The jury is still out there, but India's favourite go-to food option, our two-minute noodle friend Maggi, is in a hot soup. The Food Safety and Drug Administration's order earlier this week to Nestle to recall batches of Maggi noodles across the country, for containing dangerous levels of Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) and lead, was a confirmation of what we've always known. That all those Maggi memories apart, it isn't really what a dietician would ever include in a healthy diet!
Reports suggest that a lead concentration of 17.2 parts per million (ppm), nearly seven times the permissible limit, was found in the noodles (the permissible limit of lead ranges between 0.01 ppm and 2.5 ppm).
So how did we miss it until now? And how harmful is MSG for our health? Let's find out:
What is Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) and what is the permissible limit?
"Monosodium Glutamate or MSG is naturally present in various food items such as mushrooms, tomatoes, Parmesan cheese and soy sauce. It has a unique taste which is different from salty, sweet, sour or bitter. The taste is described as 'meaty' or 'savory' and termed as Umami," Delhi-based nutritionist and director of GFFI Fitness Academy, Neeraj Mehta tell us.
The artificial form of MSG is derived from Glutamic Acid.
Leena Saju, dietetics controller at Delhi's Artemis Hospital, adds: "Artificial MSG is produced by fermentation, a process similar to making beer or yoghurt. Carbohydrates from corn, beets or cassava are fermented to produce glutamate which is purified and crystallised. It's added to food in crystalline form which is 14% sodium. FDA considers the addition of MSG to food to be GRAS (generally recognised as safe)."
And what is the permissible limit? "The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has set a guideline for the permissible limit for MSG. 3 gm of MSG (less than a full teaspoon) is permitted for 454gm of meat while the higher limit being 5 gm (1 teaspoon)," informs senior clinical nutritionist of Health Care at Home India, Kanika Malhotra.
MSG is naturally present in Parmesan cheese (top), tomatoes (centre) and mushrooms (bottom). (Shutterstock)
Is it dangerous if consumed in excess?
Excess consumption of MSG promotes sluggishness in the body. It may also cause headache, nausea, increased thirst and a twitching sensation in the mouth. In some cases one may feel numbness, skin rashes and excessive sweating too.
"MSG is not a true food allergen, but there were anecdotal reports of adverse reactions to foods containing them. These reactions known as Chinese restaurant syndrome include headaches, light headedness, chest tightness, flushing, sweating, facial pressure or tightness, weakness. The only way to prevent a reaction is to avoid foods containing MSG for those sensitive individuals," says Saju.
A lot of studies have been done to understand the connection between MSG and Chinese restaurant syndrome (CRS). But there's no definitive proof that blames MSG entirely for the CRS symptoms.
Can we find the content listed in processed food packages?
"You don't know if your processed food has MSG or not as it often goes by the name of hydrolysed soy proteins, glutamate, gelatin, yeast extracts or protein concentrates," says Malhotra.
According to FDA's website, MSG occurs naturally in hydrolysed proteins and so the food agency doesn't require that MSG be listed separately.
Adds Mehta: "Many manufacturers think that mentioning MSG on the label of a food product may scare away informed eaters. So, they write names which people do not suspect as MSG."
Is MSG more harmful for pregnant women?
If you are allergic to Glutamic Acid, then you may get adverse effects, pregnant or not, says Malhotra. "Otherwise MSG does not affect your fetus. In any case, it is always advisable to be careful about what you are eating during pregnancy. Processed foods are not advisable at all," she adds.
Is there any basis in what some brands call natural flavourings?
Labels that claim they use natural flavours aren't really telling you the truth. This can be tricky as there is not much difference between natural and artificial flavours. The FDA's definition of natural flavour is a substance derived directly or from roasting, heating or fermenting any plant or animal. These derived substances are blended and extracted through several chemical processes before they are added in your food products.