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MSG, stabilisers, emulsifiers, preservatives … how they help processed food, and may or may not help you

Have you ever looked at the list of ingredients on a packet of processed food? It seems like an interminable list – yeast extract, emulsifiers, stabilisers, class II preservatives, high fructose corn syrup, acidity regulator, anti-caking agents, so on and so forth. What are these and what do they mean? The recent controversy over Maggi noodles must have piqued your curiosity. Here’s what some of them are, and what they are meant to do to the food we consume.

MSG (monsodium glutamate): This is a flavour enhancer, whose popularity has been on the wane for quite a while now.

The US FDA says it is “generally recognised as safe” but it gets a bad rap for causing headaches, stomach upsets and allergies and symptoms known as the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. Depending on the laws in various countries, processed food companies can declare that their food contains no added MSG, but it is present in other additives such as hydrolysed groundnut protein, maltodextrin and autolysed yeast.

Yeast extract: This is considered a condiment rather than a flavour enhancer but it contains glutamate as well. It is used to give a savoury taste to soups, sauces and savoury snacks. It can sometimes be included in the label ‘natural flavour’. Marmite and Vegemite are well-know spreads made from yeast extract.

Emulsifiers: These food additives help contrary elements like oil and water mix together, and are crucial to the consistency and texture of processed food including ice-cream, chocolate, bread, creamy sauces, confectionery and bakery products.

Some of the well known emulsifiers are egg yolk, soy lecithin, monoglycerides and diglycerides, polysorbates, and sorbitan monostearate. They too are generally regarded as safe but research published by Nature in February 2015 stated that in a study done on mice, they were found to have affected their metabolism and made them prone to inflammatory bowel disease.

Stabilisers: These are additives used to maintain the consistency and prevent the separation of ingredients bound by emulsifiers. They are used in ice-cream, margarine, low-fat spreads and dairy products.

Popular stabilisers are alginic acid, guar gum, xanthan gum, gelatine, carrageenan, pectin or calcium chloride.

Acidity regulator: This is an element that controls the pH level of a food, which determines the extent of its acidity or alkalinity, which affect taste and food safety. Not regulating these elements might lead to bacterial growth, which is a health hazard. Citric, lactic, fumaric, tartaric and malic acids are some well known acidity regulators.

Class II preservatives: Chemical food preservatives are added to processed food to extend its shelf life. (Natural preservatives such as salt and vinegar are Class I.) They retard the activity of germs and insects or kill them, keeping foods from going rancid or getting contaminated. The use of benzoates, butylates and butylated hydroxyanisole above the prescribed limits is reputed to cause a host of ailments including allergies, asthma, brain, kidney and liver damage, high blood pressure and cholesterol.

Says Dharini Krishnan, Chennai-based dietitian and chairperson of the Registered Dietitian Board, “Additives can be had in permissible quantities, but if you eat only out of packets, sodium and potassium levels go up. A 200 ml bowl of fresh soup will contain 2 mg of sodium but soup reconstituted from a packet will contain 20 mg.” She explains that in Japan, where commercial MSG was developed in 1908, it is recommended as a flavouring agent in place of salt but that elsewhere, as in India, users tend to use them together, which raises sodium in consumers to unhealthy levels.

(Sources: www.fda.gov, eufic.org, faia.org, foodadditivesworld.com and yeastextract.info)

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