Could MSG Reduce Global Salt Consumption?

MSG, monosodium glutamate

Monosodium glutamate, better known as MSG, may have been given a bad rap, but now experts say it could be the key to reducing global salt consumption.

For years, warnings about MSG were issued because of anecdotal evidence of reactions like nausea and headaches following consumption. Dietitians and nutritionists queried by The Food Institute said, however, in moderate quantities, MSG consumption is safe.

“Individuals with specific health conditions or sensitivities, such as asthma, chronic migraine, or glutamate sensitivity, may experience adverse effects even at lower levels of MSG consumption,” said registered nurse and dietitian Catherine Gervacio.

“Some may experience temporary, mild symptoms like headache, flushing, sweating, or a feeling of general discomfort after consuming foods containing MSG. These reactions … are considered rare.”

Valuable Salt Substitute?

The World Health Organization said the flavor enhancing qualities of salt have led to worldwide consumption double of what is healthy – less than 5 grams a day. Scientists say substituting MSG for salt could be the key to bringing that statistic down.

MSG brings an umami taste – sometimes referred to as the core fifth taste alongside sweet, sour, bitter and salty — to foods and is widely used in Asian cuisine, as well as in restaurant foods, packaged foods and food processing. The Japanese translate the term as “essence of deliciousness.”

MSG became a villain in the 1960s after a doctor named Robert Ho Man Kwok described symptoms he suffered after eating Chinese food, Parade reported.

Glutamate is a naturally occurring substance in some foods, so MSG doesn’t necessarily need to be used to enhance flavor.

“One can extract that umami flavor through various ingredients such as kelp, tomatoes, mushrooms, soy sauce, fish and certain cheeses,” said Raymond Quisumbing, founder of Nana Yang’s Homemade Cuisine.

“Alternatively, MSG is used to add that umami flavor to dishes. While we may not realize it, having that umami taste is part of a lot of cuisines. Though a dish may not have MSG added directly, it may still have that umami taste profile from using natural ingredients.”

Expert Opinions Vary

A study published in 2020 in the Journal of Food Science found monosodium glutamate can significantly reduce sodium while promoting enjoyment of better-for-you foods like grains and vegetables. The study, sponsored by Ajinomoto Co. Inc., had participants evaluate four recipes in which sodium was reduced between 31% and 61% through the addition of MSG.

“Just as the substitution of butter with olive oil can help to reduce saturated fat intake, MSG can be used as a partial replacement for salt to reduce sodium intake,” Jean-Xavier Guinard, professor of sensory science at the University of California, Davis, and a lead investigator in the study, said in a press release.

Still, not everyone agrees about its safety.

Carolyn Nicholas, director of health coaching at Able Weight Loss, said MSG “has been classified as an excitotoxin, which suggests that it is responsible for the overstimulation of bodily cells, leading to severe damage and even cell death. Additionally, prolonged exposure to MSG can be hazardous, potentially precipitating neurological diseases.”

Some studies also have linked MSG to obesity.

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