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MSG May Help Reduce Sodium Consumption, Study Says

Sprinkling salt

Key Takeaways

  • In a new study, people enjoyed reduced-sodium foods enhanced with monosodium glutamate (MSG) as much or more than full-sodium versions
  • Replacing salt with MSG may help reduce sodium in the diet, leading to improved health outcomes
  • MSG is a safe additive to food

Looking to cut back on salt in your diet? A new study published in the Journal of Food Science that looked at differences in flavor preference amongst variably seasoned foods reveals that monosodium glutamate (MSG) may be a helpful option for reducing the sodium content in recipes.

Comparing Flavor

The study presented 163 people with three versions of four “better-for-you” savory dishes. Subjects taste-tested roasted vegetables, a quinoa bowl, a savory yogurt dip, and pork cauliflower fried rice—each with three levels of salt: normal salt, reduced salt, and reduced salt with MSG.

Using a nine-point scale of flavor preference, tasters rated the food preparations on characteristics like mouthfeel, appearance, saltiness, and their likeliness to order it off a menu. For each dish, they consistently liked the MSG recipe as much or more than the standard recipe (and better than the reduced-sodium recipe)—implying that, for most people, MSG may be an effective way to flavor foods while reducing sodium.

Intriguing as this research is, it isn’t the first to highlight MSG’s potential as a sodium-reducing flavor enhancer. As far back as 1984, the same journal published a study on MSG’s effects in soups. Researchers found that the more MSG in a clear soup, the less salt was required to give it an appealing flavor. Since then, additional research on cooked sausages and mozzarella cheese has shown that people report high rates of “sensory acceptance” of foods that use MSG in place of salt. In other words, MSG seems to mimic (or enhance) salt’s taste without taking away from the sensory experience of well-liked savory foods.

Why scaling back on sodium matters

While sodium is, of course, a critical mineral the body needs for proper functioning, more of it doesn’t mean better. Too much sodium in the diet has been linked to increased blood pressure—a major cause of heart disease and stroke. Those with kidney disease also may need to watch their sodium intake, as damaged kidneys may have a harder time processing sodium.

People with chronic diseases aren’t the only ones who would do well to scale back on sodium. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), nine out of 10 Americans take in too much sodium  On average, Americans consume 3,400 milligrams a day (compared to the AHA’s recommended limit of 1,500 milligrams and the U.S. Food & Drug Administration's recommended daily value of less than 2,300 milligrams).

Lauren Manaker, MS, RDN

Too much salt intake can result in some negative health outcomes. Finding ways to flavor food without adding too much sodium is a positive change in many dietary practices.

— Lauren Manaker, MS, RDN

Even though there’s been some buzz in recent years that only people with so-called “sodium sensitivity”—a genetic propensity to experience greater spikes in blood pressure from sodium—should avoid salt, experts say reducing sodium is a smart choice for most of us.

“I generally recommend that people don't go sodium-crazy regardless of whether they are labeled as sodium-sensitive,’" says dietitian Lauren Manaker, MS, RDN, LD. "Too much salt intake can result in some negative health outcomes. Finding ways to flavor food without adding too much sodium is a positive change in many dietary practices.” 

Debunking concerns about MSG

You’re not alone if you have negative associations with MSG. Four in 10 Americans report avoiding it, and many foods come with “no MSG” labels, leading many people to believe it’s unsafe for consumption. Anecdotal reports have made health claims that MSG can cause everything from asthma to headaches to heart palpitations.

Michele Redmond, MS, RDN

MSG is basically a sodium molecule linked to a glutamate molecule that’s extracted from fermenting a starch like corn or sugar beets.

— Michele Redmond, MS, RDN

However, fears about this flavor compound are not grounded in scientific evidence. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) categorizes MSG as “generally recognized as safe,” noting that, although some people report symptoms after eating it, scientists have not been able to replicate reactions in studies with MSG and a placebo. Additional studies have failed to find any definitive connection between MSG and headaches or asthma.

In fact, despite its unsavory reputation as a harmful chemical, monosodium glutamate is a simple, plant-based compound. “MSG is basically a sodium molecule linked to a glutamate molecule that’s extracted from fermenting a starch like corn or sugar beets,” explains chef and dietitian Michele Redmond, MS, RDN, FAND.

Because of MSG's prevalence in nature, you probably already eat it in other common foods. “Glutamate is inherently present in many foods we eat every day, including tomatoes, mushrooms, aged cheeses, and meats," says Manaker. "Whether you’re eating a tomato or foods with MSG added, our bodies process the glutamate in the same exact way.”

How to use MSG in cooking

Curious about how to introduce MSG into your home kitchen? Redmond offers a number of tips. “Straight MSG can be added to foods when you want to add a bit more depth and umami. But use restraint with ingredients naturally high in umami like tomatoes, parmesan cheese, miso, etc. to keep your dish balanced.”

In more complex recipes that call for salt, you’ll likely get the tastiest results by substituting only some salt for MSG. “[MSG] works best in synergy with natural sodium in foods or when used with some salt,” Redmond notes. “You can simply make a 50/50 blend of salt and MSG. This MSG-salt blend, or homemade umami seasoning, has nearly 40% less sodium than salt used alone. Add your MSG-salt blend during cooking and not as a finishing garnish.”

What This Means For You

Food trends are hard to predict. However, the more research proves MSG to be a solution for reducing sodium–and the more consumers learn that MSG isn’t a harmful additive—it’s possible that manufacturers may start to lean into MSG as a flavoring agent in prepared foods. Eventually, the use of MSG could help reduce salt consumption from packaged and processed foods.

More importantly, the recent study’s results indicate that MSG could serve as a go-to salt substitute in the home kitchen. If the majority of taste testers found foods with MSG just as palatable as those with salt, you might feel the same way! Don’t be afraid to experiment with this versatile flavor enhancer in your own home cooking.

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Article Sources
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