Monosodium glutamate, also known as sodium glutamate, or MSG, is the sodium salt of glutamic acid. It occurs naturally in many foods, including peas, mushrooms, tomatoes and some cheeses. It is used in the food industry as a flavor enhancer, as it balances and improves the overall perception of other foods, conferring the umami effect.
This product is at the origin of the famous “Chinese restaurant syndrome“, described anecdotally by an American scientist in an article published in 1968. According to him, people who ate in Chinese restaurants tended to feel bad: weakness, palpitations, numbness; the culprit being the MSG.
Subsequently, several scientific studies have cleared the MSG beyond any doubt. Moreover, international and national food safety organizations consider monosodium glutamate to be harmless for human consumption as a flavor enhancer.
Nevertheless, some people may be very sensitive to it and experience tingling, nausea, or headaches, about 20 minutes after consumption. In this case, it is best to avoid MSG.
1. Beef broth
A good homemade beef broth, well reduced, is very concentrated in umami. To obtain the best possible flavor it is necessary to cook the bones and aromatics slowly. For a quick and easy option you can use broth or cubes, but you must check the label of the product because it could contain MSG.
2. Soy sauce and other commercial sauces
Soy sauce is a good substitute, rich in umami. As with broth cubes, first check the list of ingredients to ensure that there is no MSG added. Oyster sauce, fish sauce (nam pla), and Worcestershire sauce can also be used to enhance the taste of dishes. Being high in salt, they should be used in moderation.
3. Shiitake mushrooms
Shiitake mushrooms have one of the highest concentrations of glutamate in vegetables. Incorporated into savory dishes, they not only add an intense mushroom flavor, but also help to enhance the other ingredients.
4. Parmesan cheese
Thanks to the fermentation process, Parmesan cheese is naturally rich in MSG. This is the reason why it is commonly added on pasta, pizza, risotto and other many Italian dishes. If you have a parmesan cheese crust left in the bottom of your fridge don’t throw it away: The umami flavor is more intense in the crust, which you can clean and add as is to your casseroles and soups.
Anchovies are one of the fish richest in glutamate. If you’re worried that they will give a fishy taste to your dishes, think again: a small fillet added in a sauce is enough to give flavour depth and an umami touch, without any fishy flavour once cooked.
6. Herbs and spices
Enhancing the taste of your dishes by adding herbs and spices is a great way to reduce salt, hence improving your cardiovascular health at the same time.