Alternatives for MSG

Oct. 25, 2005
Monosodium glutamate has been a key savory flavor enhancer and food processor favorite for nearly a century, but it seems more consumers are asking for something different. Here are some alternatives.

The divide between the anti-glutamate and the pro-glutamate factions may just be too wide to bridge, so let's just agree to disagree. From a purely scientific point of view, research supporting a monosodium glutamate (MSG) connection with so-called Chinese Restaurant Syndrome (CRS) has been far from conclusive. Yet there has been evidence connecting MSG to allergic-type reaction in children, especially hives.

The anti-MSG contingent points out that, with few exceptions, MSG research has not involved food, only pure (and isolated) MSG, and has failed to control for such variables as possible co-factors such as would appear in food. There even have been accusations of deliberate manipulation of study protocols and data.

In the pro-MSG camp, the failure to reliably replicate CRS in lab conditions spurred an ever-present public relations campaign to vindicate the naturally derived flavor enhancer. As the sides battle it out, the question remains as to whether science can even come up with a definitive answer.

"We look at science with a monocular view in order to isolate some single variable, when, in fact, a physical reaction tends to be the result of a confluence of stimuli," notes Ed Blonz, nutrition science expert and author of The Blonz Guide nutrition science web site (www.blonz.com).

None of that matters. Linda Gilbert, president of the consumer survey group HealthFocus Intl. (www.healthfocus.com), anticipates a growing consumer backlash to MSG "concurrent with the same for other additives, preservatives and flavor-enhancing ingredients, such as artificial flavors and artificial sweeteners." The fact is, in spite of increasing sales of MSG and other flavor enhancers, there is a consumer trend away from such ingredients, even if that trend turns out to be merely perception, not actual purchasing habits.

The amino acid glutamate occurs naturally in all protein-containing foods and is especially prevalent in tomatoes, cheese and beefy broths.

The science of taste is complicated. Whereas past research defined specific areas of the tongue for each flavor type (sweet, salty, bitter, sour and the fifth flavor note known as umami, it's now known that taste buds responding to each taste occur in all areas of the tongue. As taste cells react to each flavor molecule, the information is translated chemically to the nervous system which in turn sends the flavor message to the brain.

Increasing flavor impact has been big business since the first caveman dipped his food into seawater for that salty taste. That flavor component is especially important in creating or enhancing umami flavors. MSG and its amino-acid type cousins, disodium guanylate, disodium inosilate and autolyzed or hydrolyzed proteins, have been important to food processing to provide consumers with the flavor-packed punch they crave and at low cost. When these enhancers face rejection, alternatives become critical to the market.

"The thing is, when people make the decision that they don't want to use MSG, they normally will go the distance," says Steven Young, technical advisor to Matsutani America Inc. (www.matsutaniamerica.com), Decatur, Ill. "They won't opt for autolyzed yeast, hydrolyzed yeast or hydrolyzed vegetable proteins - close-in technical alternatives. By the same token, there is a group of other alternatives that can add some flavor-enhancing properties but may be less known.

"One example is managing the amount and type of salts through the levels of sodium, potassium or calcium," he continues. "There also are alternative savory flavors or formula modifications that may involve the use of novel applications of protein ingredients."

Enhanced options

In Europe, the effort to replace MSG and other food additives has been more aggressive, with large manufacturers jumping on the bandwagon. Citing consumer demand, Unilever, owner of the Birds Eye brand in the U.K., reformulated its beef burgers to eliminate E621 and E223 (monosodium glutamate and the preservative sodium metabisulfate). The company replaced the two chemical additives with rosemary extract from botanical extracts company Vitiva of Slovenia.

On these shores, other options abound. One especially promising one - Koji-Aji - is produced by the world's largest MSG producer, Ajinomoto Food Ingredients (www.ajiusafood.com), Chicago. Brendan Naulty, vice president of sales and marketing for the company, describes Koji-Aji as being a combination of nucleotide-rich yeast extract, fermented wheat gluten and maltodextrin. The water-soluble, light yellowish powder is low in sodium, although it does contain glutamates. It's free of genetically modified organisms and 3-MCPDs (3-chloropropane-1,2-diol, a foodborne contaminant found in acid-hydrolyzed vegetable protein) and is highly stable against heat and low pH.

Koji-Aji is suitable to a wide variety of applications, such as meat and poultry products, seafood, vegetables - especially tomato - dry soup mixes and canned items, such as cream-based soups with cheese and fermented foods, such as soy and miso sauces.

Koji-Aji also can enhance reformulated products. For example, reduced-salt formulations achieve a boost in the missing initial taste impact, increased spice-derived flavor notes and a long-lasting taste sensation. In reduced-fat foods, the enhancer is used to lend a fullness designed to mimic the mouthfeel of full-fat products.

Mastertaste Inc. (www.mastertaste.com), Teterboro, N.J., a division of the Kerry Group, offers a unique MSG replacer called Natural Flavor Enhancer 681607, which provides the savory umami note of MSG. It is used as a total replacer with a strength of usually 2 to 1 over MSG depending upon application. It is not a yeast or other protein derivative but a combination of different plant-derived cations and anions forming a unique effect. The product is positioned as "natural flavor" and provides for a clean label.

Mastertaste recently developed another "Umami Mouthfeel-type System" product called Natural Flavor Enhancer No. 610250. This meat protein-derived enhancer replaces disodium inosinate and guanylate in applications in which those derivatives are used. It utilizes Maillard reaction technology and provides natural salinity and enhancement to salt-reduced products with no residual aftertaste. The system can also be used to actively reduce salt in food applications by up to half, depending upon application needs.

Salt and its alternatives

Mastertaste also has investigated the physiology of palate sensation and developed a line of natural flavors trademarked as "Oral Sensations" that "provides an effect on the palate such as mouthfeel, lubricity, cooling, salivation, astringency, salinity and other physiological sensations that accompany the characterizing flavor for complete flavor sensation," according to company literature.

"With regard to taste sensation, no other positively charged ion replaces sodium in speed of impact," explains Lawrence Buckholz Jr., vice president of flavor development and technology for Mastertaste. "That is why putting a little salt on the tip of your tongue will produce an immediate hit. Sodium chloride also provides an overall pleasant savory or salinity effect that further enhances the taste and profile of foods. It is this effect that we capitalize on in developing natural flavor enhancers."

For processors who originally turned to MSG to replace salt, sodium chloride may warrant a second look. "It's the original flavor enhancer, used thousands of years before MSG or its cousins ever were involved," says Susan Feldman, technical director for the Salt Institute, Alexandria, Va. "There is no solid scientific evidence for the reduction of dietary salt in healthy adults and, as a flavoring substitute for MSG, salt is a well-proven alternative."

Wild Flavors Inc. (www.wildflavors.com), Erlanger, Ky., has a new salt-replacer product called SaltTrim. Based on plant extract derivatives to be used in conjunction with potassium chloride, SaltTrim blocks the negative tastes of the potassium chloride while maintaining the taste and mouthfeel of salt.

Other companies are taking broader approaches, turning up the flavor by turning up the heat with increased use of pepper, or ramping up the sour with concentrates and derivatives of citrus. Should consumer rejection of MSG and other such enhancers grow, processors have a wealth of alternatives waiting in the wings.

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