It appears some confusion exists about the relationship between umami and monosodium glutamate (MSG). Are they similar? Where did umami come from? Does MSG have umami flavor? Inquiring minds want to know.
If you are still a bit perplexed, we’d like to help. To do so, I’ve looked back at the blogs posted on MSGdish.com over the past few years. From there, I excerpted a few statements that are educational, even though they may be a bit repetitive, but repetition can be good. So here we go!
The Discovery of Umami
Over a hundred years ago, Professor Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo Imperial University wondered what made kelp broth taste so good. He recognized that, “There is a taste which is common to asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat but which is not one of the four well-known tastes of sweet, sour, bitter and salty,” and set out to figure out what it was. He discovered that glutamate, an amino acid made by many plants and animals, was the source of this distinctive taste, and named the flavor “umami.” He was able to isolate the glutamate from the seaweed and began to sell the crystallized form as a seasoning called Ajinomoto (which means “the essence of taste” in Japanese). He later realized it was easier to get the glutamate by fermenting plants and began making it that way. This seasoning to provide umami flavor is still widely used today, although most Americans have never heard of Ajinomoto® (umami seasoning) because they call it MSG (monosodium glutamate).
More from “MSG: The Tale of a Castaway in the Middle of an Umami Movement” by Theresa Hedrick, MS, RD
In humans, glutamic acid is a non-essential amino acid in that the body is capable of producing its own glutamic acid and not dependent upon getting it from food. But don’t let the term “non-essential” lead you astray. Glutamic acid is vital for metabolism and brain function. Our bodies need it in order to function. MSG is the sodium salt of glutamic acid and becomes sodium glutamate. Our bodies recognize it identically to free glutamate in food. Foods such as beef, tomatoes, aged cheeses and soy sauce contain the same glutamate that is in MSG. The glutamate in foods and MSG are the same. As an ingredient that adds umami flavor to food, MSG has been long used and is common all over Asia and to a smaller extent in the West, in different sauces and preparations. It dissolves easily and does not overpower other flavors, which makes it a useful food ingredient.
More from “MSG is Truly Umami Seasoning” by Mary Lee Chin, MS, RD
Umami is the Savory Taste
Not only does MSG give dishes a savory, umami taste, but it is considered to be the purest form of umami. Why is that? And what does it even mean?
First, let’s explore what umami is. Umami, the taste of savory, is one of the five basic tastes. It signals that a dish contains protein. When glutamate, an amino acid that is part of many proteins, comes in contact with the sensory cells on our tongue (our “taste buds”), those cells send a signal to the brain that says “what you’re eating is savory.” Glutamate is found naturally in many foods (cheese, soy sauce, many vegetables, etc.), but it is always present with other flavors. For example, a slice of prosciutto tastes savory, but it also tastes salty. A ripe tomato tastes sweet and savory. Broccoli tastes bitter and savory.
There is one time, however, where glutamate is found alone, and that is in MSG (monosodium glutamate). Well, it is almost alone; there is a little sodium mixed with the glutamate for stability, but it does not add much flavor. Because the glutamate is alone, when MSG is eaten, it triggers only one taste sensation – umami. This isolation of the savory flavor makes it the purest taste of umami. This phenomenon is much like salt and saltiness. Plenty of foods taste salty, but licking salt gives you the purest taste of saltiness.
You can try this for yourself by putting a pinch of MSG on your tongue. The first time I did it, I braced myself for something strange, but ended up exclaiming, “Oh! So that’s what that taste is!” It is similar to sipping a little meat broth, but what you are really tasting is the purest taste of umami.
More from “How Can MSG Be the Purest Taste of Umami?” by Theresa Hedrick, MS, RD
MSG Provides the Umami Flavor
Fact: Umami IS monosodium glutamate. Yes, umami, the stuff the chefs are raving about, is glutamate. Some chefs are in the know. I’ve seen articles in publications like Cook’s Illustrated, discussing how glutamate is responsible for the umami taste. Fear not the “monosodium” term, as it just refers to how glutamate exists in a salt form (one sodium molecule). As soon as it dissolves it becomes glutamic acid again in the body.
Glutamate is nothing to be feared in the least. Also known as “glutamic acid” it’s one of the most common amino acids in our bodies and essential for vital body functions. Indeed, the GI tract, where much of our bodies’ immune systems are located, is absolutely loaded with glutamate. Glutamate even has an active role in our immune system. There is far more glutamate in your body at this moment than you’d ever get from eating MSG in your food. That’s because your body can make its own glutamate.
Is MSG “Natural”?
“Natural.” There’s no official definition of the word as it relates to food, which makes the interpretation of it subjective. It seems most people seeking natural foods are doing so to keep close to nature and avoid products they view as synthetic. Monosodium glutamate, aka MSG, sounds far from nature, but is it? To answer that, let’s look at what it’s made of, where it comes from, and what happens to it in your body.
MSG is really just a purified form of naturally occurring glutamate. Glutamate doesn’t like to be alone, so sodium is added to make it more stable. While this particular combination of sodium and glutamate may not be found in nature, sodium and glutamate are naturally everywhere. Glutamate is one of the most abundant amino acids on earth and is found in animals (meat, fish, eggs, etc.) as well as plants (tomatoes, corn, walnuts, etc.). Likewise, sodium is one of the most abundant minerals on earth and is plentiful in both the soil and the ocean. In terms of what MSG is made of, the components are definitely natural.
More from “Is MSG Natural?” by Theresa Hedrick, MS, RD
Umami Flavor for Life!
As a chef, I focus on umami just as I also pay attention to the other 4 basic tastes when building a dish. When thinking about incorporating umami flavor into a recipe, there are two basic paths I can take. I can add umami along with other flavor profiles, or I can add it in its pure form. If I choose the first technique, I can reach for umami rich ingredients like soy sauce, miso, aged cheeses, cured meats, anchovy, fish sauce, sauerkraut, etc. When I use these ingredients, I get a big umami hit and a host of other flavor compounds which will ideally complement the recipe. If I choose the second umami technique, I simply add monosodium glutamate. MSG is the compound responsible for umami whether it is in a particular food or if it is on its own. When MSG is added to a recipe, the umami taste simply goes up in the same way that a sprinkle of salt increases salinity.
More from “Umami, How Could I Live Without You?” by Chef Chris Koetke
If you have 2 minutes and 53 seconds, this video may bring all this information together for you!
Also, here is a downloadable fact sheet, “Monosodium Glutamate: From A to Umami,” produced by the International Food Information Council Foundation.