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History of invention and use of MSG

MSG used as a food (drug, dietary supplement, and cosmetic) additive

The food additive monosodium glutamate was first used in the United States in any quantity in the late 1940s. According to Dr. George Schwartz, author of "In Bad Taste: The MSG Syndrome", although considerable effort had been spent to introduce MSG to the USA, little had been accomplished prior to World War II.  However, sometime during the war, the use of monosodium glutamate in Japanese soldiers' rations was noticed, and in 1948, a symposium on monosodium glutamate presided over by the Chief Quartermaster of the Armed Forces, was held in Chicago to introduce monosodium glutamate to members of the food industry.

By the 1960s, Accent, the leading brand of the flavor enhancer called monosodium glutamate, had become a household word. Simultaneously, hydrolyzed protein products such as autolyzed yeast, sodium caseinate, and hydrolyzed vegetable protein gained in popularity. Every hydrolyzed protein product or ingredient, regardless of the name assigned to the ingredient, contains processed (manufactured) free glutamic acid (MSG) with the same flavor-enhancing potential and the same neurotoxic properties as the processed (manufactured) free glutamic acid (MSG) present in monosodium glutamate.

The flavor-enhancing potential of the processed free glutamic acid used in the flavor enhancer called monosodium glutamate and in the fertilizer/pesticide product called AuxiGro WP Metabolic Primer (AuxiGro), was discovered in Japan in 1908. Prior to that time, the Japanese had used seaweed as a favorite flavor enhancer without understanding that glutamic acid was its flavor-enhancing component. The first monosodium glutamate produced was made by extracting glutamic acid from seaweed.

From 1910 until 1956, the process underlying production of glutamic acid and monosodium glutamate in Japan was one of extraction, a slow and costly method.  In 1956, the Japanese succeeded in producing glutamic acid by means of fermentation; and after considerable research to identify suitable strains of microorganisms for starting the requisite cultures, large-scale production of glutamic acid and monosodium glutamate through fermentation began.(7,8,9)

Even before the Japanese discovered the flavor potential of processed free glutamic acid extracted from sea weed, the potential of freeing glutamic acid from protein using acid hydrolysis was being explored in Europe.  There, crude gluten or other starting materials were hydrolyzed by heating with hydrochloric acid(8). At the time, the method was not widely used. Today, however, there are literally thousands of products that contain MSG produced from acid hydrolyzed proteins.

When monosodium glutamate was brought to the United States in the years following World War II, it was still manufactured through extraction. By 1956, however, after considerable research to identify suitable strains of microorganisms for starting the requisite cultures, Ajinomoto Co., Inc. had succeeded in producing glutamic acid  through a method of  bacterial fermentation wherein bacteria (some, if not all of which are genetically modified)(10) are grown aerobically in a liquid nutrient medium. These bacteria have the ability to synthesize glutamic acid outside of their cell membranes and excrete it into the medium to accumulate there(11). It was in or about 1957 that truly large-scale production of glutamic acid and monosodium glutamate through fermentation began.

In the U.S., regulation of food additives has its roots in the 1938 Food and Cosmetic Act.  The 1958 Food Additives Amendments (Code of Federal Regulations, Title 21) changed the law to read that manufacturers must show “proof of a reasonable certainty that no harm will result from the proposed us of an additive.”  The intent of the law is clear: “…to protect the public health, to prohibit the use in food of additives which have not been adequately tested to establish their safety.”

In the same year, the Delaney clause was added.  The Delaney clause prohibits the use of any food additive shown to cause cancer when fed to either animals or humans.

Prior to 1958, there had been little or no comment to the FDA on the food ingredient called monosodium glutamate, so following passage of the Food Additives Amendments, monosodium glutamate was grandfathered as generally regarded as safe (GRAS).  Grandfathered, yes.  Butnever tested for safety. The safety of monosodium glutamate was not then, and has never been, established.  Monosodium glutamate has never been tested for safety.

Also basic to the inappropriateness of monosodium glutamate being awarded GRAS standing, is the fact that in or about 1957 the method of producing monosodium glutamate was changed significantly.  The monosodium glutamate that was grandfathered GRAS in 1958 was created by extracting glutamic acid from protein-containing ingredients.  Since 1957, most of the monosodium glutamate used in the United States has been produced by bacterial fermentation, a process wherein carefully selected genetically modified bacteria secrete glutamic acid through their cell walls.

The first published report of a reaction to monosodium glutamate in the United States appeared in 1968 when Robert Ho Man Kwok, M.D., who had emigrated from China, reported that although he never had the problem in China, about 20 minutes into a meal at certain Chinese restaurants, he suffered numbness, tingling, and tightness of the chest that lasted for approximately 2 hours.

The following year, John W. Olney, M.D. reported that laboratory animals suffered brain lesions and neuroendocrine disorders after being exposed to monosodium glutamate. Scientists studying retinal degeneration in mice treated with free glutamic acid had noted that these mice became grotesquely obese. Olney, who speculated that the obesity might be a sign of damage to the hypothalamus (the area of the brain that regulates a number of endocrine functions, including weight control), found that infant laboratory animals given free glutamic acid suffered brain damage immediately, and assorted neuroendocrine disorders later in life. Pharmaceutical grade L-glutamic acid was often used to produce these disorders until neuroscientists observed that monosodium glutamate, an inexpensive food additive, could be substituted for laboratory-grade free glutamic acid in these studies and produce the same effects.

