A long-established and popular way to enhance the flavor and richness of food is to add salt to the food.

The reason savory foods taste good is often due to the salt and fat content of the food. However, over the past decade the recommendation from health organizations to reduce salt (sodium) in our diets has gotten louder and louder. This recommendation is based on the extensive scientific research which has demonstrated that excess sodium is the likely cause of preventable heart attacks and strokes.

According to the current U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans:
“Sodium is an essential nutrient and is needed by the body in relatively small quantities, provided that substantial sweating does not occur. On average, the higher an individual’s sodium intake, the higher the individual’s blood pressure. A strong body of evidence in adults documents that as sodium intake decreases, so does blood pressure. Moderate evidence in children also has documented that as sodium intake decreases, so does blood pressure. Keeping blood pressure in the normal range reduces an individual’s risk of cardiovascular disease, congestive heart failure, and kidney disease. Therefore, adults and children should limit their intake of sodium.”

The U.S. Dietary Guidelines also state:
“Virtually all Americans consume more sodium than they need. The estimated average intake of sodium for all Americans ages 2 years and older is approximately 3,400 mg per day. Americans should reduce their sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg or 1,500 mg per day depending on age and other individual characteristics.”

For more information, read the Dietary Guidelines (pdf).

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is often a key ingredient for people on a low-sodium diet, because it boosts the flavor of a dish while reducing the need for salt. Monosodium glutamate is the sodium salt of glutamic acid (glutamate), an amino acid which occurs naturally in protein-containing foods such as meat, vegetables and dairy products. Glutamate is also produced in the body and is necessary for normal metabolism and brain function. Glutamate brings nothing new to the diet the glutamate naturally present in food and the glutamate derived from MSG are identical and the body treats them in exactly the same way.

Studies have shown that by increasing the level of glutamate and decreasing the level of salt, sodium content can be lowered by up to 40 percent, while still maintaining the desired flavor.

MSG Helps Decrease Salt, Increase Flavor

MSG is not a salt substitute per se, but it is a substitute for salt when you want less salt. Since MSG still contains some sodium, think of it as an ingredient to lower sodium/salt, but not as a salt substitute necessarily. In fact, for people who need to reduce sodium in their diet, if you 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. However, MSG contains only one-third the amount of sodium as table salt (MSG contains about 12 percent sodium while table salt contains 39 percent sodium). Moreover, MSG represents a minor contribution to the overall sodium level of a typical diet. Considering all sources of dietary sodium (natural sodium content of foods, table salt, sodium-containing ingredients in processed foods, drinking water and pharmaceuticals), typical use of MSG contributes about 1 to 2 percent of the total sodium contained in the average daily American diet.

MSG acts as a flavor enhancer, and is the purest form of the umami or savory taste. To draw a comparison, it’s the equivalent of choosing between sugar and honey to sweeten something. If honey is used, you get the sweetness plus additional flavor profiles that may or may not be desirable in a given recipe. The same with umami. For example, if you add soy sauce to a recipe, you would be altering the taste with additional flavor profiles. Instead, by using MSG, you are simply putting in that pure umami sensation.

Bottom line: The next time you decide to forego the salt shaker with thoughts of improving your health, consider sprinkling on some MSG instead. The end result will be a flavorful food with less sodium than if you had used table salt.

MSG Can Help Reduce Sodium Intake

Includes information on taste tests which demonstrated that people find food with low levels of salt significantly more acceptable when a small amount of MSG is added.

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Traditional Recipe - Black Bean Soup

Reduce the sodium in a traditional recipe without giving up taste by using MSG to replace some of the salt

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MSG is Better than Using Herbs and Spices to Reduce Salt in Recipes

A recent study1, on the role herbs and spices could play in enhancing consumer liking of low salt soup, shows how difficult it is to reformulate established food products. As with other studies of this nature, the results show that reducing the salt levels (in a tomato soup) leads to an immediate decline in consumer liking for the soup. The study showed that even with careful selection of herbs and spices, to increase the seasoning and perceived saltiness, it took repeated consumption of the reformulated ‘new’ soup to increase people’s taste for it. The unseasoned, low salt variant did not become liked even after repeated tastings.

In contrast, seasoning with MSG (monosodium glutamate) can facilitate low salt foods with significantly lower sodium levels, while not reducing the palatability and pleasantness of the food. And for those who fret about so-called “clean” labeling (or using chemicals or artificial additives) in their food – they will be pleased to learn that the glutamate in the seasoning is exactly the same as that in tomatoes; and that MSG seasoning has just 40% of the sodium in an equivalent amount of table salt.

1. Ghawi, Rowland & Methven: Enhancing consumer liking of low salt tomato soup over repeated exposure by herb and spice seasonings. Appetite 81, 20-29, 2014