Ajinomoto: To Use Or Not To Use
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
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.
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
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. Mothers
milk contains 19 mg of glutamate per 100 gms as opposed to three mg per 100
grams of cows 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
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 Administrations 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 Commissions
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.
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 OHara, Chief Representative, Ajinomoto Co., Inc.