Americans put taste first when ordering from quick-serving restaurants (QSR). However, the pandemic has led consumers to elevate the importance of their personal health and wellness, with more than half stating that a desire for healthfulness impacts food choices now more than ever before.1
In a national consumer survey of 2,000 Americans conducted in August of 20202, 56% of QSR customers noted that they were trying to avoid certain ingredients when dining at their favorite restaurants, with sodium and salt at the top of the list. Yet current research shows that 9 out of 10 Americans still consume more sodium than what is considered healthy.2 Is it possible to create great-tasting food that is lower in sodium?
Monosodium Glutamate, the under-valued sodium reduction tool
Monosodium glutamate (MSG) was commercialized in 1909 as the world's first umami seasoning. First marketed as a flavor enhancer in Japan and then throughout the world, more recent scientific evidence has shown that MSG can significantly reduce sodium levels when used in lieu of salt in numerous savory applications, without compromising taste. For example, a 2020 study published in the Journal of Food Science evaluated the sensory properties of different plant-based meals in a group of 163 volunteers. Recipes in which sodium was reduced by 30-60% from the addition of MSG were more often described as 'flavorful,' 'delicious,' and 'balanced', and liked as much or more than the full sodium formulas.3 Other studies have shown similar results in applications such as soups, processed meats, savory snacks, and mixed meals.
MSG is underutilized as a sodium reduction tool because of its ill-fated past in the U.S. Despite decades of safe use within the global food supply, a 1968 letter to the editor of a prominent medical journal linked the ingredient to symptoms the author personally experienced after eating at a Chinese food restaurant. As a result, MSG was vilified in the media, leading consumers to associate MSG with a number of symptoms. Numerous studies have failed to demonstrate negative health impacts of MSG, leading regulatory bodies around the world, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, to conclude that MSG is safe for use in the food supply.
Despite the scientific vindication of MSG, many food manufacturers have not considered MSG as a sodium reduction tool because of concerns over consumer perception. However, recent evidence suggests that consumers are not actively avoiding MSG, particularly when dining out of the house. In fact, more than half of consumers are neutral or favorable towards MSG.4 This is particularly true for Millennial and Gen Z consumers, where 66% and 59%, respectively, report neutral or positive opinions towards the ingredient. Sharing factual and unbiased information on MSG shifts these numbers closer to 80%, suggesting that lingering consumer fears can be minimized with education.
Beyond MSG: the sodium-reducing potential of umami
While MSG is often known as the purest form of umami, other glutamate ingredients are available to enhance savory taste while lowering sodium. Non-sodium glutamates, such as monoammonium glutamate (MAG) and monopotassium glutamate (MPG), bring strong umami characteristics without additional sodium. Pure L-glutamic acid is another non-sodium alterative that lends itself to categories that are naturally more acidic, such as condiments, sauces and dressings. All glutamate ingredients amp up umami, allowing for lower levels of sodium without compromising taste.
The culinary and food science experts at Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition North America, Inc. can identify the most suitable glutamate ingredients to optimize sodium reduction across a broad range of categories. As consumer interest in more healthful QSR menu items increases, harnessing the power of umami can enhance nutrition without compromise.
Contact our Solutions & Ingredients team to find the right solution for your project.