Keith-Thomas Ayoob, EdD, RD, FADAHealth Blog - Nutrition

I Want My Umami!

Published on 2011-04-12 by Keith-Thomas Ayoob, EdD, RD, FADA

If you’re a “foodie” you may have heard of something called “umami” – often described as “the fifth taste”, joining sweet, salty, sour, and bitter.  The latter four tastes have receptors on the taste buds and they even have their own general areas on the tongue where they congregate.  Sweet receptors, for example, tend to hang out at the front of the mouth. 

Upper Digestive Tract

Umami however, isn’t really a specific taste, but rather an intensity of taste that’s produced by an amino acid called glutamate.  Glutamate amplifies the taste of foods and people seem to like foods with the intensified taste called umami. 

Not everyone likes monosodium glutamate (MSG) however.  MSG gets blamed as a contributor to lots of ills, most notably “Chinese restaurant syndrome.”  This is where people develop headaches, palpitations, a feeling of lightheadedness, and other symptoms, originally tied to having eaten Chinese food.  It was first written about in 1968 in an article in the New England Journal of Medicine by a doctor who reported feeling some numbess in the back of his neck and pressure in his face and the muscles in his upper chest.  He termed this as “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” and decided that it was due to the MSG used in Chinese restaurants.  That’s pretty much where things started. 

But it doesn’t exist.  Researchers, try as they might, have never been able to duplicate this syndrome in controlled settings.  Even in double-blinded, placebo-controlled settings, with people who report having the syndrome, NOT given the MSG were just as likely as those who did to report symptoms.  Oh, the power of the placebo.  When follow-up was done, it just didn’t pan out.  People given even large amounts of MSG blindly, didn’t exhibit symptoms. 

Why no reaction?  Probably because MSG is just glutamate with a sodium molecule on the side. 

You’ve been eating glutamate your whole life

Glutamate is naturally found all over our food supply.  Here’s a list of some foods with lots of glutamate:

            Food                                                             mg glutamate/100 gm

·         Tomatoes                                                     1246

·         Mushrooms                                                 42

·         Green peas                                                 106

·         Parmesan cheese                                    1680

·         Scallops                                                      140

·         Spinach                                                        48

·         Chicken                                                        22

Maybe that’s why so many people like these foods.   Now it’s no secret why the taste of so many foods is enhanced by adding a little parmesan cheese – it’s loaded with glutamate.  If you truly have Chinese restaurant syndrome, grated cheese on your pasta would send you to the medicine cabinet for aspirin.  It doesn’t.  It shouldn’t, either.  And you have no reason to fear MSG. 

By the way, infants get about 150 mg of glutamate daily through breast milk. It’s the most prevalent amino acid in breast milk and they seem to like it that way.  It’s even thought that the flavor-intensifying effects of glutamate serve to make breast milk appealing to infants.  At any rate, glutamate is OK for them, too. 

Could MSG actually be useful?

Maybe.  That’s because it has a great ability to enhance the intensity of flavors in foods, kind of like salt can, but it contains less sodium than table salt and you need less of it to get the same flavor punch. 

The 2010 US Dietary Guidelines for Americans have called for severe reductions in sodium for most people – only 1500 mg for anyone over age 50 and only 2300 for those under 50.  Even if you’re under 50 years old, they only recommend 1500 if you’re in a high-risk group, such as persons with hypertension, diabetes, obesity, and all African-Americans.  Most people get at least 3600 mg. of sodium daily, so severe reductions would be needed in everyone’s diet to get to recommended levels, but swapping out some of the sodium in prepared foods and substituting a little MSG would be one way to reduce a product’s sodium level without sacrificing taste. 

Something to think about, and you can be sure that manufacturers are thinking about it, too.  They want their Nutrition Facts labels to show a reduction in sodium but they also want to make their consumers happy. 

Bottom line: MSG is nothing to fear.  There’s NO indication it causes Chinese restaurant syndrome, and it may even be a lower-sodium means of ramping up flavor. 

Keith-Thomas Ayoob, EdD, RD, FADA


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