In the years that followed, neuroscientists replicated the work of Olney, and Olney spoke out repeatedly about the toxic potential of monosodium glutamate. In 1972, for example, Olney testified before the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs that ingestion of MSG places humans at risk, with the greatest risk being for the very young; and that a National Academy of Science panel organized earlier to determine whether MSG ought to be banned from baby food had produced an industry arranged whitewash by a group of scientists with almost no experience in neuropathology.

In the early 1970s, manufacturers of baby food voluntarily removed the monosodium glutamate from their products, but replaced the monosodium glutamate with MSG-containing ingredients such as autolyzed yeast and hydrolyzed vegetable protein. In the late 1970s, manufacturers voluntarily removed all obvious MSG-containing ingredients from baby food, but not from infant formula.

The first published report of a reaction to monosodium glutamate did not appear until monosodium glutamate was being made by bacterial fermentation, and the use of monosodium glutamate in the United States had begun to escalate.

To date, no MSG-containing product has been regulated by any agency of the US government.  The FDA has given lip service to reviewing the safety of monosodium glutamate, always staffing the review panels with industry representatives with conflicts of interests, or with persons with little or no knowledge of neuroscience, amino acid toxicity, MSG, or adverse reactions, all of whom were given industry friendly material to evaluate.

By and large, the requirement for “proof of a reasonable certainty that no harm will result from the proposed use of an additive” is satisfied by a statement from the manufacturer that the product is safe.  In the case of monosodium glutamate, if there is anything considered to be "proof" by the FDA, "proof" consists of a variety of studies, each sponsored by the glutamate industry and each with negative results so systematically flawed that taken as a whole, one might consider that the intent of the body of research has been to deceive the public.
 
With publication of Dr. George Schwartz’ book, “In Bad Taste: The MSG Syndrome”, and growing awareness that MSG was causing adverse reactions, industry developed  a line of flavor enhancing products that contained processed (manufactured) free glutamic acid (MSG) with flavor enhancing capabilities, and names that gave no clue to the presence of MSG.  Indeed, as industry considered that consumers might be considering the fact that monosodium glutamate might be potentially toxic, the production of products with "Clean labels" escalated.  As defined by the food industry in industry publications, “clean labels” would be those used on MSG-containing products without giving consumers a clue to the fact that the products contained MSG.

There are no comprehensive data on the number of such products on the market, but information from the summer, 2010 salmonella outbreak in the United States points to the extent to which MSG is hidden in food, i.e., there were 177 products containing hydrolyzed vegetable protein recalled from Basic Food Flavors, Inc., just one manufacturer.

Use of MSG in food has grown in the last 30 years and is still growing.  MSG is found in most soups, salad dressings, processed meats, frozen entrees, ice cream, and frozen yogurt, in some crackers, bread, canned tuna, and very often in "low fat" and "no fat" foods to make up for flavor lost when fat is reduced or eliminated.  It can be found in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and dietary supplements.  It is found in enteral feeding products and in infant formula.  It is found in vaccines -- including vaccines used on children.  It is found in hospitals where it is hidden in the jello, chicken soup, and some I V solutions given to very sick patients.  Its use is without restriction.

MSG used as a component of plant growth enhancers, fertilizers, and fungicides applied to growing crops

On January 7, 1998, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established exemptions for the requirement of a tolerance for residues of the biochemicals "glutamic acid" and "gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA)" in or on all food commodities when applied as a plant growth and crop yield enhancer in accordance with good agricultural practices. On that date, or shortly thereafter, the EPA granted the unconditional registration of AuxiGro WP (EPA File Symbol 70810-R) containing the two new active ingredients "GABA" and "Glutamic Acid" (PC Codes 30802 and 374350, respectively) for use as a growth enhancer for certain food crops and ornamentals. The exemptions and registration were granted to Auxein Corporation, Lansing, Michigan.

By the year 2009, MSG could be found in and/or on fresh fruits, nuts, grains, and vegetables. There was no food crop that we know of that had not been approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for treatment with MSG.

In 2010, the EPA registration of AuxiGro and glutamic acid were not renewed.

MSG used on crops grown in California

In May, 1999, spraying MSG on wine grapes (calling the spray a fertilizer) was approved by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA). Steven D. Wong, Branch Chief, Agricultural Commodities and Regulatory Services told us that there was no demonstration that use according to label directions would present a significant health hazard to workers, consumers of products grown with the aid of the MSG-containing product, or to the general public. To have a product approved for use as a fertilizer in California, a company need do little more than make application.

In April, 2000, and again in July, 2001, spraying MSG on wine grapes (calling it a fungicide) was approved by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (CDPR). Barry Cortez, Branch Chief, CDPR, first told us that the CDPR would only turn down a product if it appeared to be ineffective, and AuxiGro didn't appear to be ineffective.

By 2009, unrestricted use of monosodium glutamate (called L-glutamate) and AuxiGro had been approved for use on all agricultural products.

In 2009, California registration of AuxiGro lapsed.  In 2010, the CDPR  registration of AuxiGro and glutamic acid were not renewed.
 

REFERENCES

7. Van Nostrand's Scientific Encyclopedia, 6th Edition, (1983.) s.v. "Flavor enhancers and potentiators." pp 1211-1212.
8. Kirk-Othmer Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology, 3rd Edition, Volume 2. New York: Wiley, 1978. pp 410-421.
9. Kirk-Othmer Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology Fourth Edition (Wiley, 1992) pp 571-579.
10. U.S. Patent #5,573,945. Mutant and method for producing L-glutamic acid by fermentation. Ajinomoto Co., Inc. (Tokyo, JP). November 12, 1996.
11. Leung, A. and Foster, S. Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used in Food, Drugs, and Cosmetics. New York: Wiley, 1996. pp 373-375.