In recent years, the interest in monosodium glutamate has increased dramatically. Although some people advocate that MSG is harmful, glutamate is found naturally in many staple foods that are consumed widely. Does that mean you should stop eating those foods? Since it would be difficult to cut cheese and tomatoes from your diet, we’ve gathered everything you’d want to know about how MSG enhances the flavor. Let’s take a look.
What is monosodium glutamate?
Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a compound used as a food additive. to enhance the flavor and smell of food. This chemical occurs naturally in various types of seafood, meat, vegetables, and other plants. When added to processed products like soups, sauces, salad dressings, seasonings, bread, cereals, and snacks, it helps provide that extra kick we're looking for from our favorite dishes. It is also a common ingredient in Asian cuisine, mainly in Thailand and China.
The history of MSG can be traced back to 1908 when it was first discovered in Japan by Kikunae Ikeda, who was trying to find a way to make foods tastier. He found that when he combined wheat extract with seaweed extract and hydrochloric acid, he could create umami which made the food taste better. This discovery led him on the path to creating monosodium glutamate.
How does MSG enhance flavor?
The taste of MSG, also known as umami, enhances the flavor of food and drinks by triggering a reaction in our brain’s receptors. MSG stimulates the taste receptors for glutamate and aspartate, which produces a savory sensation. It is believed that this effect occurs due to our brain’s ability to link glutamate with other savory tastes, such as meat and cheese. To further explain the enhancement of taste caused by MSG, let’s dive deeper.
1. What is glutamate?
Glutamate, one of the two basic compounds of MSG, is an amino acid found in the human body that acts as a neurotransmitter. It is used by the body to create proteins and is also involved in the metabolism of other amino acids. Glutamate is essential for the proper function of the human brain and nervous system. It plays a major role in the brain and is used by neurons to send signals.
Glutamate also plays a role in taste. When glutamate binds to receptors on the tongue, it enhances the flavor of food. This is why MSG is often added to food to make it more flavorful.
Glutamate can be found in many foods, particularly those that are rich in protein. When glutamate is combined with sodium, another ingredient that is primarily found in salt, MSG is created. Besides the foods that naturally include glutamate, MSG is also used by many chain restaurants for seasoning the food, with the prime examples being fried chicken, French fries, and noodles.
2. Umami taste and glutamate receptors
There are five basic tastes that your brain can detect via your taste buds. These are sweet, bitter, sour, salty, and umami. (There are actually six tastes according to Ayurvedic medicine, with the final one being pungent) The taste of monosodium glutamate, or MSG, belongs to the latter one, umami. The word Umami itself originates from Japanese.
There are three types of umami taste that comprise MSG:
- Savory umami — This type of umami is found in foods like anchovies, mushrooms, and soy sauce.
- Meaty umami — Meaty umami can be found in animal protein sources like beef broth and bacon.
- Brothy umami — Brothy umami can be found in stocks and stews, as well as some vegetables like tomatoes and green beans.
The taste of glutamate, which is found in MSG, is often described as savory, meaty, or mouth-filling. This umami taste is experienced through the glutamate receptors, which results in the feeling of a strong taste. That is how MSG enhances food flavor.
Does MSG have any side effects?
The use of MSG in food production has been controversial for many years. Some people believe that it causes adverse reactions such as headaches and nausea, also known as hypersensitivity against MSG. This usually results in some type of prejudice against Chinese food, however, there is no definitive study that supports the claimed side effects of MSG on the body. One study specifically focused on hypersensitivity claims and found no clear evidence linking MSG and the abovementioned symptoms.
In fact, in our day, MSG is mostly considered a safe and clean food additive. The FDA regulates MSG under their general heading of "Flavoring and Fragrance Materials," classifying them as GRAS substances, meaning they can be consumed safely, without any harmful side effects.
MSG, also known as monosodium glutamate, is a popular food enhancer that is widely used by the food industry today. You have likely consumed food that is enhanced by it, especially if you are a regular visitor to most fast-food restaurants. In its glutamate form, it is found naturally in many foods like meat, seafood, tomatoes, and some dairy products. MSG enhances the flavor by triggering a reaction in our brain through the glutamate receptors. Although the possible health benefits or side effects remain a hotly discussed topic, most of the claims that it causes different medical conditions have been wrong and the narrative seems to shift in favor of it.