Why are Chemical-Sounding Food Ingredients Scary to Some People?

Cyanocobalamin, sodium ascorbate, pyridoxine hydrochloride, oh, my! These seem like scary chemical names that probably sound more like disinfectants. Actually, you’d die without them. They’re vitamins; B12, v, and B6, to be specific. Other nasty-sounding ones are nicotinic acid and di-hydroxycholecalciferol, or in common language: niacin and vitamin D.

Perhaps a rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but vitamins by their chemical names just sound scary. So do many food ingredients. You’ve heard it before: “don’t eat anything that has ingredients you can’t pronounce.” If you’re not scared of food ingredients before hearing that, you are afterwards.

That’s really unfortunate, too, because, as a registered dietitian who has counseled people for decades, I’ve learned that the more people know about food and food ingredients, the less they fear.

Umami is a perfect example. Chefs speak about it all the time on food shows, websites, and articles. It’s the “fifth taste” and “intensifies flavor” but isn’t a flavor per se, as are sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Yet, it brings so much taste to foods like parmesan cheese, mushrooms, tomatoes, and on and on. Chefs can’t say enough great things about “umami”.

Consumers love hearing about the flavor benefits of “umami”. I’ve had such conversations with my patients and also friends and acquaintances. When they know about umami, they’re onboard all the way. If I speak of something like “MSG” or monosodium glutamate, however, they grimace tightly. “Wow, that’s bad for you” or “I don’t eat anything with MSG,” are common reactions.

That’s when I know they’re misinformed and getting their food information from sources that are inaccurate, to say the least.

Fact: umami IS monosodium glutamate. Yes, umami, the stuff the chefs are raving about, is glutamate. Some chefs are in the know. I’ve seen articles in publications like Cook’s Illustrated, discussing how glutamate is responsible for the umami taste. Fear not the “monosodium” term, as it just refers to how glutamate exists in a salt form (one sodium molecule). As soon as it dissolves it becomes glutamic acid again in the body.

Glutamate is nothing to be feared in the least. Also known as “glutamic acid”, it’s one of the most common amino acids in our bodies and essential for vital body functions. Indeed, the GI tract, where much of our bodies’ immune systems are located, is absolutely loaded with glutamate. Glutamate even has an active role in our immune system. There is far more glutamate in your body at this moment than you’d ever get from eating MSG in your food. That’s because your body can make its own glutamate.

As for all the hype you may have heard about “MSG”, my familiarity with the science helped me, long ago, to dismiss any concerns about MSG and glutamate. The research community has done the same, because dozens of studies indicate virtually zero concerns about glutamate, monosodium or otherwise.

Good thing. Since foods like parmesan cheese, tomatoes, eggplant, soy sauce, and mushrooms are loaded with glutamate; can you imagine eating Italian or Chinese cuisine without them? I can’t, and luckily, I don’t have to.

Neither do you. See? The more you know about food and food ingredients, the less you fear. Glutamate: no reason to fear, every reason to enjoy.