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What is the science behind the savoury taste?

Monosodium glutamate, or MSG, was discovered more than a century ago by the Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda in 1909, who termed this unique taste “umami”, the fifth taste besides sweet, sour, salty and bitter. MSG is the sodium salt of glutamate comprised of just sodium and glutamate. There are also other salts of glutamate such as ammonium glutamate and potassium glutamate.

It is not possible to distinguish between added glutamate and naturally occurring glutamate, because it is the same substance. When MSG is added to foods, it provides the same flavouring function (in simple terms ‘savoury’) as the glutamate that occurs naturally in foods. Today, MSG is mostly produced by a natural fermentation process that has been used for centuries to make foods such as beer, vinegar and yoghurt.

There have been some concerns raised about the contribution of MSG to sodium intake via diet. However, MSG contains only about one-third the amount of sodium as table salt (13 percent vs. 40 percent) and so where we use it in products, in combination with a small amount of table salt, MSG can help reduce the total amount of sodium in a recipe by 20% to 40%, while maintaining an enhanced flavour.

The level of glutamate for example in Maggi noodles is around 0.2 g/100 g, which is close to the average level of glutamate measured in the same portion size of tomatoes or peas.

Read more about the science behind the savoury taste (pdf, 600Kb)