Most of us get in line at the ice cream shop without giving much thought to why we like what we eat. Humans appreciate a wide variety of tastes because of our evolutionary history and the genes we carry that allow us to sense many flavors.
Our sensory systems are designed to help us enjoy good food and help protect us from bad food. Eating can sometimes be a risk, but it is also a pleasure, and our senses help us find the most desirable food and drink available. Taste lets us distinguish not only good from bad food but also the good from the great: the sweetest apple, the juiciest meat, and the freshest bread.
“Pull up a chair. Take a taste. Come join us. Life is so endlessly delicious.” – Ruth Reichl
MSG, or monosodium glutamate, has no taste by itself, but it is used as a flavor enhancer, improving the flavor of almost any food. MSG enhances a taste called “umami.” Umami’s savory essence is different from the standard four tastes (sour, sweet, bitter and salty) considered when developing flavors for food.
While the taste-enhancing quality of MSG is not completely understood, it’s thought that humans evolved the pleasurable taste of umami as a result of natural selection favoring those who had a pleasurable reaction to eating high-quality protein foods. The idea is that food that provides more nutrients, especially protein, tastes better.
So how is this protein information connected to MSG?
When we talk about protein it’s helpful to start with the basics:
- All proteins are made up of smaller building blocks called amino acids, joined together in chains.
- There are 20 different amino acids found in nature.
- One of those amino acids is glutamic acid.
MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is simply the sodium salt of glutamic acid. Glutamic acid is one of the most common amino acids and is a constituent of almost all proteins. When you ingest MSG, the digestive process breaks it down into sodium and glutamate; both will be absorbed and utilized by the body. And it’s important to recognize that all glutamates are chemically identical – whether they are manufactured by a human cell, a plant, or in a chemistry laboratory. Studies have shown that the human body doesn’t make a distinction between glutamate that occurs naturally in food or MSG that’s added to enhance the flavor.
Our bodies produce glutamate during various cellular processes, including those that build protein and provide energy. So, if even if you avoid MSG/glutamate in your food, your body will produce all the glutamate it needs to survive.
So, the next question to ask is “If you eat a lot of glutamate, including MSG in your food, and your body also synthesizes glutamate, can adding MSG be bad for your sodium balance?” No! While MSG does have a sodium ion, it’s actually less by weight than an equivalent amount of table salt. Recent research has confirmed that MSG may actually be useful in reducing sodium consumption – while not compromising taste in savory foods. So while salt is considered a fundamental additive to good tasting savory foods, adding MSG can make an improved taste, with less sodium.
Our ancestors figured that out a long time ago. The use of MSG isn’t a product of modern chemistry – it’s been a key component of many Asian cuisines. The Japanese and Chinese have extracted MSG from kelp for centuries. The Romans used a sauce called garum, made from fermented fish and rich in monosodium glutamate, that was used instead of more expensive salt.
That’s the science behind glutamate and MSG. Both:
- are naturally found in foods
- are natural flavor enhancers
- can be a natural way to reduce consumption of sodium.
So “Pull up a chair and take a taste.” MSG – It’s a natural!
Read more about MSG’s benefits in a reduced-sodium diet, here.
Read more about the relationship between umami and salt reduction, here.