MSG enhances flavor with only a third of the sodium of table salt.

By Mike Pomranz
November 11, 2019
Joe Alfano / EyeEm/Getty Images

The consensus of doctors and the opinion of the American government is that Americans consume an unhealthy amount of salt. Meanwhile, though monosodium glutamate (aka MSG, the sodium salt of glutamic acid) was demonized back in the 1970s and ‘80s, the consensus of research and the opinion of the FDA is that MSG is safe. So though it might sound counterintuitive to many people’s inherent biases, a new study suggests that replacing table salt with MSG in some foods might be a way to actually make Americans healthier. Who’s in the mood for a food debate?

Starting with biases, let’s get those out of the way: If you’re anti-MSG, I’m not here to change that. However, the FDA has repeatedly classified MSG as “generally recognized as safe” and further explains on their website, “Although many people identify themselves as sensitive to MSG, in studies with such individuals given MSG or a placebo, scientists have not been able to consistently trigger reactions.” Meanwhile, this new study—led by Taylor C. Wallace from the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at George Mason University—was funded by Ajinomoto, a Japanese company which, among many other products, makes MSG.

Still, the general premise of this research, published in the journal Nutrients, is intriguing: MSG can enhance flavor, contains significantly less sodium than table salt, and is likely safer than diets high in table salt, so why are Americans willing to consume too much table salt when they may be healthier consuming a mix of less salt and MSG?

“Most of our sodium intake comes from restaurant meals and packaged foods,” Wallace explained in announcing the results. “MSG can be used to reduce sodium in these foods without a taste trade-off. MSG contains about 12 percent sodium, which is two-thirds less than that contained in table salt, and data shows a 25 to 40 percent reduction in sodium is possible in specific product categories when MSG is substituted for some salt. As Americans begin to understand that MSG is completely safe, I think we'll see a shift toward using the ingredient as a replacement for some salt to improve health outcomes.”

Overall, the study determined that replacing table salt with MSG in certain foods could reduce some people’s sodium intake by up to 7 to 8 percent without turning consumers off to products “like cured meats, meat-based frozen meals, soups and crackers” by ruining their flavor. The study determined these findings by looking at health data of 16,183 people and then using a model to estimate how much their sodium intake would have decreased by substituting in glutamates like MSG for some of their salt intake.

“The addition of glutamates to certain savory food categories has the potential to help reduce the population’s sodium intake by approximately 3 percent overall,” the study concludes. However, the study didn’t mention one other very important percentage—how many Americans are still actively trying to avoid MSG?

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