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Natural glutamate: what is it and what are its benefits?

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When thinking of glutamate, the first thing that comes to mind for many people is the food additive that enhances the umami flavour of food (and which has become so infamous in recent years). However, synthetic glutamate is one thing and natural glutamate is quite another. In this article we not only tell you the differences between the two. We also explain what exactly natural glutamate is and its function in the body, as well as which foods contain it.

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What is natural glutamate and how does it affect our health?

Naturally occurring glutamate, also known as glutamic acid or in its ionic form L-glutamate (GLU), is an amino acid. L-glutamate acts as an excitatory neurotransmitter in the central nervous system that influences short- and long-term memory and learning. It plays an essential role in the transmission of nerve signals in the brain and is involved in a variety of biological functions.

However, although it is an important component of our diet, our body can synthesise it naturally, so its consumption is not necessary. It is also found naturally in many foods. These foods contribute to their palatability and enhance the taste known as “umami”. This amino acid is the most abundant in nature and is found in many foods, such as meat, fish, tomatoes, mushrooms and parmesan cheese.

The point is that natural glutamate should not be confused with synthetic glutamate used in the food industry as a flavour-enhancing additive.

Foods with natural glutamate: are they healthy?

Foods that contain natural glutamate are those that have a high concentration of glutamate, the amino acid that, as we have seen, contributes to the umami taste, known as the fifth basic taste. These foods include fish such as anchovies, sardines, bonito, tuna, shrimp, squid and oysters. In addition, naturally occurring glutamate is also found in grape juice, ripe tomatoes, nuts, peas, mushrooms and fungi, seaweed, soy products, dairy products, meats and some cheeses, such as Parmesan and Roquefort, among others.

The good news is that naturally occurring glutamate in food is considered safe for most people when consumed in normal amounts as part of a balanced diet.  It is widely accepted in the scientific community as safe. However, some people may be sensitive to added synthetic monosodium glutamate.

Natural glutamate vs. synthetic glutamate

There are important differences between natural glutamate and synthetic glutamate. For a start, natural glutamate occurs naturally in many foods, whereas synthetic glutamate is industrially produced and used as a food additive to enhance the flavour of processed foods.

Synthetic glutamate has been the subject of controversy due to concerns about the safety of its consumption. Some studies suggest that excessive consumption of synthetic glutamate may be linked to symptoms such as headaches, nausea, heart palpitations and sweating. However, both the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) consider MSG safe to consume in moderate amounts. However, some people may develop sensitivity to this compound, so it is important to pay attention to symptoms and take measures to avoid ingestion in these cases.

Myths and facts about natural glutamate

The healthfulness of natural MSG is a subject that has generated myths and realities over time. One of the most common myths is that glutamate is harmful to health. However, the reality is that naturally occurring glutamate is an amino acid found naturally in a wide variety of foods which, in turn, are potentially healthy. For most people, moderate consumption of these foods rich in naturally occurring glutamate does not pose a health risk. Another thing is added synthetic glutamate, which, except in case of special sensitivity to the compound, is also safe in moderate amounts.

Along these lines, another myth is that synthetic glutamate causes adverse effects, such as “Chinese restaurant syndrome”, which includes symptoms such as headache and sweating. However, the scientific evidence on these negative effects of synthetic glutamate is limited and controversial.  Many people can consume foods rich in synthetic glutamate without experiencing any problems. In any case, it is necessary to distinguish between natural glutamate and synthetic glutamate used as an additive to enhance the flavour of processed foods, and it is always best to listen to your body and avoid foods that you do not realise are not good for you. 

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