MSG Substitute – 9 Healthy Alternatives With Umami Flavor

In many countries, monosodium glutamate (MSG) goes by the name “China salt”. Some countries have banned the use of this flavoring ingredient for its possible side effects though unverified.

Many chefs use it and some even carry it with them wherever they go. In fact, some of the tastiest foods you enjoy in your favorite restaurants could be containing MSG.

Many don’t want to use MSG in their cooking though it makes the dish wonderfully tasty. If so, what else you can use in place of monosodium glutamate?

This article reveals the best MSG substitutes you can use in your recipe, also a little about its uses and flavor profile.

What is MSG?

It is the sodium salt of glutamate, an amino acid found abundantly in protein. It appears like crystal powder and helps to enhance the flavor of your dish with a wonderful umami taste.

Interestingly, it’s a controversial ingredient that many condemn to be dangerous for health in the long run. However, MSG is “generally recognized as safe” by FDA.

This salt is naturally found in a variety of foods like tomato, cheese, yeast, and soy extract.

What Is In MSG?

Technically, MSG is a white crystalline powder similar to sugar or table salt. It is a combination of sodium and glutamic acid, known as sodium salt. For manufacturing MSG, glutamic acid is made by fermenting starches. There is no chemical difference between glutamic acid in natural foods and manufactured MSG.

Monosodium glutamate is commercially produced and sold by the Ajinomoto Group, a Japanese food and biotechnology corporate. For this reason, MSG is also known as Ajinomoto in some places. The production involves the fermentation of plant-based ingredients like sugar beets, sugar cane, corn, or cassava.

What does MSG taste like?

MSG tastes like umami that is savory, meaty, or earthy. Currently, many chefs recognize umami as the fifth taste in addition to salty, sweet, bitter, and sour.

Some don’t consider umami to be a distinct taste for it cannot be distinguished. However, the umami taste of MSG makes the savory foods delicious with an earthy and meaty flavor.

How is MSG used?

MSG is a common ingredient in Chinese cooking but now many chefs across the world use it to enhance the flavor of their restaurant menu items.  Glutamate is a versatile ingredient that can easily be included in a wide variety of foods. Just like the common salt you use, MSG should be added when the food is almost done cooking. Avoid using it in foods cooked at high temperatures.

Today, monosodium glutamate is widely used in a lot of processed foods, no wonder why some of the food products from big brands taste so good. At the same time, many avoid eating foods with MSG for fear of possible side effects on health.

What is a Good MSG Substitute?

MSG is an FDA-approved food product yet many theories are propagated on the possible health hazards by using it for food flavoring. In some countries, the authorities have prohibited the sale of ‘Chinese salt’.

You may either don’t want to use it or not be available in your area. In such a scenario, use an MSG substitute to make your dishes delicious. Here are 9 alternatives to try in your dishes:

1. Beef stock or bouillon

Beef stock is an excellent substitute for MSG for they have umami flavor. Like MSG, beef stock contains glutamate. The more the stock gets reduced the higher its concentration of glutamate.

You can easily make beef stock at home by simmering a combination of animal bones, mirepoix (a mixture of onions, carrots, and celery), and aromatics in water. Importantly, beef stock is beneficial to health as it contains several nutrients including calcium.

Another option is to buy stock cubes or bouillon cubes that include MSG and use them in your dishes.  Bouillon cubes are dehydrated beef stocks, often enriched with MSG-rich ingredients like yeast.

In short, meat stock or bouillon enhances the meaty flavor of meat dishes and vegetable savories as MSG does.

2. Soy sauce

Soy sauce is another great replacement for MSG that works particularly well in soups, stir-fries, and casseroles. This salty condiment is commonly used in several Asian cuisines and is now popular in American and Mediterranean dishes as well.

Soy sauce is rich in natural glutamate and contains a significant amount of sodium. The fermented soy sauce has natural glutamate while the processed variety of soy sauce with hydrolyzed soy protein comes with added MSG. Both varieties of soy sauce can be used in place of MSG in your dish.

3. Parmesan cheese

Parmesan is a fermented Italian cheese that contains natural glutamate. In the process of fermenting the cheese, amino acids are released as the protein breaks down and natural MSG is developed.  In fact, it’s the high concentration of MSG in this cheese that renders meaty, savory flavor to some Italian dishes like pizza, risotto, pasta, and others.

Undoubtedly, parmesan cheese, known for its lovely umami flavor, is a healthy swap for MSG. Note that it may work perfectly in Italian types of dishes but may not be suitable in Asian savory dishes.

4. Dulse

Dulse is a kind of edible seaweed that has a salty flavor like MSG. Dulse is a commonly used ingredient in some popular Asian cuisines. Use it in place of MSG, which works well in Asian dishes that call for glutamate.

5. Shiitake Mushrooms

Among all the vegetables, shiitake mushrooms have a very high concentration of glutamate. For people who also enjoy the mushroom flavor, it’s a nice MSG substitute, especially in savory dishes. The flavor of the shiitake mushrooms can be made intense by caramelizing them before roasting or using them in savory dishes.

6. Yeast extract

Yeast contains natural glutamic acid which can render an MSG-like taste to some of your dishes. It comes in powder or granule form and is easily available in any average grocery store.

Yeast is commonly used for fermenting the dough for baked goods like bread and in beverages like beer. Use a small scoop of yeast in place of MSG in savory dishes and it enhances the taste of your food.

7. Anchovies

An anchovy is a small, common forage fish of the family Engraulidae. Surprisingly, this variety of fish has a substantial amount of natural glutamate in them. Thus adding a fillet of anchovy to your dishes makes them taste amazingly delicious as MSG does. Often, anchovy, loved for its salty umami taste, is a regular ingredient in Italian sauces, pasta, and other saucy dishes.

8. Salt

Salt is a regular cooking ingredient, a must-have item in almost every recipe across the world. It doesn’t provide an umami taste but its salty flavor is equivalent to MSG in enhancing the taste of a dish. Salt works in all recipes and not necessary to have MSG when using salt.

9. Tomatoes

The humble tomatoes have an umami taste when cooked, especially in dishes like marinara sauce. They contain a good bit of natural glutamate similar to MSG. The versatile tomatoes can be easily integrated into most savory dishes. Though not perfect, still they work as a good MSG substitute in a pinch.

Final Thoughts

MSG, a controversial flavor enhancer recognized as safe by the FDA, is naturally found in foods like tomatoes and cheese.

Alternatives for MSG include beef stock, soy sauce, Parmesan cheese, dulse, shiitake mushrooms, yeast extract, anchovies, salt, and tomatoes.

These substitutes, ranging from umami-rich ingredients to basic salt, offer diverse flavors and health benefits, making them suitable for various cuisines as MSG replacements.

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