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A Nutrition Dilemma: Salt vs MSG
by Amirah Rahmat

Both salt and MSG, or monosodium glutamate, get a pretty bad rap. So, does it actually make a difference which you’re adding to your dishes? Let’s dig in!

First, What is MSG?

MSG, or more famously known as Ajinomoto, is often used in Asian cuisines as a flavor enhancer to deliver an ‘umami’ or savory flavor. Although it sounds like something straight out of a science lab, MSG is actually a compound made up of two naturally occurring substances: sodium and glutamate. Sodium is a mineral that you’re no doubt familiar with. Glutamate is one of the most abundant naturally occurring non-essential amino acids. (Amino acids are the building blocks of protein.) Glutamate can be found naturally in tomatoes, cheese, and meats. On the other hand, salt is a compound made of sodium and chloride.

What’s the Difference Between Salt and MSG?

Similar to MSG, table salt is also used as a flavor enhancer. So, both MSG and salt contain sodium. And although sodium is a mineral the body needs to survive, eating too much sodium can lead to increased blood pressure, putting you at risk of heart disease and stroke. Unfortunately, most people are eating too much sodium without realizing it as it’s hidden in a lot of processed food. You just have to take a look in your pantry and flip over a few condiment bottles to see how salty these are! 

Here’s the good news: MSG contains two-thirds less the amount of sodium compared to table salt, so if you’re looking to lower your sodium intake, reaching for MSG to flavor your food can help you eat less sodium. 

Is MSG Safe to Eat?

There’s a widespread belief that MSG can cause headaches, numbness, tingling, heart palpitations, chest pain, nausea, and facial flushing, plus more. All you have to do is Google “MSG” and you’ll find numerous scary stories. 

However, there appears to be no consistent scientific evidence to support these claims, and the World Health Organization, FDA, and European Union all say MSG is safe. In an attempt to remove the bad stigma associated with MSG, manufacturers are now labeling their MSG-containing products as “natural and safe” and touting it as a lower sodium alternative. You can spot it amongst the ingredients list as E621.

Benefits of Enhancing Food Flavors

As you get older, your sense of taste and smell can decrease, which may lead to reduced appetite and inadequate dietary intake. Several studies have shown that using an ingredient like MSG can help to boost the flavor, improving food palatability, increasing salivary flow, and food intake. In particular, the US Institute of Medicine suggests using MSG as a lower-sodium alternative to salt and as a way to help food taste good.

That being said, you don’t need to rush to the market to stock up on MSG. If you want to add more umami flavor to your meals, you can add it naturally using tomatoes, parmesan cheese, meats, peas, corn, mushrooms, and asparagus, to name just a few options. It’s no wonder that grated parmesan cheese on pizza, salad, or carbonara adds so much deliciousness!

The bottom line? It’s important to keep an eye on your sodium intake. From overly salty sauces and frequent meals eaten out to food delivered to your doorstep—most of us are eating too much sodium. So, before you buy, make it a habit to flip over the package and read the food label. If you’re looking to enhance the flavor of your favorite dish, MSG offers a lower-sodium alternative. But remember, turning to fresh food is always best!

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This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.