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There are many ingredients used across the world that act as supplements, but also ingredients that actively help us feel full and therefore require us to eat less – these seem ideal for dieting!
One extremely popular ingredient is MSG (Monosodium Glutamate), however it is also an ingredient that arises a lot of controversy. Whilst some people swear by it, others in the natural health community believe it is a very damaging ingredient.
Lots of people use MSG to help enhance the flavors of their cooking, however many people use it as a dieting tool although it can be argued that MSG has the complete opposite effect.
Ever wondered what MSG is and whether it can benefit you in your cooking? Well, look no further! Today I am going to explain to you exactly what MSG is and whether or not it is the missing ingredient from your recipes, not only to boost the flavors but to help you with your weight loss journey.
And, if you can’t get hold of MSG or you don’t like the idea of using it. I am going to let you know what you can use instead!
Table of Contents
What Is MSG?
MSG is a very common food additive and is often used to help enhance flavor. It is particularly popular in processed foods. It is a crystal powder, resembling table salt or sugar. Although it is often used by chefs, particularly in Chinese food, it can also be added to food at home.
MSG is in fact FDA approved; however, many people like to cut it out of their diet, or simply don’t include it in their diet because it is so hard to find in the grocery store.
MSG is made from glutamic acid – one of the most abundant, non-essential amino acids that exists in nature. This means that your body can actually produce it. Glutamic acid serves multiple functions in the body and can be found in almost all foods.
The glutamic acid in MSG is made by fermenting starches, however. Despite popular opinion, there is actually no chemical difference between the glutamic acid in MSG and the glutamic acid in natural foods. Despite this, the glutamic acid in MSG is easier to absorb. This is because regular glutamic acid is usually stored amongst big protein molecules which your body would need to break down before absorbing the glutamic acid. MSG does not have this wall of protein.
Why is MSG Commonly Used in Cooking?
MSG is believed to enhance the rich, meaty, and savory flavors in foods. This meaty taste is known as umami. Umami is one of the most common tastes, alongside salty, sweet, sour and bitter. Umami is the common glutamate flavor that we taste in many of our favorite foods. It is very popular in Asian cooking, but is becoming just as popular in various Western foods, particularly acting as a preservative.
In spite of the slow increase in popularity in the West, the average intake of MSG in America and the United Kingdom is 0.55 to 0.58 grams of MSG, compared with 1.2 to 1.7 grams in Japan and Korea. This highlights just how much more commonly consumed MSG is in particular Asian countries.
MSG is also believed to help you feel more full. Eating foods that leave you feeling more full than others, may help you to reduce your calorie intake. This is why people on diets often eat slow-releasing carbohydrates, as they keep you feeling fuller for longer.
Whilst some evidence suggests that the MSG flavor can help to stimulate receptors found on your tongue, resulting in a release of your appetite-regulating hormones. Despite this, certain studies show that MSG can in fact increase your calorie intake rather than reduce it, and so although people may use it as a dieting tool, there is no stable evidence to suggest that this is successful.
How to Use MSG in your Cooking
MSG works by turning refined sugar that is typically too sweet in foods, into a more savory flavor. On its own, MSG is actually very bland in flavor. It has a slightly salty flavor with a touch of umami.
The way it works is it brings typically sweet flavors down a notch to make them taste more savory, and with savory foods it really enhances their taste. You can add a dusting of MSG to any of your regular meals, like your scrambled eggs, and use this as a test to see how it alters the flavor.
Although there are many other foods that can help bring a umami flavor, sometimes a sprinkle of MSG can be more convenient. Similarly, there are many ways you can sweeten your foods, but in some instances a dusting of sugar is enough to balance out the bitterness of certain foods and bring a more successful taste.
MSG can also be used as a replacement for foods that may have too much sodium. One teaspoon of refined sea salt has around 1760mg of sodium. In comparison, one teaspoon of MSG only has 500mg of sodium. This means that you can use MSG as a replacement for salt in some of your dishes and this will reduce the sodium levels but will have no impact on the salty flavor that you may desire.
MSG can be added to just about anything you want to cook. From salad dressings, to popcorn, to meat, to soup – you name it! Some people may even use MSG in certain cocktails to add a more unique flavor. It is an extremely versatile ingredient that works with any savory foods, but definitely doesn’t work well in sweet food.
It is commonly used for vegetable-based meals as it can bring the umami flavor to the meal when the vegetables alone are not able to do this.
You should be cautious of how much MSG you use. Be sure to start with a small amount so that you don’t not only ruin the meal, but overwhelm your taste palate. For a large dish, serving four to six people, you only need ¼ to ½ teaspoon of MSG, which shows just how little is really required. You should continue to season your dishes as usual, the way you would if you were cooking with salt.
