Spend Matters welcomes a guest post from Jara Zicha of Mintec.
Have you ever asked yourself,why does my soup taste so great? What is the secret ingredient? Like it or not, the answer is probably relates to flavour enhancers such as a glutamate. Most likely it’s monosodium glutamate (MSG).
MSG is a hot topic as there is public perception that it is unhealthy. Because of this, many food manufacturers are starting to choose other carrying agents as an alternative to MSG, such as hydrolysed plant protein, glutamic acid, or yeast extracts.
Glutamates are flavour enhancers, and it has been suggested that MSG is the most widely used flavouring after salt and pepper. They occur naturally in many foods such as parmesan cheese, tomatoes, or mushrooms.
MSG was discovered in 1908 by Kikunae Ikeda, a Japanese chemistry professor. Ikeda was fascinated by the meaty flavour in dashi – a classic Japanese soup base. He called this flavour “umami” (meaning delicious). He learned that the source of “umami” was a glutamic acid. As a soluble, crystalline salt of glutamic acid, MSG, was born and became an instant hit in Japan.
These days it is difficult for food manufacturers to avoid glutamates, as they enormously intensify flavour of meals. Fast food chains use glutamates for that purpose, which of course makes you come back time and again.
MSG is becoming increasingly popular. At the beginning of the century, production of MSG totalled around 1 million tons per year, but it is currently around 3 million. China has taken over from Japan as the major producer, accounting for around 70% of total production. China is also the biggest consumer, but exports have been rapidly increasing in recent years. Last year, Chinese exports of MSG surpassed 300,000 tons for the first time. That’s a 72% increase between 2010 and 2013. Around 90% of the world’s consumption is in Asia, where the increase in MSG demand can be attributed to the higher consumption of ready-meals, as well as increasing disposable incomes.
Global prices of MSG rose considerably in the past decade. Ten years ago, if you were a food manufacturer buying MSG in large quantities you would probably pay around 80 cents per kilogram (roughly 36.4 cents per pound). In 2012, prices peaked at $1.50. Prices fell in 2012 and in the first half of 2013 due to oversupply but rebounded later in 2013. With the MSG market growing around 4-5% per year over the past three years we can suspect demand will continue to be healthy, pushing prices higher.
So we can say that, at least in Asia, the appetite for umami is undiminished. In the West, where glutamates hide in plain sight, we could argue that we are equally addicted to that delicious flavour. After all, umami is at stake.