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Glutamic acid and its occurrence in everyday foods

27 November 2012

‘Glutamate’ – for some consumers this is a controversial word, since it is mistakenly connected with the flavour enhancer monosodium glutamate and with heavily processed foods. EURASYP Newsletter asked expert Prof. Dr. rer. nat. Ursula Bordewick-Dell from the Dietetics Department at Münster University of Applied Sciences about this.

Professor Bordewick-Dell, what role does glutamate actually play in our daily diet? Does it only occur in heavily processed products?

Glutamate is a completely natural building block of proteins. So it by no means only occurs in heavily processed foods, it is found in all protein-rich food sources – for instance in meat, fish and even in pulses. Moreover, glutamate is formed naturally through the enzymatic ripening process in foodstuffs and sometimes in appreciable amounts, for instance in tomatoes and Parmesan. Glutamate is therefore a key component in our daily diet – however many consumers are unaware that it occurs naturally.

What does the glutamate content say about the quality of ready meals?

Here too we shouldn’t confuse naturally occurring glutamate with the additive monosodium glutamate! A high natural glutamate content in processed foodstuffs may even be indicative of high quality – if, for instance, a frozen lasagne is prepared using a high proportion of meat, particularly ripe tomatoes and real Parmesan, it too will have a particularly high glutamate level. This occurs due to the matured ingredients which are naturally protein-rich.

Are there other traditional dishes which contain particularly high levels of glutamate?

Yes; in addition to the lasagne mentioned, Spaghetti Bolognese for instance has a naturally high glutamate level – here too we have a combination of meat, tomatoes and Parmesan. Typical Italian dishes with these ingredients generally have a high glutamate level. Many other traditional meals which have a high proportion of meat also contain appreciable amounts of natural glutamate. This is all the more so the case when meat and pulses are combined, for instance a stew with peas.

What effect does this natural glutamate in meals have on our perception of taste?

The glutamate content of meals provides an aromatic taste perception, known as ‘umami’. When foods containing glutamate are consumed this flavour is perceived as being particularly delicious and pleasurable – which explains why the above-mentioned glutamate-rich traditional meals remain so popular today.