Right now when you look at the ingredient listing of a food label and try to determine if the product contains the controversial flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG), you're playing ingredient roulette.
Federal regulations require that food companies list MSG only if it is added as a separate ingredient. But MSG, a controversial flavor enhancer that some people say gives them headaches, rTC nausea, shortness of breath and other adverse reactions, can be hidden in a variety of other ingredients -- from hydrolyzed vegetable protein to autolyzed yeast.
The Food and Drug Administration, the federal agency responsible for labeling requirements on most processed foods, recently announced that it is considering regulations to require the words "contains glutamate" to follow hydrolyzed proteins in ingredient lists. But whether the other sources of hidden MSG will be included is still questionable.
The final proposal is not expected to be published in the Federal Register until mid-1992, and food industry sources say they are waiting to learn how stringent it will be. At issue is which substances the FDA believes contain "significant and functional levels" of MSG.
"We will at least expand the labeling to include hydrolyzed proteins and other uses where glutamate has a functional effect on the food," according to FDA spokesman Chris Lecos.
"Our major concern would be hydrolyzed protein despite the fact that there is no documented evidence that shows it can cause reactions that are similar to MSG. But because of the public's need to know, FDA is opening the door to identify it on the label. I don't think the door is fully closed in the other areas, but it would depend on the comments that we get."
The critics would like to see all hidden sources of MSG disclosed:
* Hydrolyzed vegetable or plant protein, which can contain 12 percent to 20 percent MSG. It's debatable, but some sources say MSG can be as high as 40 percent in rare instances.
* Autolyzed yeast -- 10 percent to 20 percent MSG.
* Sodium caseinate or calcium caseinate -- hydrolyzed milk proteins that can contain 8 percent to 12 percent MSG.
* Natural flavors or flavorings -- may contain MSG if they contain hydrolyzed or autolyzed substances.
* Various other ingredients that may contain MSG -- textured vegetable protein, soy protein, bouillon, broth and stock. Something called "reaction flavoring" -- a mixture of sugars, MSG and other amino acids, hydrolyzed protein and autolyzed yeast that is put to together to taste like chicken, beef or pork -- may also be a factor.
MSG critics, such as Dr. George R. Schwartz, a physician from Sante Fe, N.M., says what FDA is proposing doesn't begin to be enough disclosure for those sensitive to this flavor enhancer that is used in everything from baby food to Cajun seasoning. Dr. Schwartz, author of a 1988 book "In Bad Taste: The MSG Syndrome," has been campaigning against hidden MSG through the 650-member National Organization Mobilized to Stop Glutamate. He says what's needed is a warning statement on products that contain MSG, like the warnings that appear on cigarette packages and alcoholic beverages.
"I think the proposal is an interesting first step," Dr. Schwartz said in a telephone interview. "But it's a rule looking for a loophole. "For example, when you see 'chicken flavor' on an ingredient label, it doesn't say that it contains hydrolyzed protein. The food industry has been doing a lot to hide the fact that their products contain MSG."
Both the glutamate industry and the FDA emphasize that glutamic acid or glutamate is found naturally in many foods such as cheese, meat, peas, tomatoes and milk. They continue to point out that several scientific sources consider MSG safe for most people -- from FDA's Advisory Committee on Hypersensitivity to Food Constituents to the World Health Organization and the European Communities' Scientific Committee for Food. Yet all involved, from industry trade association to manufacturers, say they agree that those who believe they are sensitive to MSG have the right to know what's in their food.
The Glutamate Association, a trade group of manufacturers, marketers and processed food users of glutamic acid and monosodium glutamate, supports disclosure, according to president Richard Cristol.
"We recognize that the consumer has the right to choose and the right to know," he said. "We have no objection to providing any information that will be helpful, but it needs to be
done consistently. We believe that we have the scientific data base to prove that MSG is not a health hazard, but if an individual wants to avoid MSG they should have the right to do so."
Likewise, McCormick & Co., the Baltimore-based spice and seasoning maker and member of the Glutamate Association, will be happy to declare all sources of MSG in their products as soon as the requirement becomes official, according to Dr. John Nelson, vice president of science and technology.
So, if they all agree, why hasn't the food industry voluntarily disclosed the hidden sources of MSG in the past?
"It's been a slow evolution in the food industry," Dr. Nelson says. "Putting this kind of parenthetical information on the food labels makes long ingredient lists even longer. I can see looking back that the food industry has been slow, but often we get preoccupied with larger issues such as microbiological problems."
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a non-profit consumer group in Washington, says MSG has not been tested enough despite what the FDA says.
"There are numerous documented cases of people who have had sensitive reactions to MSG and both the extent and the depth of these reactions needs to be studied further," says Sharon Lindan, CSPI's assistant director of legal affairs. "The evidence is anecdotal, but it exists. And these people who have reactions need to know if MSG appears in the foods they are eating."