MSG and umami are often thought of together, but are they the same thing? Let’s explore.
What is Umami?
Umami is another word for savory flavor. Picture the flavor of a hearty broth or a seared piece of meat, and you’ll be imagining umami. It, along with sweet, sour, salty, and bitter, are the basic flavors we can taste.
Umami flavor comes from the amino acid glutamate. When it is “free” (i.e., not bound to other amino acids to form a protein), our taste buds sense it as umami flavor. As foods age, cure, or ferment, the proteins in them break down. That creates more free glutamate, which increases umami flavor. That is why foods like aged cheese and cured meats have more umami than young cheeses and fresh meats.
What is Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)?
MSG is a seasoning that provides umami flavor. It is made up of free glutamate with a touch of sodium for structure. Since free glutamate is what triggers our taste buds to sense umami flavor, MSG lends a savory (umami) flavor when it is added to food. This is similar to how table salt imparts a salty flavor when sprinkled on food. MSG also works synergistically with the other savory flavors in a dish to increase the overall level of umami.
MSG is sometimes used as an ingredient in foods you buy from the grocery store. You can also buy MSG alone to add to the food you make at home.
MSG provides umami flavor, but not all umami flavor originates from MSG.
A lot of foods naturally contain umami such as soy sauce, miso, and anchovies. Umami can also come from foods being seasoned with MSG. And, other food ingredients like inosinate, guanylate and yeast extract can lend umami flavor.
It is interesting that historical public opinion of MSG and umami differs. One has sometimes been thought to be of some concern and the other sought after. Really, they are two sides of the same coin.
Do MSG and Umami Taste the Same?
MSG is free glutamate, the compound responsible for umami flavor. The glutamate from MSG and the glutamate naturally occurring in a food lead our taste buds and brain to sense umami in the exact same way. So, MSG does taste like umami, but the umami flavor can be gotten in other ways too.
Where to Find MSG and Umami
Want to see if you can tell a difference between umami from a process like aging or fermenting and umami from MSG? A list of foods that are rich in umami can be found in Monosodium Glutamate 101: What Foods Naturally Contain MSG. And, MSG can be found at your grocery store in the seasoning aisle.