Glutamate-rich seasonings have been used in recipes all around the world for centuries: garum, a fermented fish sauce, was a valuable condiment in ancient Rome, for example.
However, it was not until 1908 that Professor Kikunae Ikeda of the University of Tokyo isolated glutamate from kelp seaweed, an ingredient used in Japanese dashi stock, and unlocked the secret of its flavor-enhancing properties which he called umami. Since that time, MSG has been, and continues to be, widely used as an effective means of making good food taste better.
Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is produced by fermentation, a process similar to that used in making beer, vinegar, and yogurt. Carbohydrates from crops such as corn, sugar beets/cane or cassava are fermented to produce glutamate which is purified and crystallized before drying. The finished product is a pure, white crystal which dissolves easily and blends well in many recipes.
Because free glutamate has a unique affinity with the umami taste receptors on the tongue, glutamate is the purest source of umami taste. Umami is our fifth taste, with sweet, sour, salty and bitter and gives food a rich savory character.
Increasing the level of free glutamate in a recipe, during cooking or processing, is a simple and effective way to increase the umami taste and balance.
As foods ripen, the levels of free glutamate increase resulting in a richer, more flavorful taste. This is why foods naturally high in glutamate when ripe or mature, such as tomatoes, cheese and mushrooms, are used to enhance the taste and balance of savory recipes. Glutamate-rich stocks or condiments, including MSG, can also be used to increase umami.
MSG is umami seasoning — the simplest, purest way to add the umami taste to food.
Learn More: 10 Facts about MSG
The glutamate added to foods in the form of MSG seasoning represents only a small fraction of the total amount of glutamate consumed in the average daily diet. The average person consumes around 10 grams of bound glutamate and up to one gram of free glutamate daily.
Most of the glutamate consumed as food is used by the digestive system for energy – and therefore does not reach the bloodstream. The human body produces about 50 grams of free glutamate each day as part of normal metabolism.
Since its discovery in 1908, MSG has been used safely as a food ingredient and seasoning. A great deal of scientific research has been undertaken into MSG’s role in the diet and its safety. This research, which has been reviewed by scientists and regulators around the world, demonstrates that monosodium glutamate (MSG) is safe for everyone.
In the United States, MSG has been included in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) list of substances that are Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). Foods designated GRAS include ingredients like sugar, baking powder and vinegar, whose safety has been established through common use in food and/or through extensive testing.
More on “Is MSG Safe for Everyone“
The glutamate in MSG seasoning and the glutamate in many foods we enjoy as part of our normal diets, like vegetables, cheese, fish and meat, is exactly the same and is treated by the body in exactly the same way no matter what the source. For this reason it is unlikely that people are sensitive to MSG.
Decades of research have shown no scientific evidence of sensitivity to MSG. Studies have also found that most people who believe that they respond adversely to MSG, with symptoms that range from mild and transitory to more severe, do not have these reactions when evaluated in carefully controlled tests.
If you believe that you react to a particular food or ingredient, you should seek proper medical diagnosis, rather than attributing to MSG symptoms which may have another more serious cause.
The FDA requires packaged foods to list every ingredient used so, by looking on the ingredient panel, you will be able to identify those products that use MSG seasoning.
In addition to MSG, there are other seasonings and ingredients that contain free glutamate which are also used widely. Soy sauce, hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP) and yeast extracts are all glutamate-rich seasonings. When used in small amounts, all of these ingredients significantly enhance the overall taste balance of the foods to which they are added. To determine whether packaged food contains these glutamate-rich ingredients, all you need to do is look on the ingredient panel.
It does not matter whether you select glutamate-rich foods and ingredients like tomatoes, Parmesan cheese, walnuts, MSG or soy sauce, the glutamate in each is the same.
Medical specialists have known for decades that your body does not distinguish between the glutamate found naturally in foods and that in MSG. In fact, even today’s state-of-the-art technology can’t separate them. For example, if you analyzed a plate of spaghetti, you could find out the total amount of glutamate in the dish. However, since glutamate is glutamate, there is no way to determine whether the glutamate came from tomatoes, Parmesan cheese or MSG.
Not only does MSG make good food taste better for consumers, new studies show that MSG may play a role in the overall health and nutrition of people who need it most.
MSG may help to regulate appetite. Currently there is significant interest in what makes us feel hungry or feel full, and how understanding satiety could help in understanding appetite. Studies show that we are programmed to find foods with umami taste appetizing when we are hungry but not nearly so pleasant when we are full. This may be important for deciding how much we eat at a meal.
More about MSG’s role in appetite and nutrition