Updating MSGdish readers on recent media attention to topics that we savor… MSG, Glutamate, Umami, and related food trends.
Is MSG Bad for You? No—and Here’s Why.
Author: Chris Mohr, PhD, RD
What Does Umami Taste Like?
Author: Rachel Sugar
A biopsychologist explains what mushrooms, burgers, tomatoes, and aged hard cheese all have in common.
“What foods have the umami taste? Many foods around the world contain it. For example, there are high concentrations of it in many cheeses, and these cheeses are the most attractive ones. It’s in certain mushrooms. It’s certainly found in meat as well; seafood in particular has high levels. Tomatoes have very high levels, for reasons that are unclear to me. It’s in our diet everywhere; it’s just that it’s not by itself. The only place it’s by itself is if you use the [sodium glutamate] powder.
“That sodium glutamate product is MSG, the often (unfairly) maligned ingredient associated with Chinese restaurants, and is known for making food more delicious. So is MSG … pure umami?
“The idea that there was a separate taste was based on the discovery that pure MSG — sodium salt of glutamate, which is the most common amino acid in the body — has a different taste that is characteristic of savoriness, and that taste different than sweetness, is different than sour, and it’s different than saltiness, and is different than bitterness.
DIY Taste Test
“The best thing to do is a demonstration, where you take, say, a soup stock that’s very low in glutamate, and you taste it, and then you add glutamate to that soup, and you taste that, and you see a remarkable difference. Part of the difference will be in this flavor, which seems to be chicken broth-like, but the MSG makes it more like that. Plus, you’ll have this mouth-feel. That’s what umami is, according to the original definition.
“If you do this demonstration for yourself, the thing that’s pretty striking about it is it works on almost everybody. You can really tell the difference. It would be like adding sugar to something, almost. Not quite as good as that; it’s more subtle than that. But it’s very clear.
“I tried the experiment, only with vegetable stock, and the difference was stark. Helen Rosner [article in The New Yorker] described the “savory chemical magic” of MSG as best used on occasions when “you just want something to taste like itself, only transcendently better.”
“Without MSG, my mediocre broth was very mediocre. With it, it was richer and fuller, still vegetal, but with a meaty depth; not different, exactly, so much as better, like an Instagram filter for food. The un-doctored version felt watery by comparison, like it was missing something. Which it was: umami, in the form of MSG.”
Scientists Have Known MSG Is Safe for Decades. Why Don’t Most Americans?
Author: Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN
MSG: “You probably know it as that terrible-for-you substance in Chinese and packaged foods that many products proudly proclaim they’re made without. But the truth is, MSG’s bad reputation isn’t deserved. In fact, studies show that the ingredient actually has nutritional benefits and adds an umami flavor to dishes.”
“MSG, which stands for monosodium glutamate, is simply a combination of sodium and glutamate, an amino acid that is abundant in nature and naturally present in many everyday foods like tomatoes, Parmesan cheese, mushrooms and even breast milk. The body digests the MSG seasoning and glutamates in foods the same way and cannot tell the difference between the two. So why is our understanding of the substance all off?”
It’s Time for America to Fall Back in Love With MSG
Author: Joanna Rothkopf
Forget everything you thought you knew about the needlessly-controversial ingredient.
“After decades of junk science, and then good science disproving the junk science, and chefs and food writers promoting the good science, plus the reality that most of the world uses MSG every day without incident, most of us still can’t get over the idea that even a taste of the additive will somehow blind you, or make you tingle, or faint, or get super cranky.”
One presenter at the World Umami Forum “explained the chemistry behind how glutamate occurs naturally in high levels in umami-rich foods like tomatoes and parmesan cheese, and then even higher in things that have been fermented or aged.”
Savory Foods Can Promote Healthy Eating Behaviors
Author: Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
Researchers have found that consuming a broth rich in umami — or savory taste — can cause subtle changes in the brain that promote healthy eating behaviors and food choices, especially in women at risk of obesity.
“Previous experimental studies have shown that intake of a broth or soup supplemented with monosodium glutamate (MSG), a sodium salt of glutamate, prior to a meal can decrease appetite and food intake, especially in women with a propensity to overeat and gain weight. In a study published March 30 in Neuropsychopharmacology, researchers evaluated changes in the brains of healthy young women after they consumed chicken broth with or without MSG added.
“Previous research in humans studied the effects of umami broths on appetite, which is typically assessed with subjective measures. Here, we extended these findings replicating the beneficial effects of umami on healthy eating in women at higher risk of obesity, and we used new laboratory measures that are sensitive and objective,” said senior author Miguel Alonso-Alonso, MD, PhD, an Assistant Professor at the Center for the Study of Nutrition Medicine.
“The results may open new ways to facilitate healthy eating and reduce food intake in the general population. Many cultures around the world advocate drinking a broth before a meal. Our study suggests the possibility that people at high risk of obesity could benefit from an umami-rich broth before a meal to facilitate healthy eating and healthy food choice,” said Alonso-Alonso. “However, here we only evaluated immediate effects and in a laboratory context. Future research should address whether these observed changes can accumulate and affect food intake over time and/or whether they can be leveraged to help people lose weight more successfully.”