Where Can I Find MSG?
Monosodium glutamate can be found in any large grocery stores, but is more popular in Asian supermarkets. If not, it is easy enough to purchase some online.
MSG has been considered dangerous or harmful by some people for many years now, and so it can be difficult to purchase. MSG activates a pleasure in the brain which has addictive properties, and so because of this a lot of people try to steer clear of it.
It also stimulates nerve cells in the brain in order to relay its signal and this can cause excessive glutamate in the brain.
Because of the above cautions, many stores no longer stock MSG and so if you cannot find it in store, and you are unable to access any online, don’t worry, as I am now going to tell you about plenty of alternatives you can use!
Best and Healthy Alternative to MSG
Not only do people struggle to get their hands on MSG, but many people choose to avoid cooking with it due to the assumed health risks but also because of how much it can boost the flavor. So, as an alternative, I am now going to discuss some of the most common substitutes for glutamate alternatives.
The meaty flavor in beef stock very much resembles the same flavor brought out by MSG. to really get the similarity, you should make your own beef stock. This is because the protein in the beef also contains high levels of glutamate – the amino acid found in MSG.
Making your own broth or stock can easily be done at home by slowly cooking beef bones, combined with any herbs or spices that tickle your fancy, with some water in a stockpot. The longer the stock cooks, the more it will reduce in quantity but increase in concentration of glutamate-laden, producing a stronger flavor.
If you are unable to make your own, you can buy beef stock cubes from the grocery store or online. Make sure to check the ingredients though as some do contain MSG and so if you are trying to avoid this then it would defeat the purpose.
Whilst beef stock is an excellent alternative, it is not a suitable one for any vegetarians or vegans out there. Instead, you can use vegetable bouillon, however this doesn’t quite reach the same depth of flavor.
Another ingredient commonly used in Asian cooking, it is also very rich with the umami flavor. Soy sauce has a salty, savory flavor that tastes similar to a combination of both meat and mushrooms. It is commonly used in stir-fries and sauces.
Soy sauce is suitable for vegetarians, whilst bringing a meaty, mushroom aroma to your food. It is also available in most grocery stores. It has a similar flavor to oyster sauce, fish sauce, and slightly similar to Worcestershire sauce, so any of these can also be used in place of MSG, but soy sauce definitely resembles it best and of course some of the other sauces mentioned are not vegetarian or vegan.
You can use these sauces in pasta sauces, stews, meatballs, or anything requiring a flavorful, savory sauce.
Parmesan is another ingredient that can be used in place of MSG. Parmesan is a hard, Italian cheese and is a natural source of MSG. commonly used in Italian cooking, it really adds flavor to meals like pasta, risotto and pizza.
Parmesan comes with a rind, which many people tend to throw away. However, the rind is actually the most concentrated part, meaning it has the strongest umami flavor and therefore perfect as a replacement.
Again, you can find parmesan in just about any supermarket. Parmesan does actually contain an animal product called rennet – an enzyme found in the lining of a goat or calf’s stomach. This increases the rich, savory flavor compared to other cheeses, but it does of course mean that parmesan is also not a suitable MSG replacement for vegetarians or vegans.
Dulse is a less-known alternative. It is a seaweed with a mildly salty flavor and again, is often found in Asian food. The easiest way to get your hands on some is to go to your local Asian grocers, as it is not so easily found in your American grocery stores.
Dule comes as a dried product which can be rehydrated in meals such as broth. It can also be added to sauces to bring out more flavor. It provides a slightly meaty flavor, but more so salty.
Similar to the mushroom flavor provided by adding soy sauce, you can in fact use certain mushrooms in place of MSG as well. Mushrooms provide quite a meaty flavor without the meat, so they are a great alternative for anyone on a plant-based diet
Mushrooms have a higher concentration of glutamate than other vegetables which means that they not only bring an intense flavor, but they help elevate the flavors of other ingredients too. You can caramelise the mushrooms beforehand as this will bring out their flavor and then oven roast them to dry them out and lock in the taste.
These can be used in just about any savory dishes, from sauces to casseroles, to being the main ingredient to your stir-fry or soup.
You can also buy dried mushroom seasoning which can be used instead if you would like to skip out the step of having to cook the mushrooms yourself. With this, you simply shake it into your cooking the same way you would just add MSG.
Yeast is a common ingredient in bread and beer as it helps emphasise the savory flavor. You can source yeast extract most easily online, but it is available in some supermarkets and particularly in home brewing suppliers.
Alternatively you can use marmite or vegemite. These both include glutamate. They are liquid form though and so they work best when added to a sauce when cooking. They do have a strong, salty flavor though so be sure to use in moderation.
