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Hot on the heels of a nationwide ban in India over the Maggi food scare where samples were found to contain high salt content, MSG and even excess lead, the Ministry of Health in Sri Lanka is now calling for stricter regulations on the use of flavor enhancers in products such as instant noodles.

An Extraordinary Gazette Notification which was issued under the directive of the then Health Minister, Maithripala Sirisena in February 2013, details the use of flavor enhancer stating that 20 of them would be banned while regulations would be imposed on others which included Monosodium Glutamate, commonly referred to as MSG.

The Act, crafted in consultation with the Food Advisory Committee, was enacted in July 2014. Accordingly, Schedule III of Act prohibits the use of flavor enhancers in pasta and noodles.

“If you read the Act again, you will notice that flavor enhancers such as MSG cannot be used in noodles,” said Dr. T.B Ananda Jayalal Director of Environmental, Occupational Health & Food Safety at the Ministry of Health. “It doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t use it in the same packaging along with the noodles.”

This loophole, Dr Jayalal points out is why there isn’t such a ruckus over the MSG issue in Sri Lanka. “MSG is a known flavor enhancer and used the world over; it is advised that the enhancer be quantified in terms of usage and permissible levels.”

“At the end of the day, it’s the consumer’s preference,” he says. “They should be aware that the sachets of powder and fluids that accompany instant noodles does contain MSG.  It is their prerogative to use or discard.”

Asked if the Ministry would run tests to ascertain the levels of MSG and the presence of minerals, he stated that the Ministry has not initiated such tests but intends to do so.
The Nation learns that MSG is in fact used widely not only in flavor enhancers but in foods produced in all types of eateries ranging from wayside kiosks to restaurants in reputed hotels.  Ignorance on the part of consumers as well as inadequate regulations and enforcing mechanisms have put the general public at great risk, consumer advocates opine.

‘We are compliant’ — Nestlé Lanka

“We’re not saying that we don’t have MSG in our noodles, in fact, we do and we acknowledge that on the labeling,” Dr. Bandula Egodage, Vice President of Corporate Affairs & Communication of Nestlé Lanka PL said adding that it was one of Nestlé’s core policy to ensure that labels remain explicit.

“We’ve done our tests, we have our own lab reports and we even went to the extent of having it tested at independent laboratory, it is based on this evidence that we assure consumers with certainty that Maggi is safe to consume.”

The effect of MSG

Instant noodles are highly processed due to the fact that they are made to bear a longer shelf life. At the cost of ensuring that they remain convenient for consumers, the product is low on nutritive content; high on fat, calories and sodium; and laced with artificial colors, preservatives, additives and flavorings.

“Monosodium glutamate (MSG) as well as tertiary-butyl hydroquinone (TBHQ) – a chemical preservative derived from the petroleum industry – may be present in instant noodles for their taste enhancing and preserving properties. Though dietary intake of these elements is allowed within a limit, regular intake of these can cause severe health issues,” Dr. Sunil Sharma, general physician and head of emergency, Madan Mohan Malviya Hospital, New Delhi was quoted as saying in an Indian publication.

CAA confused or confusing?

The Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) told The Nation that samples were sent to the Sri Lanka Standards Institute (SLSI), Industrial Technology Institute (ITI) and Government Analyst Department for tests. When The Nation contacted officials at the SLSI on Friday (5), we learned that while the CAA had inquired about getting tests, they had not sent any batches.

Meanwhile officials who did not want to be named at the ITI hinted at the possibility of finding traces of aluminium.

Deputy Director of the CAA J.M.A Douglas told The Nation on Friday that samples were still being collected from vendors and stores outstation and have not been sent for tests as yet.