Monosodium Glutamate (MSG): A Healthier Salt Alternative?

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) has been a topic of controversy and concern among consumers due to misconceptions surrounding its safety. It has lower sodium content and an umami taste, so it has been proposed as a salt alternative. This article explores MSG's safety and potential as a salt alternative. Keep reading to learn other ways to reduce sodium intake.

Key takeaways:

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a glutamic acid salt with an umami taste. It is commercially produced and naturally found in foods like grapes, tomatoes, mushrooms, and cheeses. It has also been widely used in packaged products, including instant noodles, soups, stocks, seasoning, and sausages.

It has been proposed as a salt alternative because MSG has lower sodium content than table salt and adds an umami taste to foods.

Can MSG reduce sodium intake?

Excess sodium consumption has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 90% of Americans older than two consume 3,400 mg of sodium daily on average, which exceeds the recommended limit of 2,300 mg.

If the average sodium intake were to be reduced to 2,300 mg, 11 million fewer people would have high blood pressure, decreasing the risk of heart attack and stroke.

Consumers approach MSG with caution due to news around the relation of MSG to Chinese restaurant syndrome (CRS), toxicity, side effects, and addictiveness. However, MSG has earned a generally recognized as safe (GRAS) status by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Although there is a barrier to consumer acceptance, MSG has been pointed out as an alternative to sodium chloride (table salt) because MSG contains one-third of the sodium.

Why don't food manufacturers simply lower the sodium content of their products? Taste is a major contributor. Salt enhances the taste of foods. That’s why MSG has been proposed as an alternative because it has an umami taste, reducing the need for salt in the products while preserving perceived saltiness and flavor.

In a study published in Nutrients, researchers analyzed the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2013–2016 data to assess how MSG intake affects sodium consumption. The study concluded that incorporating glutamate into selected savory food products resulted in a 3% (around 160 mg/day) reduction in sodium intake.

The selected products were cured meats, meat-based soups, meat-based frozen meals, meat-based gravies, crackers, salty snacks, and vegetable soups. Individuals consuming mentioned products in high quantities may benefit from the replacement salt with low-sodium salt alternatives.

Is MSG safe?

According to the FDA, MSG is generally recognized as safe (GRAS). The FDA requires products containing added MSG to list it in the ingredients unless the food contains it naturally. For example, foods naturally containing MSG include tomatoes, cheese, soy extracts, and hydrolyzed vegetable proteins. Although products don’t have to indicate natural MSG, they still can not claim “No MSG” or “No added MSG” on the packaging.

Adverse effects caused by MSG

Evidence shows that some people may be sensitive to MSG, as consumers have reported suffering from headaches and nausea after consumption.

However, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) reported that MSG is safe. Nevertheless, sensitive individuals may experience short-term symptoms, including headache, numbness, flushing, tingling, palpitations, and drowsiness if they consume more than 3 grams of added MSG.

Other ways to reduce sodium intake

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), more than 70% of sodium intake is from packaged foods and eating out at restaurants. That’s not surprising since salt is used to preserve foods and enhance flavor.

Since most sodium consumption comes from restaurants and packaged foods, consumers can lower sodium intake by paying attention to several factors when shopping or eating out, including the following:

  • Reading the labels. Compare the sodium content of similar products. It can fluctuate widely between brands.
  • Being extra cautious while buying condiments. Condiments are one of the highest sodium products. Choosing "reduced sodium" or "lower sodium" versions of condiments such as soy sauce, salad dressings, pickles, and ketchup helps.
  • Choosing "no salt added" products. Many foods are sold with varying amounts of sodium. For example, fresh, frozen, or canned vegetables are sold with different amount quantities of salt. Fresh products have the lowest sodium content.
  • Taste food first, especially at a restaurant. Some people have a habit of adding salt without tasting their food.
  • Choose meals according to ingredients. Meals containing salty foods will be saltier. You may prefer to avoid foods that are pickled, cured, or smoked or contain added sauces such as soy, teriyaki, and miso.

Salt alternatives or increased awareness around salt consumption helps lower total sodium intake. However, it’s recommended to consult your healthcare professional to get personalized advice on your nutrition and health.

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Adrienne Samuels
prefix 10 months ago
Why is it not mentioned that the active component of MSG is excitotoxic – brain damaging -- glutamate?
Merve Ceylan, RD
prefix 10 months ago
This does not apply to dietary glutamate. According to Monosodium Glutamate in the Diet Does Not Raise Brain Glutamate Concentrations or Disrupt Brain Functions research "The ingestion of MSG in the diet does not produce appreciable increases in glutamate concentrations in blood, except when given experimentally in amounts vastly in excess of normal intake levels; and (b) the blood-brain barrier effectively restricts the passage of glutamate from the blood into the brain, such that brain glutamate levels only rise when blood glutamate concentrations are raised experimentally via non-physiologic means."