Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition North America, Inc.

Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition North America, Inc.

When Sodium is Not Sodium

5 minutes
With millions of consumers expressing a desire to lower the amount of salt—sodium chloride—in their daily diets, stress typically has been placed on cutting out any ingredient with the word “sodium” in it. But strict removal of all things sodium means that those same consumers are missing out on one of the most effective salt-lowering solutions they can get: monosodium glutamate (MSG)
 
MSG is an ingredient well noted for its ability to impart umami – which is known as the “fifth taste,” alongside sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. The savory essence of umami comes from the naturally occurring amino acid glutamate (glutamic acid), of which MSG is the purest commercially produced form. Despite having “sodium” in its name, MSG also can actually help reduce sodium in formulations.
 
When it comes to health, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine determined MSG to be an effective tool to reduce sodium in the food supply. Research conducted by Taylor Wallace, PhD, et al. at George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia in 2019 (“Current Sodium Intakes in the United States and the Modeled Effects of Glutamate Incorporation into Select Savory Products,” Nutrients 2019, 11) analyzed NHANES data to estimate that using glutamates, such as MSG, as a partial replacement for sodium in certain foods, could help reduce dietary sodium intake by up to 7-8% overall in the US population.
A hand holding a burger
MSG contains only about a third of the amount of sodium as table salt (12% vs. 39% respectively, per USDA analysis). Using MSG in place of a portion of the table salt in formulations can lower total sodium content by a third to as much as half, while adding and enhancing the palate-pleasing savory notes of umami. The glutamate portion of MSG binds to specific, unique umami taste receptors on the tongue. This exclusivity indicates that glutamate is the most direct avenue for imparting the taste of umami.
Best Use Practices
 
Amino acids are the building blocks of all proteins found in nature, including those found in foods. While different proteins might have different amounts of various amino acids, the amino acid most commonly found in most food proteins is glutamine, of which glutamate is a natural form. When proteins break down in a food system due to aging, ripening, or fermentation, the amino acids are liberated from the protein and contribute different tastes. The presence of glutamic acid uniquely contributes the basic taste of umami. While the presence of glutamic acid is universal in food proteins, some contain higher levels than others. Tomatoes, mushrooms, onions, seaweed, and vegetables in the Brassica family (cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts), as well as aged cheeses, fermented wheat and legumes (especially soy), and yeast all are rich in glutamic acid.
 
MSG is the salt of this most common amino acid and delivers an exceptional umami character to foods. Umami has the function of expanding the flavor of savory foods, delivering a more enhanced—yet more complete—overall flavor character.
 
When used in formulations, MSG will naturally break down into its sodium and glutamate components. The addition of MSG to foods already containing glutamate amplifies the flavor characteristics of these foods even more.
 
Savory foods benefit the most from the addition of MSG to the system, with the overall flavor of a meat, tomato, or mushroom sauce, soup, or stock being amplified by the inclusion of MSG. Depending on the application, the use of MSG at only 0.1 to 0.8% of the weight of a formulation—less than 1g per 100g—can make an impressive difference. In smaller amounts, MSG also can be used to balance other flavor notes, such as salty, sour, bitter, astringent, or earthy characters.
 
Many foods naturally contain the levels of glutamate similar to those delivered when MSG is added at these amounts into the system. This
 
is important to understand in light of the persistence of anecdotally based negative perceptions of this proven safe ingredient.
 
MSG works best in savory products such as meats, poultry, seafood, vegetables, soups, casseroles, egg dishes, gravies, and sauces. It is commonly available as odorless and colorless fine, crystals. It can be incorporated into food formulations either before or during cooking—the same as with table salt or similar flavorings or seasonings. As a rule of thumb, plan on about 1/2 teaspoon MSG per pound of animal protein in a food, or use the same amount per three cups of a vegetable-based recipe, casserole, stew, or soup.
 
This same amount works well in formulations for packaged foods and snacks, such as chips, crackers, jerky products, and sausages. Research also suggests that MSG can be used to reduce total sodium in non-sweet bakery products, such as breads, biscuits, and rolls.
 
The experts at Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition North America, Inc. (part of the Ajinomoto Group) are on hand to help food product formulators and manufacturers maximize flavor and health in their products. With more than 125 years of expertise in the science of amino acids, the Ajinomoto team of food scientists and chefs is the world’s leading source for umami and kokumi. They are ready to partner with food product designers and manufacturers to bring savory reduced-sodium products from concept to creation.
High Profile, Low Salt with MSG
 
In a review of recent literature on strategies for sodium reduction, Soo‐Yeun Lee, Ph.D. of the University of Illinois, Urbana‐Champaign Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, noted that processed and prepackaged foods are among the main sources of sodium intake, and that bread products alone account for approximately a fifth of the daily sodium intake for consumers. Yet many consumers associate high sodium with processed meats and processed foods, somewhat unaware of the contribution made by bread and other savory baked items.
 
Scientists have struggled to lower sodium in breads without the end products suffering losses in organoleptic quality, as simply reducing salt alone will do. For the past decade, emphasis has shifted to flavor modification and physical modification. Efforts into the latter have not panned out as well as the former, leading to flavor modification with salt replacers and salt enhancers as the more preferred method. However, many of these ingredients have limitations such as bitter, metallic, or other off flavor notes, especially once they surpass replacing approximately 30% of the sodium chloride.
 
Dr. Lee’s review of the research revealed that MSG is a “promising way to keep a similar, but more intense flavor profile while achieving sodium reduction.” As a “flavor potentiator,” MSG enhances the natural flavor in a product and is believed to heighten saltiness perception. Citing a 2017 study comparing full-NaCl Indian bread with the same product substituting 12.5% and 25% of the salt with MSG, the plain breads with MSG scored higher for overall quality, while “no differences were found between the different salt levels of the bread containing MSG.” The MSG effectively and successfully increased the taste profile of the plain bread formulation while reducing levels of added salt, and indicated that in a formulation that included herbs and spices, the inclusion of MSG created a “synergistic effect” that enhanced the various flavor properties.
Industry
Food & BeverageFood Service
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Health & Well-beingInnovationNutrition

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