gastrointestinal Clinic, Groote Schuur Hospital and Chairman of the SA Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition (SASPEN)

Logo and Stationery

Because research showed that most consumers thought of MSG as ‘synthetic’, the logo was designed to stress its natural origins as a fermentation process using sugar cane molasses, sugar beet or tapioca.

Communication Targets

The main ones are

  • Healthcare professionals including dietitians
  • Food processors including their marketing departments
  • Retail chains
  • Media (women’s pages and magazines)
  • LSM 8 to 10 women consumers including those with children

Communication Objectives

  • Establish positive visibility for GACSA
  • Attract membership and build financial support
  • Reverse the anti-MSG drift, though education
  • Convert manufacturers and retailers to positive atitudes
  • Convert consumers through education
  • Convert media through balanced information
  • Establish contact with similar objective organisations overseas

Communication Strategy

  • Ensure all information is correct
  • Issue a flow of proactive articles and releases (print & electronic media)
  • Respond to negative publicity
  • Pinpoint food processors marketing products with negative MSG messages and highlight the errors of their ways
  • Ditto retailers
  • Embark on a membership drive

Action so far

We have contacted most relevant food manufacturers and marketers and enlisted much of their support – although there remain many ‘heel-draggers’.

  • Continually placed articles and releases
  • Visited three of the major retail chains
  • Established ongoing contact with the leading producer of MSG and scientific organisations in many countries
  • Production of MSG leaflet with a leading retailer
  • Production of a similar GACSA leaflet as a response item
  • Handle incoming consumer enquiries

Next Step

Some interesting literature is available for you from Christine and Rochelle. Application forms to join GACSA are likewise available. GACSA needs your support to better serve you, the scientific representatives of the industry involved in MSG utilisation. At an Annual Membership of just R7000 you will receive

  • Access to the guidance of the Professional Panel
  • Guidance of labelling issues
  • A unified voice serving you the industry
  • Unswerving loyalty in protecting your glutamate interests
  • Access to the GACSA network

Contact details for the Glutamate Advisory Council of South Africa

Tel: 011 403 3571
Fax: 011 403 4445