Glutamate: harmful or harmless?

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Glutamate largely became known as a flavour enhancer in the food industry, although it is naturally present in many foods, such as in tomatoes and parmesan. The effect of glutamate on our health continues to be a subject of controversy.

Gluta – what?

Glutamate is much more than just an industrial additive – we can't live without it. Glutamate, the salts of glutamic acid, are non-essential amino acids and, as such, are protein building blocks. These are produced by the human body itself and act as neurotransmitters in the brain. They enable information to be passed from one cell to the next, for example when we're learning or when we move.

Origin of glutamate

Industry uses the salts of L-glutamic acid. The most common industrial additive is monosodium glutamate, also known as E621, that spices up the flavours of pizza, soup and crisps. In 1908, Japanese professor Kikunae Ikeda succeeded in extracting precisely this monosodium glutamate from Kombu seaweed. This made him the discoverer of the fifth flavour umami and the flavour-enhancing property of glutamate. Neither sweet, salty, sour or bitter, umami is described as fleshy, spicy or pleasantly tasty.

Industrial production

Today, glutamate is industrially produced by fermentation and can be found on the list of food additives under the E-substance numbers E620 to E625. The designation isn't always clear to the consumer, because producers often use synonyms that sound more innocent than the E-substance numbers.

Natural glutamate in our everyday diet

Some foods naturally contain glutamate. We therefore consume approx. 10-20 mg glutamate per day as part of a balanced diet. These are just a few:

Glutamate content
Soy sauce
1’260 mg / 100g
1’200 mg / 100g
630 mg / 100g
Smoked ham
340 mg / 100g
200 mg / 100g
140 mg / 100g
110 mg / 100g
30-100 mg / 100g

Effect of glutamate

As a neurotransmitter in the brain, glutamate is vital to our health. This is why its industrial use comes under criticism:

  • In the 1970's the first health concerns were raised in connection with what was known as the China Restaurant Syndrome. After eating food containing glutamate in mainly Asian restaurants, many guests experienced symptoms such as headaches, nausea and numbness.
  • Glutamate is said to have a neurotoxic effect, which can lead to diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.
  • Glutamate plays a role in regulating appetite in the brain. It is said to increase appetite and thus to be partly responsible for obesity.
We consume approx. 10-20 mg glutamate per day as part of a balanced diet.

What the science says

Neither double-blind experiments nor general data sufficiently support these allegations. Decidedly more extensive studies would be necessary. National experts therefore agree that glutamate in normal amounts doesn't pose a health risk in a balanced diet. It has also not been confirmed that glutamate can trigger allergic reactions. Nevertheless, certain people are glutamate-intolerant.

Therefore: eating a balanced diet and consuming glutamate in moderation – especially in ready-made meals – is certainly not harmful. But those who are intolerant should avoid it completely.