Consuming more sodium than what the public health guidelines recommend has been linked to health risks. This leaves many looking for ways to lower the amount of sodium they eat. That’s easier said than done because salt helps food taste good.
A low sodium diet has the potential to be bland. But what if there was a way to have foods that are low in sodium and still taste good? Well, scientists are working on that!
One way to maintain or boost flavor when lowering sodium is through the addition of umami. One of the five basic flavors (in addition to salty, sweet, bitter, and sour), umami gives foods a full-bodied savory flavor. Researchers were curious what studies had been done on using umami as a salt substitute, and how that translated to people’s health.
In a recent review article, they looked at all of the studies that have been published on using umami ingredients to help with sodium reduction in the food supply (1). They found 52 studies on that subject, and, within those studies, MSG (monosodium glutamate) was the most studied umami ingredient used to replace sodium.
They discovered that most of the research to date has focused on the acceptability of foods that had some of the salt replaced with an umami ingredient. They found that studies showed lower sodium foods containing umami were liked consistently.
Of the studies that evaluated how using umami ingredients affected people’s health, one study found that the use of salt substitutes led to a significant lowering of blood pressure (2). They thought this could have a significant real-world impact as “even a 2-mm Hg lower usual systolic blood pressure is associated with a 10% lower stroke mortality and 7% lower mortality from other CVD [cardiovascular disease] risk factors.”
They recommended more research be done on how umami ingredients like MSG can help lower American’s sodium intake and in turn their risk for cardiovascular disease. They were particularly interested in how sodium could be lowered with the addition of umami in a wider variety of foods, and how that would affect people’s health over longer periods of time.
Salt is an important and ubiquitous seasoning. It adds a salty flavor, enhances other flavors, and can preserve food. But excessive salt consumption has been linked to health problems. Thus, salt substitutions may help people lower their sodium intake while still enjoying tasty food. This is one way in which MSG can be useful.
What is MSG?
MSG (monosodium glutamate) is the salt form of glutamic acid, a naturally occurring amino acid found in many foods like tomatoes, Parmesan cheese, and mushrooms. It imparts a savory, or umami, flavor to dishes. MSG seasoning is the purest form of umami flavor.
How can MSG help lower sodium intake?
MSG contains less sodium than salt does. About 39% of salt is sodium while about 12% of MSG is sodium. So, if MSG was substituted for an equal amount of salt in a dish, the dish would contain about one-third less sodium.
Not only can swapping MSG for salt help lower the amount of sodium in a food, but when MSG is used in conjunction with salt, less salt is needed to achieve the same perception of saltiness. This can help further lower the sodium content of foods.
And, the addition of umami flavor from MSG can make a reduced-sodium dish taste better. Previous studies have found that people like the lower sodium plus added umami food better than just a lower sodium version of the food. Check out MSG Brings Out Great Taste with Less Salt and More Umami for more info on those studies.
How can you use MSG to lower your sodium at home?
When doing salt substitutions at home, use about half a teaspoon of MSG to season a pound of meat or a dish that serves four to six people. Or, start by substituting MSG for one-third of the salt you would normally use and then adjust the seasonings from there based on your preferences. (For best flavor results, it is not recommended to completely eliminate salt when using MSG for sodium reduction.)
- Crowe-White KM, Baumler M, Gradwell E, et al. Application of Umami Tastants for Sodium Reduction in Food: An Evidence Analysis Center Scoping Review. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2023;123(11):1606-1620.e8.
- Peng Y, Li W, Wen X, et al. Effects of Salt Substitutes on Blood Pressure: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014;100(6):1448-1454.