The flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate is one of the most criticized food additives of today… But is the flavor enhancer really bad for your health?

If we look for information on the Internet we can see that there is a black legend about the flavor enhancer for foods. Among others, monosodium glutamate is accused of causing migraines, spasms, cardiac irregularities, nausea, allergies, epileptic seizures, etc. But beware, not all the information circulating is entirely reliable.


A flavor enhancer, as its name suggests, is an artificial compound whose main function is to enhance the flavor of food. Monosodium glutamate is a compound derived from glutamic of the most abundant non-essential amino acids in nature. They are called nonessential because they are produced by the human body itself. In fact, glutamic acid is naturally present in everyday foods such as tomatoes, cheese and mushrooms. It is the sodium salt of glutamic acid which is known as monosodium glutamate and has long been used as a food additive as a flavor enhancer in foods in general.

Monosodium glutamate responds to the E-621 code that we can read in the ingredient list of many food products. This in itself (even if it does not have harmful consequences for health) generates animosity among certain consumers who believe (without the necessary information) that it will have a negative effect on their health.



But far from it, an important fact is that our body does not distinguish the flavor enhancer such as monosodium glutamate that comes in food in the form of glutamic acid (which we ingest through, among others, our beloved serrano ham or, even, babies through breast milk) and the one that is added to foods to enhance their taste. Furthermore, its use is approved by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

But then, why does monosodium glutamate flavor enhancer have a bad reputation?

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The use of flavor enhancers in foods, such as monosodium glutamate, comes from the word umami , which was proposed by chemistry professor Kikunae Ikeda and in Japanese means “delicious taste”. In the early 20th century, Ikeda identified monosodium glutamate as the cause of the particular taste of seaweed soup (kombu, which has a high glutamate content), a typical Japanese dish. Thereafter, glutamate was used as a flavor enhancer through the trade name Ajinomoto (meaning, “essence of taste”). Let’s say that monosodium glutamate is responsible for the fifth flavor. Because, in addition to sweet, salty, sour and bitter, there is umami, typical of oriental cuisines, although, as we have said, also in Spanish foods such as Serrano ham, mushrooms, tomatoes and even in mother’s milk.




Because of its use in oriental food, it is also called Chinese salt and, at one time, it was even accused of to be the cause of the so-called Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.said Dr. Ho Man Kwok in an article in the New England Journal of Medicinepublished in 1968. It was then that his bad campaign began. The aforementioned syndrome would consist of suffering headache, chest pain, redness, sweating, etc., after having eaten three-delicious rice, chicken with almonds, among others. However, following Ho man Kwok’s findings, different scientific studies were conducted to trace the connection between the flavor enhancer (monosodium glutamate) and Chinese restaurant syndrome, but none concluded such a link.

In 1995, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decided to act and to begin with changed the name of the alleged syndrome, with serious negative connotations, to ‘monosodium glutamate symptoms’. Furthermore, it was concluded that there was nothing to suggest that the healthy population taking a normal dose would experience such symptoms. In fact, they only appeared when three grams dissolved in water and without food were ingested, which is not at all common in everyday experience (considering that it is not a pleasant practice, nor does it have any taste).

Consequently, current studies conclude that the problem is not the flavor enhancer itself, since it is not a compound that is harmful to health if ingested in normal amounts, but rather that Because glutamate increases palatability (makes food taste better), it can cause us to eat more than we should and put on weight. A clear example is potato chips We know that they are not healthy, but we can ingest a huge amount due to the action of the flavor enhancer.



The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) re-evaluated in 2017, the safety of glutamate and established that the acceptable daily intake for a person is 30 milligrams of monosodium glutamate per kilogram of body weight. A 75 kilogram person could safely take 2.2 grams per day of flavor enhancer without noticing any side effects. From there it has been concluded that some effects appear (in animals) such as headache, increase in blood pressure or insulin levels.

EFSA recommended to the European Commission to review the maximum permitted levels in the food categories with the highest levels of glutamic acid and its salts, including glutamate: industrial bakery products, soups, sauces, meat and meat seasonings, condiments and food supplements. It should be noted that this EFSA recommendation did not come about because glutamate is harmful to health, but because we are exposed to more glutamate than we think, and not just by going to Chinese restaurants. Many of the Western processed foods we consume contain it, for example, traditional potato chips, soups or sachet creams; cookies or breakfast cereals. According to the European authority, these industrial products may expose us to more glutamate than we should be exposed to and levels should therefore be checked to adjust our daily intake.


In conclusion, many of the negative effects associated with flavor enhancers such as glutamate are unfounded (depression, epilepsy, etc.). However, its disproportionate consumption can lead to other problems (such as obesity, headaches, hypertension). As with almost everything, it is advisable to consume glutamate in moderation and, to this end, to give priority to fresh foods and avoid highly processed foods such as fast food, precooked foods or pastries.