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Ajinomoto: To Use Or Not To Use

Lakshmi Subramanian - Chennai

It is a known fact that chefs around the globe utilise ajinomoto to enhance the flavour of their cuisine and is a major product sold in over 100 countries worldwide. However, the usage of ajinomoto has been the topic of great discussion and debate. There are two prevalent schools of thought. One group supports the use of ajinomoto, as they believe it is a safe ingredient to use just like salt or sugar. There is another group, which is against the use of ajinomoto, as they believe that it is not safe and causes severe health problems. There are several aspects to this whole debate right from the definition of glutamate to misconceptions to approvals plus a host of related aspects.

The Term Glutamate

Glutamate is found in two forms - ‘bound’ glutamate which is linked to protein and ‘free’ glutamate which is not linked to protein. Only free glutamate improves the taste of food. When glutamate is added to foods it provides the same taste as the glutamate that occurs naturally. The ‘free’ glutamate is present in dhal varieties. Vegetables, especially tomatoes and mushrooms, are rich in glutamate which give these foods their distinctive taste. Glutamate is also a natural part of body metabolism and is actually produced by the human body in amounts of about 50 grams per day.

The Birth Of Ajinomoto

Ajinomoto was introduced in the market about 90 years back. In the year 1908, Professor Kikunae Ikeda, a Japanese scientist who specialised in physical science at the university of Tokyo discovered the secret behind the great taste of yodofu (bean curd boiled with kelp). He found glutamic acid in the broth made from Kombu (a type of seaweed) as the source of this delicious taste. He subsequently found that glutamate had a distinctive taste, which he named ‘umami’.

Ajinomoto Company marketed the product referred to as Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) as food seasoning under the brand name AJI-NO-MOTO in the year 1909. Thus was born ajinomoto, a taste/flavour promoter. It is widely used in the food processing industries. The product was introduced in India in 1961 and since December 2003 MSG is marketed in India through Ajinomoto India Pvt Ltd, the only company authorised by Ajinomoto Co, Inc, Tokyo, Japan.

Applications

Ajinomoto is essentially used as a taste enhancer and is said to impart a sixth sense, described as savoury, in addition to the five basic tastes like sweet, spicy, bitter, sour and salty.

When added to food it enhances the natural taste present in the food by bringing about a natural ripening process that brings out its full flavour. It could also be added at any stage of cooking. It can be used for any type of cuisine, be it Chinese, Indian, Continental etc…

Manufacturing Process

Monosodium glutamate is produced through fermentation - a process similar to that used in making curd, soy sauce, vinegar etc. Natural products such as molasses from sugarcane or sugar beet and food starch from tapioca etc are utilised for production.

Misconceptions And Clarifications

AJI-NO-MOTO and MSG are most often used synonymously, which is incorrect. AJI-NO-MOTO is the trademark name of the brand marketed by Ajinomoto Co Inc, Tokyo, Japan whereas monosodium glutamate (MSG) is the generic name.

There is another popular misconception that the usage of ajinomoto leads to some health problems such as brain lesions, headaches, vomiting, nausea, damage to nerve cells, so on and so forth. However, there is no scientific evidence for such claims. The Food and Drug Association (FDA) report talks about the safety of usage of MSG and there was no evidence suggesting that dietary MSG or glutamate causes brain lesions or damage to nerve cells in humans. Glutamic acid is a major constituent of all naturally occurring proteins. Mother’s milk contains 19 mg of glutamate per 100 gms as opposed to three mg per 100 grams of cow’s milk. The amount of glutamate present in natural products like tomato, dhal varieties, cheese and other vegetables are much higher than a pinch of ajinomoto used in cooking.

It is common belief that ajinomoto is a chemical product and made from non-vegetarian sources. This is not true. It is a completely natural product produced using sugarcane and tapioca through fermentation and crystallisation process with high purity. As far as culture in the lab is concerned, Hydrolyzed Soya Bean Protein is utilised, which is also of vegetable origin.

At a more elementary level there is a misconception that Ajinomoto can be used only for Chinese cuisine. Ajinomoto can be used in any type of food including Indian food like sambar, rasam or pulao. Since, Ajinomoto became popular only through Chinese cuisine there is a belief that it is suitable only for Chinese cuisine. It brings out the natural and original taste of any dish.

Approvals

Ajinomoto is a widely used food ingredient; therefore a great deal of research has been done on its safety and efficacy. In the United States, MSG is included in the Food and drug Administration’s list of substances that are Generally Recognised as Safe (GRAS). Foods considered as GRAS include ingredients like sugar, baking powder and vinegar.

The 31st meeting of the Joint Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) / World Health Organisation (WHO) Expert Committee on Food Additives in Geneva from 16-25 February 1987 on “Toxicological evaluation of certain food additives” estimated that the acceptable daily intake of MSG for man is not specified. The 21st report on Food and Drugs of the Code of Federal Regulations Part 170 to 1999 under subpart A-General Provisions (182.1) declares MSG as safe for the intended use.

The American Medical Association, experts of the United Nations Food and Agriculture organisation and the World Health Organisation and the European Commission’s Scientific Committee for Food demonstrates that glutamate is safe. In India, the Central Food and Technological Research Institute, Mysore concluded in their Symposium held in 1997 “Glutamate is safe in adults as well as in infants when consumed with food. The infants metabolise glutamate the same way as adults.”

Market Scenario

The total world market of Ajinomoto is 10.1 lakh tonnes per annum. Japan is the largest producer with an installed capacity of around 1,39,000 tonnes per annum. USA, Brazil, France, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Taiwan are some of the other countries, which manufacture this product. India is an importer of the product importing 5000 tonnes of MSG per year.

MSG is imported in to India entirely since there is no manufacturer of this product in India. Even though India has abundant availability of Molasses and Tapioca, which are the major raw material for the production, the non-availability of proven technology has resulted in the usage industries especially the Hotel Industries to depend on the import of the entire quantities from Taiwan, Indonesia and China. Ajinomoto India Pvt Ltd, which has been set up by the Ajinomoto Group of Japan as a 100% subsidiary, has started importing MSG from their Thailand plant since Dec 2003 and is repackaging the product in Chennai in their most modern and sophisticated plant.

Ajinomoto India is planning to achieve a market share of around 25% in the first year of operation. The existing importers who are repackaging MSG in their own brands plays in a restricted local market and several of such repackers are found adulterating MSG with Salt and even Alum. Their introduction of the fine crystal, which dissolves faster than the large crystals also, is getting the acceptance of quality consumers.

Sources of Information:
Inputs from T Manoharan, MD, Ajinomoto India Pvt Ltd.
Inputs from Y Y O’Hara, Chief Representative, Ajinomoto Co., Inc.
www.ajinomoto.com

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