According to a study, the human tongue has a receptor that is exclusively activated by glutamate. Glutamate is a non-essential amino acid traditionally used to enhance the taste of many fermented or ripe foods, such as ripe tomatoes or cheese.
Ana San Gabriel, a scientist belonging to the Spanish Network of Researchers Abroad, based at the Institute of Life Sciences in Ajinomoto, Kawasaki (Japan), is the main author of the study.
"Although other receptors have been found on the tongue that are also aroused by glutamate, they are not specific. That is, they need to be in contact with nucleotides and many other amino acids to be activated. Our study reveals the first receptor on the tongue exclusively for glutamate," said Ana.
The study noted that glutamate is a non-essential amino acid that is used commercially as glutamate sodium salt, monosodium glutamate (MSG) E-621, because it is stable and easy to dissolve.
This added glutamate, identical to the 'natural glutamate', is sometimes used to reduce cooking and meal preparation time and to provide more flavour.
MSG is also used to reduce the sodium in meals: table salt contains 40 percent sodium, whereas MSG contains 13 percent.
Many fermented or ripe foods are rich in natural MSG, such as ripe tomatoes (250-300 mg/100g), parmesan cheese (1600 mg/100g), Roquefort cheese (1600 mg/100g) and Gouda cheese (580 mg/100g). Manchego cheese and Iberian cured ham have a similar taste.
On whether glutamate is possibly toxic, the researcher said: "If food safety is evaluated with scientific rigor, MSG is entirely safe for human consumption. If people talk about it being toxic and MSG continues to receive negative publicity, it is because results are extrapolated from administration routes and doses that do not correspond to reality. In fact, it is less toxic than salt".
The study has been published in the latest issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.