The panel evaluated six food additives - glutamic acid (E 620), sodium glutamate (E 621), potassium glutamate (E 622), calcium glutamate (E 623), ammonium glutamate (E 624) and magnesium glutamate (E 625) – and set a group acceptable daily intake (ADI) level of 30 mg per kilo body weight (bw) per day for all six of these additives.
This safe level of intake is based on the highest dose at which the panel scientists observed no adverse effects on test animals in toxicity studies, but is below intake levels for certain population groups.
EFSA scientists therefore want to see the Commission revise the maximum permitted levels that are allowed to be added to food, particularly for categories that contribute the most to overall exposure: fine bakery wares, soups and broths, sauces, meat and meat products, seasoning and condiments and food supplements.
The full opinion can be read here.
There is currently no established ADI for glutamic acid and glutamates as a food additives in the EU but there is a maximum permitted level of 10 g per kg of food.
For some food categories, however - salt substitutes, seasonings and condiments – there is no numerical maximum permitted level for glutamates in the EU and they must be used in line with good manufacturing practices.
Protecting consumers' health
Dr Claude Lambré, EFSA panel member and chair of the working group tasked with the re-evaluation said: “Based on the available evidence, we are confident that the newly derived group ADI for glutamic acid and glutamates is protective of consumers’ health, as it is below the doses that have been associated with certain effects in humans, such as headache, raised blood pressure and increased insulin levels.”
The Parma-based Authority also recommends that the Commission revises the current limits for toxic elements, arsenic and lead, in the EU specifications for the six additives “in order to ensure that they will not be a significant source of exposure to those toxic elements in food”.
Industry eyes will now be on the Commission and food safety authorities in member states to see whether they follow up on EFSA’s advice and lower the maximum authorised levels.
Chinese Restaurant Syndrome
Carrying out the evaluation at the Commission’s request, EFSA scientists agreed on the ADI level based on information in its toxicological database and a no-observed-adverse-effect level (NOAEL) of 3,200 mg MSG/kg bw per day that was identified in a neurodevelopmental toxicity study. It also applied an uncertainty factor of 100.
The ADI it recommends is below the doses which have been associated with the MSG symptom complex, also known as Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. For instance, 85.8 mg/kg bw per day is associated with headaches and 150 mg/kg bw per day with an increase in blood pressure in humans.
Glutamic acid is an amino acid that occurs naturally in tomatoes, soy sauce and certain cheeses, such as Parmesan, responsible for the umami flavour.
Glutamic acid and its salts (E 620-625), commonly referred to as glutamates, are authorised food additives in the EU and are added to a wide range of foods to enhance their flavour by giving them a ‘savoury’ or ‘meaty’ taste.
It is commonly added to savoury processed foods, soups, sauces, snacks, stock cubes. Increasing the umami flavour in processed foods can also help manufacturers reduce salt levels.
In order to calculate dietary exposure, EFSA scientists combined food consumption data, industry use of glutamates - information provided by industry associations including FoodDrinkEurope (FDE) and Specialised Nutrition Europe (SNE) - and analytical results from member states.
“Exposure to glutamates added to food may exceed the proposed ADI for individuals of all population groups whose diet is high in foods containing these additives, as well as for toddlers and children with medium exposure.
“Exposure may also exceed doses associated with some adverse effects in humans (e.g. headache) for highly exposed infants, children and adolescents.
The panel also looked at other dietary sources of glutamates besides food additives, such as naturally occurring glutamates and its use as an added nutrient, concluding that “exposure estimates largely exceed, in several population groups with medium to high exposure, both the proposed ADI and levels associated with some adverse effects in humans”.