Watermelon is my favorite summertime treat: cold, juicy, and sweet. Last year, at a July 4th get-together, as I was cutting up watermelon, another holiday party guest suggested I sprinkle my slice with a pinch of salt. I thought “salty watermelon?” I’m a dietitian who encourages people to cut down on salt! But sure enough: instead of tasting salty, the watermelon popped with sweetness.

It’s all about taste

When our ancient ancestors – hunters and gatherers – searched for food, taste could mean the difference between life and death. If a plant tasted bitter, it could be poisonous. Sweetness suggested that the sugar glucose, the original brain food, was present. A salty taste indicated that the food contained important minerals and nutrients.

Today we have a better understanding about the chemistry of taste. Science has established that certain naturally occurring substances can enhance the flavor of food. Salt is known as the classic food flavor enhancer. Humans have been adding salt to their food for a long time: first as a preservative, but also because salt could make bitter vegetables and wild caught meats taste better.

As knowledge about taste (and nutrition) increased, other compounds were discovered to be food flavor enhancers. One was glutamate, a naturally occurring amino acid that gives foods like seaweed, tomatoes, mushrooms, and Parmesan cheese their distinctly savory and almost meaty flavor. Japanese researchers isolated pure glutamate and paired it with the salty kick of sodium to create one of the most effective food flavor enhancers of all time: monosodium glutamate (or MSG).

Both sodium and glutamate are both critical to cellular function. Some of each of this mineral and this amino acid are needed daily to survive, which somewhat explains why humans have evolved to not only sense salty and savory flavors, but to find them delicious.

Back to salt

Salt is the original and universal natural flavor enhancer at the stove, in the spice cabinet, and on the table. Historians say salt has been used for thousands of years and that the average human being from long ago would have eaten up to 5,000 milligrams of sodium each day.

And that’s not so different from today, as the average American consumes about 3,400 milligrams of sodium daily. But the recommended daily sodium intake for adults is 2,300 milligrams.

MSG to the rescue

While MSG is not a salt substitute, you can exchange it for salt when you want less sodium. For people who want to reduce sodium in their diet, if they replace some or all of the salt with MSG, the flavor of the dish will be boosted and sodium will be reduced.

MSG is mistakenly thought of as being high in sodium. But MSG contains only one-third the amount of sodium as table salt. Also, MSG represents a minor contribution to the overall sodium level of a typical diet. Looking at all sources of dietary sodium (what’s naturally in foods, table salt, sodium-containing ingredients in processed foods), typical use of MSG contributes about 1 to 2 percent of the total sodium contained in the average daily American diet.

MSG on watermelon?

MSG does its best work when used with savory foods. It helps bring out the best natural flavors in meats, poultry, seafood and vegetables. Other foods that can benefit from MSG are gravies, sauces, dressings, soups and casseroles. While MSG harmonizes well with salty and sour tastes, it contributes little or nothing to sweet or bitter foods.

So at your next picnic or BBQ, bring the salt and the MSG. A little pinch of salt for the watermelon. And a shake or two of MSG on the burgers, in sauces or whatever else goes on the grill, or in the dressings. Get ready for food flavor fireworks!

 

Header photo courtesy of Flickr user: Andrea Yori