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Glutamate and yeast extract are on everyone’s lips, in the truest sense of the word: media reports around flavour enhancers are unsettling for many consumers. Can glutamate damage your health? What is the difference between glutamate and yeast extract? Can you trust the information on packaging such as “flavour enhancer without additives”? We provide the answers.
Glutamate – Nature’s flavour enhancer
What is commonly known as glutamate is, in industry circles, known as monosodium glutamate. It refers to the sodium salt in glutamic acid. Glutamate appears naturally in many foodstuffs in the form of the amino acid glutamic acid. It is found not only in meat, fish and dairy products, but also in some types of vegetables and also in yeast. It only has a flavour-enhancing effect in foods where it exists in a free format, rather than being attached to protein.
The following table shows how much free glutamate is found in certain foodstuffs:
Foods in 100g
Proportion of free glutamate in mg
|Soy sauce||400 – 1,300|
Source: Ninomiya (1998) in Jinap S, Hajeb P: Glutamate. Its applications in food and contribution to health. Review. Appetite 55 (2010): 1-10
Glutamic acid is also important for metabolic processes in the body. Its most critical function is as a messenger substance for activating the nerve cells in the central nervous system.
The glutamic acid added during food production comes from starchy plants, such as cereals, potatoes and sugar beets.
Glutamate in food production
Glutamate is used as an additive in the production of many savoury foods, due to its flavour-enhancing effect. It intensifies the natural flavours of other ingredients. Along with an improved flavour, this also has other advantages: for example, if a product contains a small amount of glutamate then less salt needs to be added. The idea that using glutamate in food production can disguise lower food quality is, however, simply a myth. This is because glutamate enhances all flavours, even unpleasant ones. It can, therefore, only be used in the right quantities and added to ingredients that already complement each other.
Being a flavour-enhancer, glutamate makes the headlines from time to time. This is mostly in terms of complaints such as headaches, asthma, or the so-called “Chinese restaurant syndrome” (headache with sickness and/or a tingling feeling), which have been linked to consuming glutamate. So far, however, there has been no consistent scientific proof of any connection between these symptoms and glutamate-rich foods. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has classified glutamate within the safest category of food additives. According to the German Association for Nutrition (DGE) and the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) people who are healthy and eat a varied and balanced diet should not worry about the use of glutamate. [localise based on the position and relevant associations in your Market]
Anyone who thinks that they might be showing allergic symptoms to foods containing glutamate should avoid these products and see their doctor.
Declaring glutamate on packaging
If you want to ascertain whether a food contains the monosodium glutamate additive, check the list of ingredients on the packaging. All ingredients and additives must be listed in the list of ingredients – this is a legal obligation. The flavour-enhancer monosodium glutamate can mainly be found in soups, broths and spicy ready meals. In the list of ingredients, the category, e.g. “flavour-enhancer”, is specified, followed by the exact name or E number, for instance: “flavour-enhancer monosodium glutamate” or “flavour-enhancer E621”.
Manufacturers who consciously avoid using flavour-enhancing additives will often also state this on the packaging. On Nestlé products you will find the statement “no flavour-enhancing additives”. When you see this statement on the packaging you can rest assured that no monosodium glutamate has been added to the product.
Yeast extract – seasoning for savoury dishes
In comparison to glutamate, yeast extract is not an additive but a foodstuff. It gives dishes a stock-like flavour and can be used like a spice to season and refine the taste. As the name suggests, yeast extract is produced from yeast. The yeast’s cell sap is obtained using enzymes found naturally in yeast. This is then dried. Yeast extract is a purely natural foodstuff and a natural source of glutamate.
Yeast extract in food production
Yeast extract is primarily used in the manufacture of savoury dishes and food products. It gives them what is known as an “umami” flavour, which corresponds to the flavours of, for example, meat, fish, ripe tomatoes and cheese. This is due to the glutamate, which is naturally present in yeast extract. It characterises yeast’s distinctive taste.
Things worth knowing about yeast extract
Yeast extract – just like any other food – can trigger allergies and intolerances. Anyone who thinks they might have had an allergic reaction after eating foods containing yeast should see their doctor and avoid products that contain yeast extract.
In our Allergy Information you can read about which potential allergens occur in which Nestlé products. Where a product contains yeast extract this will be stated in the ingredients list on the packaging. Yeast extract has no E number, because it is a foodstuff and not an additive.