MSGAnother Flavor Enhancer

You probably know about monosodium glutamate, or more simply, MSG. Common in many types of ethnic cooking, MSG is a flavor enhancer. It blends well with salty or sour flavors . . . and brings out the flavor of many prepared foods, such as "heat 'n' eat" meals, sauces, and canned soups.

Besides accenting the natural flavor of foods, MSG adds a unique taste of its own. Called "umami," its taste is described as "meaty" or "brothlike." Studies show "umami" actually elicits a fifth taste sensation, distinctive in cheese, meat, and tomatoes. Sweet, sour, salty, and bitter are the other four taste sensations. For more about taste, see "'Flavor' the Difference" in chapter 13.

As its name implies, monosodium glutamate contains sodium and glutamate or glutamic acid. Glutamic acid is an amino acid found naturally in your body and in high-protein foods. Meat, fish, dairy foods, and some vegetables contain glutamic acid.

Over the years, consumers have asked about the safety of MSG. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers MSG "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS) for consumption. Other GRAS substances include commonplace food "additives" such as sugar, salt, and baking soda. See "Testing, Testing" in chapter 9 for more about the GRAS list. Also see "Have You Ever Wondered ... if You Can Be Sensitive to MSG?" in chapter 21.

MSG has nutrition-related benefits that may go unrecognized. Since a little goes a long way, MSG provides a bigger "bang" for the "shake." With only a third as much sodium as a comparable amount of salt, it may be an option for controlling sodium intake.

Adding MSG to foods such as soups and stews may make eating more enjoyable for older adults. As we grow older, our sense of smell may weaken and our taste buds decrease in number. As a result, foods lose some of their "taste appeal." The decline in smell and taste often causes seniors to lose interest in eating, putting them at nutritional risk. Adding MSG to certain foods can perk up the flavor! See "Aging with 'Taste'" for more about taste and older adults in chapter 18.

Many salt substitutes contain potassium in place of all or some of the sodium. For some people, potassium consumed in excess can be harmful. For example, those with kidney problems may not be able to rid their bodies of excess levels of potassium. If you're under medical care—especially for a kidney problem— check with your doctor before using salt substitutes.

Rather than salt substitutes (potassium chloride), try herb-spice blends as a flavorful alternative to salt— or lemon or lime juice. Today's supermarkets carry a variety of salt-free seasoning blends. Remember to read the ingredient list and the Nutrition Facts on the label. Some herb-spice blends are neither salt- nor sodium-free. As an alternative, make your own; see "Kitchen Nutrition: Salt-Free Herb Blends " on page 153. For more about the sensations of taste and flavor, see " Flavor'theDifference" in chapter 13.

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