I’ve decided to create an “Ingredient Spotlight” series to highlight food ingredients you may have seen on the label or heard about in the news in an easy to digest short summary. I hope this will help give a better understanding of an unfamiliar area for most people and answer some of your questions. If you have a specific ingredient you’d like to learn about, let me know!
MSG, or monosodium glutamate, has undoubtedly gotten a bad rap over the years. If you haven’t heard of it, MSG is often associated with Asian cuisines and has been implicated as the cause of “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.”
This molecule gives food its characteristic umami flavor. Never heard of umami? Well, I can guarantee you’ve tasted it! This is the taste of protein and savory foods. It is actually one of the 5 basic tastes.
Did you know? Umami is Japanese for delicious
Where does it come from?
MSG is naturally occurring! It can be found in soy sauce, meats, mushrooms, parmesan cheese, and roasted tomatoes. Mouth watering yet?
Concentrated forms can also be added to food in low concentrations to enhance flavor. This comes from yeast.
Okay….so what exactly is it?
Don’t be intimidated by the name. Glutamate is a salt (a type of molecule) of glutamic acid and glutamic acid is an amino acid found in foods and in proteins. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. The savory flavor you taste is from free (unbound) glutamates, or amino acids.
It is a flavor potentiator that enhances the flavor of other molecules in your food. MSG actually has no taste on its own but enhances the flavor of the food, especially in the presence of salt.
Is it bad for me?
No! While high levels may cause negative effects for those sensitive to MSG, such as headache, routine levels in food have not shown negative effects. Remember, this is naturally occurring in many of the foods we eat. When it is used as a food additive, it is done so at very low concentrations, 0.1-0.8% by weight. People may be more sensitive to Chinese or Asian cuisines because of the popularity of soy sauce and many foods with MSG eaten at once. (Always consult your doctor with any concerns you may have.)
What else is it used for?
As discussed in my nutrition post, reduced sodium is a major concern for consumers and the food industry. Because MSG can be used as a potentiator to increase flavor in food, it’s possible it could be used to reduce sodium in savory food applications without sacrificing the delicious flavor of the food.
In short, MSG is a salt of an amino acid that acts as a flavor potentiator to enhance the flavor of food. It is found naturally in many foods and may also be added to some foods at low concentrations to enhance savory flavor, or as a replacement for salt.
“The truth about MSG:” Frozen & Chilled Foods, Sept. 2003, p. 10. General OneFile, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A113602639/ITOF?u=ksu&sid=ITOF&xid=c660db6a. Accessed 3 Oct. 2018.