Virtually all Nigerians believe that the Monosodium Glutamate used widely in cooking, especially for the public, is detrimental to consumers’ health. ONYEKORMAKA ASABOR presents the views of experts and authorities on the issue
If there is any food seasoning that has, over the years, been a subject of controversy, it is the Monosodium Glutamate. In the streets of Nigeria, it is called ‘white maggi’. In fact, its usefulness to caterers and most women cannot be controverted, as it is daily used to season soups, stews, puddings and other foods.
MSG, according to food technologists, is the salt of an amino acid (glutamic acid), and almost all foods naturally contain glutamate, especially meat, fish, vegetables, mushrooms, cheese and milk. Though natural glutamate is different from the chemical variant used by caterers and other cooks to enhance the flavour of their dishes.
Financial Street gathered that glutamate could occur in the body and foods in two different forms – in a ‘bound’ form (tied to other protein elements) and in ‘free’ (unbound) form.
At normal concentrations, glutamate is crucial for brain functions such as learning and memory. However, at high concentrations, the increased cellular activity caused by glutamate results in over-excitation of nerve cells, which eventually leads to cell death.
This seasoning has suffered and is still suffering a form of stigma, making consumers to avoid it.
According to West African Seasoning Company Limited, manufacturers of Aji-no-moto brand of MSG, “In the 1960s, a wave of anti‐Asian xenophobia created a nationwide panic about MSG. That baseless fear had an immediate impact on a vulnerable group of Americans: Chinese restaurant owners.
“To survive the backlash, the restaurants were forced to prominently display ‘No MSG’ signs on menus and storefronts. Soon, other restaurants and food products adopted that same misleading symbol. Decades later, Americans still lack the understanding and appreciation of a beloved seasoning that is enjoyed in countries around the world.”
Also, the company has, over the years – ostensibly to repudiate a conspiracy theory that Aji-no-moto could equally be used to bleach dirty white fabrics – continued to use various platforms, including engagement with key stakeholders in the medical profession, food science and technology, women groups, traditional rulers, among others, to raise awareness about the safety of the Japanese MSG.
Similarly, the Deputy Director, Food Technology Department/Head, Food Product Development Division, Federal Institute of Industrial Research, Oshodi, Lagos State, Dr Funmi Oladunmoye, joined to douse the fear trailing the safety of MSG.
“Its consumption is not a threat to health,” she said at a media parley, recently.
Moderation is key
However, Assistant Chief Dietician at Ajeromi General Hospital, Lagos, Olusola Malomo, warned that MSG must be used in moderation, noting that it had been linked to diabetes and other metabolic disorders.
MSG, Oladunmoye explained, is a flavour-enhancer and, just like stock cubes, has no side effect in the body. “Monosodium glutamate is a flavour-enhancer and is safe for human consumption,” she said, while also advising that it should be consumed in moderation.
According to the United States Food and Drug Administration, MSG is the sodium salt of the glutamic acid, which is naturally present in the human body, and in many foods and food additives.
The FDA also said MSG occurs naturally in many foods, such as tomatoes and cheese, noting that it has been classified as generally safe.
Dispelling rumours that MSG causes fibroid, Oladunmoye also noted that it does not have any negative effect on weight loss.
“People need to know that MSG is very safe for consumption, with no detrimental effect to human health, if used in moderation,” she added.
However, Malomo observed that the use of MSG remains controversial, noting that it had been linked with obesity, metabolic disorders, neurotoxic effects and damage to the reproductive system.
Citing an experiment with rats, the dietician said MSG “increases the level of total protein, cholesterol and estrogen,” leading to proliferation of fibroid cells.
In the same vein, Nancy Umeh, a scientist and chef, in a video she shared on Instagram, described glutamate as a non-essential amino acid that is important for metabolism, and that all researches done on it had been with rats injected with quantities of MSG that no human can consume.
The process of MSG production for public consumption is through the industrial fermentation of natural foods with certain strains of bacteria to which sodium is added to make it stable, she noted, adding that production of MSG was similar to that of insulin and vitamin C.
She revealed that MSG got its negative reputation when a doctor sent a message to the New England Journal of Medicine claiming that he started having headaches and palpitations after eating food containing the seasoning.
“Almost 40 years later, there has still not been found a study that can prove any of his claims,” she said.
Umeh noted that while people try to stay off MSG, they add too much sea salt to their meals, which dangerous.
NAFDAC on guard
Notwithstanding the different views expressed by food scientists and dieticians on the safety of food seasonings containing MSG, the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control has, as part of its efforts to safeguard public health, said it would do everything possible to rid the country of tainted medical products, unwholesome food and other substandard products.
The Director-General of NAFDAC, Prof Mojisola Adeyeye, gave the assurance at the flag-off of the agency’s sensitisation campaigns on Thursday, September 2, 2021, in Benin City, Edo State, where she asserted that Nigeria had a preponderant share of the global problem of fake medical products and unwholesome food.
Represented by the Director, Narcotics and Controlled Substances, Umar Musa, the NAFDAC DG explained that the advent of the Coronavirus Disease worsened the problem, with the challenges posed by substandard Personal Protective Equipment, and noted that the campaign would go a long way in addressing the growing public health challenges.
The key objective of the sensitisation programme, she stressed, is to intensify and expand the scope of the agency’s communication strategies to reach vulnerable communities, especially at the grassroots.
Her words, “Public awareness is one of the veritable regulatory mechanisms put in place by NAFDAC to promote and protect the health of our people. A well-informed, sensitised and educated citizenry is the bedrock of effective regulation.
“This is why today’s event is another major milestone in our bid to protect Nigerians against the deleterious effect of unwholesome food, falsified medical products, harmful cosmetics, water and other substandard regulated products.”
She listed buying medicines from hawkers, abuse of codeine and self-medication, especially among youths, usage of kerosene tanker to load groundnut oil, and using potassium bromate to bake bread as some of the public health challenges that would be addressed by the campaign.
“The campaign themes are multifaceted with clear, concise, informative and educative messages aimed at arousing the awareness and consciousness of the general public about the various infractions that impact negatively on our healthcare delivery system,” she added.
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