Fish hydrolysate and ground up fish carcasses or remains of fish are utilised for human and animal consumption, and as a fish-based fertiliser. But, there was a time when fish hydrolysate, a dried fish and seaweed extract with a high concentration of glutamic acid was widely utilized in East Asian cuisine as a flavour enhancer.
However, in 1909 a sodium salt replacement called Mono-Sodium Glutamate (MSG) was patented by the Ajinomoto Corporation. That’s how MSG became famous worldwide, and got to be commonly called Ajinomoto.
Ajinomoto Corporation is a Japanese company that produces umami food seasonings and other products made available in over 100 countries. (Umami is an additional taste to sweet, sour, salty and bitter.) The literal translation of Aji no Moto is Essence of Taste. Vetsin and Accent are two other trade/brand names of MSG.
MSG is E621 and more often than not vegan. It is sodium salt of glutamate which is an amino acid. It is a white crystalline powder or salt, considered harmful particularly for children under age twelve because MSG sensitivity can build up affecting the nervous system and brain, and cause hormone fluctuations. The warning “contains glutamate” is found on many food labels of foreign products because a high number of people get adversely affected – B6, caffeine, and taurine powder are claimed to help counter reactions.
MSG has been linked to Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Lou Gehrig’s Diseases, migraines, tiredness, depression, heart arrhythmias and more. Remember, it is used abundantly in Chinese cuisine so when in a restaurant one can ask for the dish ordered to be without it.
It used to be made from wheat gluten, but is now commercially produced (according to Nestlé India) through bacterial fermentation of molasses from sugar beet or sugar cane and starch. In May 2015 the Food Safety & Drug Administration tested Maggi noodles and on finding dangerous high levels of MSG and lead, over 10 states banned it, and Nestlé had to immediately issue a nationwide recall of the packets from shops.
If made using soy peptone culture (fermentation media) it is usually animal-free, but soy peptone can also be produced with the help of a catalyst enzyme porcine (pig origin). Certain manufacturers in some parts of the world use this enzyme in the manufacturing process of MSG. (No different to ox-gut skin for manufacture of varkh/silver foil used on mithai.) In BWC’s opinion, the use of a catalyst or processing aid of animal origin makes the end product non-veg.
MSG can also be made by protein hydrolysis (a breaking of protein into its constituent amino acids) or by synthesis.
Glutamates also occur naturally in some protein-containing foods like meat, peas, yeast extracts, soy sauce, mushrooms and cheese. MSG gets formed upon cooking hydrolyzed vegetable protein, glutamic acid, enzyme modified, natural flavour, yeast extract, autolyzed yeast, or maltodextrin. (These ingredients are often listed on packaged food labels.)