Why Avoid MSG When It Brings So Much Umami Flavour?

“No MSG” has been used as marketing to promote that the food served is “healthy” and “natural”. We have heard stories and even experienced ourselves the “headaches” and “thirst” MSG supposedly brings. MSG has a negative connotation associated with it, leading us to avoid it. Although the myth of MSG has been debunked multiple times over the years, I believe many people still try to stay away from MSG. Outside food tastes so good because they use MSG or spend time extracting MSG from natural ingredients. Do you know that MSG actually appears more commonly in our foods than you think?

So is MSG really bad for health or is it all in our mind? In this post, we will look closer at MSG, the umami powder.

Umami – The Fifth Flavour Profile

The founder of Ajimonoto discovered that kelp and bonito broth produced a flavour profile that is outside the 4 tastes (sweet, sour, salty and bitter) that we are used to. Dr Ikeda coined the term “Umami” to describe this flavour profile. Umami is the combination of two Japanese terms, Umai (うまい) and Mi (味), which means delicious and taste respectively.

In 2002, scientists identified taste receptors on our tongues that can detect Umami flavours. This means that we have been enjoying the savoury Umami taste all along without attributing it to a specific taste.

The Umami taste buds respond to two types of molecules, glutamates and nucleotides. Glutamates are most commonly found in meat and vegetables naturally while nucleotides are most commonly found in meat and seafood naturally. Many of these ingredients contain both glutamates and nucleotides.

msg glutamate inosinate umami strength

Source: Umami study by Kurihara K

By combining ingredients that contain both glutamates and nucleotides in a certain ratio, the Umami factor is bumped up by 7 – 8 times. The good news is that the math does not need to be super accurate because as long as both compounds exist, there will be a flavour boosting effect albeit it being slightly lower.

We will focus on glutamates as we are talking about MSG in this post.

What Is MSG?

MSG is short for MonoSodium Glutamate. Dr Ikeda used chemistry to isolate the substance that gives kelp soup its Umami flavour and discovered that this substance is Glutamate. In order to have a stabilized product, sodium is added to Glutamate to get MSG. He tested Glutamate in different forms and when sodium is added, it is the most soluble, palatable and easiest to be made into a powder. In addition, sodium provides a salty flavour together with the Umami flavour of the glutamate.

MSG Chemical Formula Glutamate Chemical Formula
C₅H₈NO₄Na C₅H9NO₄

Although it might sound scary that we are playing around with chemicals, this is just during the research phase to find the most stable form of glutamate. MSG actually occurs naturally in cheese and tomatoes.

How Is MSG Produced?

Source: Ajimonoto

MSG was first produced by breaking down wheat gluten in the early to mid-1900s. The demand for MSG increased after WW2 so they needed a more consistent and scalable method for production. Today, MSG is produced by fermenting glucose from natural products like corn and beets.

Why Is MSG So Hated?

It all started when a letter titled “Chinese-Restaurant Syndrome” was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Dr Ho wrote that he suffered from several symptoms like numbness at the back of the neck and palpitation every time he dined at a Chinese restaurant. He speculated that this could be due to MSG, a seasoning that was used in Chinese cuisine. The doctor called for more investigation into the matter. However, this started a decades-long misconception about MSG. It is also unfortunate that the letter was titled “Chinese-Restaurant Syndrome”.

I personally felt these symptoms before and also attributed them to MSG. However, after you realize how ubiquitous MSG is, the symptoms cannot be solely attributable to the presence of MSG. Experiments have been conducted to research the effects of MSG but there is no conclusive evidence that MSG is responsible for these symptoms. If I have to guess, a combination of factors like how dehydrated we are, how are we feeling, how much MSG is used and maybe others caused those “MSG symptoms”.

MSG also seems scary because we don’t understand it. It doesn’t help that its name is a short form of its actual chemical name.

dihydrogen monoxide h2o hoax

Source: KnowYourMeme

As seen in the example above, even water (H2O) can sound scary if we name it dihydrogen monoxide. The founder probably did not anticipate that the naming of the product could have such effects on the reputation of MSG.

MSG Vs Salt

Is there a difference between the common salt and MSG? They have some similarities in their functions and chemical name but they are two very different compounds.