Further to this, nutritional yeast is growing in popularity within the vegan community. This works great as a supplement and provides a lot of protein. It has quite a nutty flavor and is used often as a replacement for cheese-based sauces. A couple of tablespoons of this can add a unique, savory taste to your meals. Again, it can be found in larger supermarkets and most health stores. Alternatively you can buy a tub online.
Many fish contain glutamate, but anchovies contain more than most. Anchovies are a popular ingredient in many meals as they provide a salty flavor without being too overwhelmingly fishy.
You can add anchovies to your sauces, salad dressings, or even on top of your pizza. Again, they are available in most grocery stores, however they are not a suitable alternative for anyone who does not eat fish.
It is important to remember that similarly to using fish sauce as a MSG substitute, there will still be a slightly fishy flavor and so you should bear this in mind when considering using anchovies or fish sauce as an alternative.
Last but not least, we have the ingredient that most people would often turn to as an MSG replacement – salt. Salt can really enhance the flavor of your food if used in moderation, but it is important to remember the sodium levels in comparison to MSG.
Salt comes in many different varieties, and so this can also be a factor to consider. Kosher salt, or sea salt, works best as an alternative as it is more finely ground and therefore mixes into the food better and brings out the flavors.
Can I Make my own MSG?
If you are unable to access any of the above, then it is possible to make your own MSG. All you need is some dried mushrooms and dried shrimps.
Start by setting your oven to 200F and then wash the dried mushrooms. Place both the shrimps and the mushrooms onto a baking tray. After half an hour, remove the shrimp and leave them to cool, but let the mushrooms continue to cook for a total of 2.5 hours.
Once the shrimps are completely cooled, use a food processor to blend them into a powder form. Once the mushrooms have finished cooking and are completely dry, whisk them as well and then sift the mushroom powder to make sure it is completely ground up.
Combine both powders together – you can blend these again to make sure they are completely mixed.
It is important to make sure that both ingredients are entirely dried out before you blend them. Once you have followed these steps, seal them in a tight container and keep refrigerated.
It is best to use this powder within a month and you will only need a small amount at a time so keep this in mind when deciding how much to make.
MSG – Final Thoughts
Although MSG is quite a controversial ingredient in the food industry, many chefs still like to cook with it. It brings out a savory flavor that many foods lack beforehand. It is also considered a good alternative if you would like to keep your sodium levels down.
Contrary to this, it can have addictive traits and many people argue that although it makes you feel fuller, this does not last and so you end up going back to eat more.
MSG can be tricky to find in stores due to many people cutting it out of their diet and the potential health hazards around it. This means that even if you want to cook with it, this may not be as easy as you think.
Instead, there are a number of alternatives you can use that help provide that meaty, savory flavor, without any health risks.
Beef and fish flavors can work as a strong substitute, but if you would like to keep things meat-free then there are plenty of other options. Mushrooms provide that strong, meaty flavor, whilst ingredients like yeast, marmite, and soy sauce can bring the saltier, savory flavor that comes with MSG.
Salt can also be used in place, but many people choose to use MSG as a replacement for salt because of the high sodium levels, so this may be a less-popular substitution.
Overall, it depends on what you are cooking. In almost all cuisines you can find a suitable alternative. Whether that be fish-based alternatives for Asian cooking, parmesan-based alternatives for your Italian meals, or beefy, meat-flavored alternatives for your more hearty meals.
Be sure to check the ingredients of any alternatives you opt for, as they may contain MSG and so this would defeat the purpose if you are trying to avoid it.
There is no definite benefit nor harm that is caused by MSG, so if you do decide to cook with it then just do it in moderation. If not, then enjoy the extensive list of alternatives and before you know it you will find your favourite way to boost the taste of all of your meals!
Is MSG toxic
It has not been proven that MSG is toxic to humans. It has had some negative effects when tested on rats, however this is not a reliable comparison when looking at the effects it has on humans. It does require stimulating nerves in the brain though and so some people believe it comes with health risks.
How do you make homemade MSG?
You can make your own by drying out dried shrimp and dried mushroom even more, and then blending both and combining them to create a powder form. This should be stored in the refrigerator and used within a month.
Is there a natural MSG?
There are many natural alternatives to MSG. Making it yourself is a natural form of MSG, or alternatively you can use ingredients such as mushrooms, anchovies, beef stock or parmesan.
Is MSG better than salt?
The answer to this is down to personal preference. MSG contains less sodium than salt and so many people prefer to use it, however others would rather opt for salt as it is a more commonly used ingredient and people feel they know more about salt and what it is.