Flavor is surely a force to be reckoned with, and continues to be the number one factor in consumer satisfaction with packaged goods. While product developers are driven to meet wave after wave of consumer trends—keto, plant-based, low-calorie, etc.—no product they create will succeed without hitting the mark on taste. Over the past decade, perfecting flavor in food and beverage products that also deliver on consumers’ increasing demands for ingredient innovation, across trends like plant-based eating and global cuisines has become even more important.

Food preparers throughout time have leaned on sodium chloride – salt – to enhance savory flavors in foods. And, in fact, salt is a key nutrient. Yet, 90% of the U.S. population regularly consumes more than the recommended daily intake of sodium, 70% of which comes from processed foods, which has made salt reduction an important challenge for food developers.

Everywhere from snack foods to the plant-based industry, product developers are revisiting the fundamentals of food chemistry to create the next generation of savory foods. Compounding this is a need to keep formulations simple, low-cost, and suitable for minimal processing.

The key to successful savory products in general, but especially plant-based products, are the twin flavor concepts of umami and kokumi respectively, “meatiness” and “richness.” Umami is such an essential component of taste that it has earned the designation of the “fifth flavor,” alongside sweet, sour, salty, and bitter flavors. The savory essence of umami comes predominantly from the naturally occurring amino acid glutamate (glutamic acid). Kokumi, a Japanese word that translates as “rich,” “full,” or “hearty,” enhances the overall fullness and complexity of the flavors inherent in a food.

Glutamate is found in a number of protein-containing foods, including meats, poultry, seafood, eggs, and aged cheeses. Glutamate is even naturally found in human breast milk! Its plant-based sources include tomatoes, nuts, grains, seaweed, mushrooms, peas, yeast, root vegetables, and beans (especially soy), with extracts and fermentations of these ingredients being especially concentrated sources.

Sodium Reduction Solutions

Monosodium glutamate, or MSG—has been recognized as a safe, natural form of glutamate for more than a century. Not only does MSG enhance umami in food preparations; it has also been shown to bring out other natural flavors in companion ingredients. In this manner, MSG works synergistically with other ingredients, especially proteins and protein fractions, such as other amino acids and nucleotides found in foods to create a more holistic flavor profile for a formulation.

Research shows that when MSG activates specific glutamate receptors in the taste buds, signals are dispatched to distinct regions in the brain, stimulating the sense of taste. But more than that, results of recent studies suggest that these glutamate receptors also exist throughout the stomach and intestinal lining. Thus, MSG also could contribute to the amplification other flavor notes, such as sweetness, depth, or complexity. Possible application for this could be in production situations where flavor aspects are negatively impacted by processing and production.

MSG has proven to be highly effective in lowering sodium content, while boosting the savory notes and richness of products like stews, soups, dressings, snacks, and seasoning or spice blends. These products often contain a higher salt content that would render them unqualified for a low-sodium claim on the label.

Despite decades of clinical, peer-reviewed scientific research and support from health organizations around the world validating MSG's century-long history of safety, the ingredient still faces lingering skepticism. While consumers are becoming more accepting and understanding of MSG, retailers holding “unacceptable ingredient lists” unfairly perpetuates the stigma. The FDA has repeatedly recognized MSG as a generally recognized as safe (GRAS), effective flavor enhancer. Yet, in misalignment with the country’s primary governing body of food safety, many retailers still prohibit the use of MSG in products they carry. Given MSG can enhance salty flavors while imparting just one-third of the sodium of table salt, unnecessary and unscientific restrictions on MSG hamper sodium-reduction efforts.

Putting the Culture Back Into Cultural Foods

As makers of better-for-you products take on new paradigms in recipe development, they are turning to MSG not only for its potential to help reduce sodium in processed goods while delivering on taste, but in order to create culturally authentic representations of various global cuisines, especially those from Asian countries – which are trending in a big way in 2023. (For example, the New York Times called “Japanese-adjacency” one of the top food trends for 2023.) Hundreds, if not thousands of traditional recipes in Asian cuisines rely on the singular savoriness only MSG can deliver. Replacing MSG in such foods not only limits efforts to reduce sodium, it cancels some of the culture out of these cultural foods.

In a recent study1 from Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition which surveyed a nationally representative group of shoppers, customers of a prominent national grocery retail chain remarked that they “believe that the grocer should be a champion of diversity and inclusion,” with 68% believing its stores be inclusive of authentic global products. But when retailers ban products (like MSG) with both an impeccable safety record and an integral role in the history and authenticity of many global cuisines, implementing these lists and championing inclusivity become mutually exclusive. Ajinomoto Health and Nutrition is working to expand understanding of the power of amino acid technologies, including MSG, to consumers, product developers, and retailers alike to help maintain the authenticity of global cuisine.

Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition North America, Inc. is part of the Ajinomoto Group, the parent company that grew out of the discovery of monosodium glutamate in 1906. As the experts in the science of amino acids, they are ready to partner with food developers and manufacturers to bring healthful, delicious new products from ideation to table – including sodium reduction solutions using glutamates, plant-based taste and texture solutions, authentic global cuisines, savory snack products and more. Learn more about ways to partner and innovate today.

1 Edelman DxI for Ajinomoto Health and Nutrition North America, Inc., January 2023