Many are aware of the dangers of having too much salt in their diet. You may, however, want to steer clear of MSG or monosodium glutamate. Glutamate is an amino acid and a component of animal and vegetable food proteins. It is naturally present in many of the foods we eat daily and can occur naturally at high levels in some foods.
Unknown to most of us, it’s the MSG element that keeps us going back for more when eating our favourite packet of chips. According to registered dietitian Tanya Alberts, MSG has a very specific taste known as umami, the fifth basic taste alongside, sweet, sour, salty and bitter.
Alberts who runs a private practice in Pretoria, Tanya Alberts and Associate, explains that umami has a meaty flavour that creates “the illusion to the presence of proteins in food”.
“MSGs are spices and additives that make food ‘taste better’. Things like your Flings and your NikNaks, they all have your MSGs in them. And that is why you cannot stop eating them as soon as you open the packet,” she says.
What is MSG?
As a food, MSG has been a staple in many Asian dishes. It is a common flavour enhancer often added to restaurant foods, canned vegetables, soups, deli meats, and other foods.
According to Nelile Nxumalo, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Association of Dietetics in South Africa (Adsa), glutamate is an amino acid and a component of animal and vegetable food proteins.
Glutaminase can be used in wheat flour, bakery products, pasta, hydrolyzed proteins, some egg products, yeast extracts and some flavouring preparations. Glutamate may also be added directly to foods in the form of MSG.
Nxumalo says MSG is used to enhance the flavour of foods, including:
- vegetable dishes
- broths and gravy mixes
- prepared meat products
- meat, poultry and seafood
How MSG affects your health
In most instances, people can safely consume foods that contain high levels of glutamate, says Nxumalo. However, some people may develop symptoms, such as:
- chest pain or heart palpitations
- pressure or tightness in the face
- nausea or feeling drowsy or weak
- numbness in back of neck that radiates to arms and back
- burning sensation in the back of neck, forearms and chest
- tingling, warmth or weakness in face, temples, upper back, neck and arms
Nxumalo tells Health For Mzansi that these symptoms are usually temporary, and are not associated with severe adverse health effects.
Read your labels
Glutamate may occur naturally in some foods such as tomatoes, mushrooms, and cheeses, such as parmesan and Roquefort, and may be added or may be the result of glutaminase activity, explains Nxumalo.
Meanwhile Alberts adds, “MSG is something that negatively affects your body. This product you get it in some foods like processed food products as well as chewing gum. You just need to look at food labels, you need to start looking at some of these products.”
Keep it MSG-free this summer
It is important for everyone to eat a well-balanced diet that contains complex starches, lean protein, fresh fruit and vegetables, and to maintain a healthy weight along with the recommended 150 minutes exercise per week, advises dietitian Joy Williams.
Monitoring your salt intake and lifestyle is important. “The body needs salt to function as it helps regulate the body’s fluid balance and helps to maintain normal blood pressure,” she says.
Williams shares six tips to reduce salt in your diet:
- Do not add salt to food during the cooking process except when it is indicated by the dietitian, and do not add extra salt to food at the table. Rather use alternative flavourings that do not contain salt, like herbs, pepper, curry, vinegar, onions, peppers, garlic, ginger, rosemary and lemon juice.
- Avoid salt-containing flavouring agents like spices containing salt or stock cubes.
- Potassium products containing salt replacements should not be used as a replacement since too much potassium can be life-threatening to a patient with kidney ailments. Consult your dietitian for advice.
- Check the food labels for forbidden ingredients e.g. salt, sodium, monosodium glutamate (MSG), or any sodium-containing additive.
- Foods with a high salt content should be restricted. Restrict food like viennas, cold meats, ham, hamburger patties or bully beef, beef and pork sausages. Use unprocessed chicken, meat or fish, meatballs or other lean mince dishes – or fresh/frozen fish products.
- Restrict salty snacks like chips, salty biscuits, biltong or dried sausage. Opt for Provitas or whole wheat crackers, unsalted nuts, seeds and popcorn.
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