Table Salt MSG
Chemical Name Sodium Chloride Monosodium Glutamate
Chemical Formula NaCl C₅H₈NO₄Na
Price S$0.35 per 500g S$3.10 per 500g
Taste Salty Salty and Umami
Sodium Content 40% Sodium 12% Sodium

Sea salt and exotic salts like Himalayan pink salt is different from table salt in that they have other trace compounds like potassium and magnesium. Over 95% of these salts are still made up of sodium chloride.

Salt is significantly cheaper than MSG but it only brings saltiness to the table while MSG brings both saltiness and Umami to the dish we use it in. About half a teaspoon of MSG is required to flavour 4 – 6 servings of food.

For health reasons, it is recommended that we limit our salt intake to 5g per day (2g of sodium) while the average adult in Singapore takes in 9g of salt a day. MSG contains lesser sodium so the marketing of MSG companies says that using MSG can potentially lower our sodium intake. This is assuming we also reduce our salt usage when using MSG. MSG has a lower sodium content, which means it does not provide as much saltiness as ordinary salt. However, Umami flavour might be able to let us taste “similar saltiness” even at lower sodium levels, allowing us to use less salt. If we use the same amount or slightly lesser salt while using msg, we do not necessarily consume less sodium. The key is moderation. Everything in excess would be bad. A pinch every now and then should be safe for consumption.

Natural Sources Of Umami

MSG occurs naturally in tomatoes and cheese. When we consume MSG, it will separate into sodium and glutamate. Glutamate is the compound that gives food the Umami flavour. The average American consumes 13g of Glutamate from natural sources while getting less than 1g from pure MSG. Glutamate is not only present in foods but it is also produced in our bodies. Here is a list of natural ingredients that constrain glutamates.

Ingredients Glutamate (mg/100g) Teaspoons of MSG
Kelp ~1500 0.2
Parmesan Cheese ~1400 0.2
Soy Sauce ~1000 0.15
Dried Shitake Mushrooms ~1000 0.15
Dried Tomatoes ~800 0.12
Anchovies ~600 0.09
Miso ~500 0.08
Tomatoes ~200 0.03
Prawns ~100 0.02

The drying of ingredients can also intensify the concentration of glutamates by removing water plus the maturation process. In order to extract the glutamates from the ingredients, we usually have to cook them for a long period of time. Just think of Ramen broths that take 12 hours to complete.

Using MSG is like “cheating” where we can get a lot of flavour just by using a pinch of it. For example, if we use a teaspoon of MSG, it is the equivalent of using 500g of kelp or 800g of dried tomatoes. Previously, we saw that MSG is almost 10x the price of salt but if you compare it to natural sources, MSG is still cost-efficient in getting the Umami taste.

But if you think of it, using salt can also be considered cheating too as there is also so much effort required to get what we use today.

Everyday Foods That Contain MSG

Besides natural ingredients, a lot of the foods that we consume contain MSG as a flavouring. Look at the ingredient list on the packaging and you will be surprised how many products contain MSG.

  • Fast food
  • Snacks like potato chips
  • Seasoning blends like chicken stock cubes and powders
  • Canned soups
  • Instant noodles
  • Condiments like tomato ketchup
  • Processed and cured meats like luncheon meat and bacon

I believe most of us have consumed these foods in not small amounts but did not encounter the symptoms MSG supposedly will cause. That being said, as you notice, these are highly processed foods. Besides MSG, these foods will have high sodium, fat and sugar content plus many legal chemicals. We should aim to eat foods in their most natural forms and eat these processed foods in moderation and avoid them if possible. There is a tip mentioned in the first ramen video above where a chef will use MSG to check if his dish requires more Umami. If it lacks Umami flavour, he will use more natural sources of glutamate next time without using MSG.

TL, DR

Glutamate, a component of MSG, is one of the compounds that are responsible for the Umami flavour profile. The myth of “Chinese-Restaurant Syndrome” started with a letter of an anecdote published in a scientific journal. MSG exists in both natural ingredients and foods that we consume frequently. “No MSG” has been used as a marketing tactic by f&b to signal that their food is “healthier” or more “natural” than others. We do not need to purposely avoid MSG as it is ok to consume in moderate amounts. The key is moderation and we should try to consume foods that are as natural as possible and control our intake of processed foods.

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