The Umami Factor: 4 Surprising Facts about MSG

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I was having lunch with a friend last week and she told me she was avoiding MSG. When I asked her why, she mentioned that she had read about it on the Internet. That was a big red flag. Obviously, not all information on the web is accurate or science-based. I’m always trying to stay current with the latest science on food and nutrition topics, so I went home and looked for info on MSG from credible sources, like the FDA. That’s when I learned some surprising, and sometimes overlooked, facts about MSG.


1. The “G” in “MSG” is responsible for umami.

Somewhat akin to the “sixth sense”, there is a “fifth taste” you may not even know you had: umami. In addition to sweet, sour, salty and bitter, this fifth basic taste is described as savory. Even if you have heard of umami, I wonder if you were aware that the taste is attributed to foods containing glutamate, an amino acid in food. Glutamate is found naturally in many foods such as tomatoes, walnuts, mushrooms and meat. It’s also present in many food ingredients such as soy sauce and MSG (monosodium glutamate).



2. MSG is naturally occurring.

Besides being added to foods, MSG also occurs in nature. Tomatoes and cheeses contain naturally occurring MSG. With all that glutamate, it’s no wonder that classic grilled-cheese/tomato-soup combo is so savory. The MSG that is added to foods is produced by a natural fermentation process, similar to the processes used to make yogurt or vinegar. MSG (monosodium glutamate) has only two components: sodium (a mineral) and glutamate (an amino acid).



3. MSG provides more flavor, with less sodium.

MSG contains only one-third the amount of sodium as table salt. Also, MSG amplifies and enhances the flavor of foods – whether it is naturally occurring or added to foods. The glutamate interacts with our taste buds, giving foods the umami, or savory, flavor. So, if used in place of salt, MSG could enhance the flavor of your food while reducing overall sodium intake. This could help manage blood pressure in people who are sodium sensitive.


4. Scientific research and government authorities support the safety of MSG.

In the past, some people reported allergy-type symptoms after eating foods containing MSG. However, research has been unable to verify that MSG caused these symptoms. Clinical studies tried to reproduce these negative reactions but found no clear connection to MSG. The FDA, WHO, and other health organizations have all reaffirmed the safety of MSG. If you are concerned about food allergies or sensitivities to MSG, I encourage you to consult your health care provider or a certified allergist, as well as a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who specializes in food sensitivities.

As I researched MSG, I thought back on the lunch I shared with my friend: pasta with marinara sauce topped with parmesan cheese. Coincidentally, this meal contained naturally occurring MSG (from the tomatoes and the Parmesan cheese). Perhaps that’s why I enjoyed it so much – the umami factor!

This article was written by Melissa Joy Dobbins, RD and reviewed by Megan Meyer, PhD.

To get all the facts on MSG, check out the new FoodInsight factsheet: Monosodium Glutamate (MSG): From A to Umami.