By Dr. Mercola
More than 100 years ago, a Japanese chemist named Kikunae Ikeda discovered the secret that made dashi, a classic seaweed soup, so delicious. It was glutamic acid, which, in your body is often found as glutamate.
Ikeda called this new flavor “umami,” which means “delicious” in Japanese, but it wasn’t until 2002 that modern-day scientists confirmed umami to be a fifth taste, along with sweet, sour, bitter, and salty.
Most foods contain glutamate, although some more than others. Foods naturally high in glutamate include protein-rich meat, eggs, poultry, milk, cheese, and fish, along with sea vegetables, ripe tomatoes, and mushrooms.
Umami is valued for making foods taste better. When an umami-rich food like seaweed is added to soup stock, for instance, it makes the broth heartier, more “meaty” and more satisfying.
Umami has a bit of a dark side in that it is chemically similar to the synthetic food additive monosodium glutamate (MSG). MSG is added to foods to give them more of that sought-after umami flavor and, indeed, both umami and MSG target the same receptors in your body.
They are not identical, however, nor equally safe, as I’ll explain shortly. However, umami, in its natural form glutamate or glutamic acid, may boost post-meal satiety, helping you to eat less, and possibly lose weight, over time.
Five Healthy Umami-Rich Foods That May Help You Eat Less
A recent study found that adding MSG to soup stimulated appetite initially, but then increased post-meal satiety.1 Ultimately, this led the study participants to eat less throughout the day. This is clearly not something I recommend (and, in fact, MSG has been linked to weight gain).
However, there are naturally umami-rich foods that you can add to your diet to increase your satiety while boosting your nutrition as well.2
Nine studies on mushrooms detail a wide variety of health benefits, including improved weight management, improved nutrition, increased vitamin D levels, and improved immune system function. One of the active medicinal compounds found in Cordyceps mushrooms has even been identified as a potential cancer drug.
More recent studies suggest it also has potent anti-inflammatory characteristics that may be helpful for those suffering from: asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, renal failure, and stroke damage.
In addition to valuable nutrients, whole mushrooms also provide healthful dietary fiber that acts as prebiotic platforms for the growth of probiotic organisms in your gut, which is very important for digestive health.
Shiitake mushrooms are particularly rich in umami flavor (this is why they’re often used in place of meat in sandwiches), so try adding them to soups, stews, salads, sandwiches, and practically anything else.
Truffles, a fungus, contain three types of umami substances, and just a thin slice can add robust flavor to your food. Truffles are considered a delicacy and are quite expensive because they’re difficult to cultivate. However, if you come across some, try adding it to eggs, wild-caught salmon, or veggies. You can also use truffle oil to add more flavor to your meals.
3. Green Tea
Green tea can be used not only as a beverage, but also to add umami flavor to soups, marinades, rice, or vegetables. You can even add the tea leaves to smoothies or spice rubs. In addition to intensifying the flavor of your meals, green tea may also be beneficial for heart health, bone health, brain health, type 2 diabetes, weight loss, vision health, and more.
Seaweed imparts a strong umami flavor into virtually any dish it touches. Try it as a salad or added to eggs, stir frys, and soup. Seaweed is an excellent source of iodine, vitamins, and minerals, provided it comes from clean, non-polluted waters. Research also suggests that brown seaweed may help boost fat-burning in your body.
5. Ripe Tomatoes
Glutamic acid rises in tomatoes as they ripen, so choose ripe tomatoes for the most umami flavor. You can add tomatoes to salads, soups, stews, casseroles, and much more. In addition to umami flavor, tomatoes (especially cooked tomatoes) are an excellent source of lycopene, which has been shown to have potential anti-cancer activity, likely due to its antioxidant properties.
Umami Is Not the Same as MSG
You may hear some nutrition “experts” claim that umami and MSG are one and the same, but this is far from reality. Back in 1909, Ikeda (the Japanese chemist who discovered the umami flavor) began industrially producing glutamate from fermented vegetable proteins, and marketed it as Ajinomoto (“essence of taste”).
Its popularity took off in Japan, and soon it became a household staple, not only in Japan but throughout Asia. Decades later, Ajinomoto came to the US, using the name “Accent,” i.e. monosodium glutamate, and was initially popular for adding flavor to military rations. Today, it is clear that MSG is not a safe food additive.
Dr. Russell Blaylock, a retired board-certified neurosurgeon and author of Excitotoxins: The Taste that Kills, explains that MSG is an excitotoxin, which means it overexcites your cells to the point of damage or death, causing brain damage to varying degrees -- and potentially even triggering or worsening learning disabilities, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, Lou Gehrig's disease, and more.
Part of the problem is that free glutamic acid (MSG is approximately 78 percent free glutamic acid) is the same neurotransmitter that your brain, nervous system, eyes, pancreas, and other organs use to initiate certain processes in your body. Although the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) continues to claim that consuming MSG in food does not cause these ill effects, many other experts say otherwise.
According to Dr. Blaylock, numerous glutamate receptors have been found both within your heart's electrical conduction system and the heart muscle itself. This can be damaging to your heart, and may even explain the sudden deaths sometimes seen among young athletes.
Eye damage, fatigue, disorientation, and depression have all been linked to MSG consumption, and that's not even including the short-term reactions known as MSG Symptom Complex that can occur in certain groups of people, namely those who have eaten "large doses" of MSG or who have asthma. Symptoms related to MSG Symptom Complex may include:
Tingling and numbness ||Burning sensation ||Facial pressure or tightness
|Chest pain or difficulty breathing ||Headache ||Nausea
|Rapid heartbeat ||Drowsiness ||Weakness
Why MSG Is Dangerous: Free Glutamic Acid
While MSG and umami may be chemically similar, there is an important distinction that significantly affects the way it reacts in your body. Umami flavor, or natural glutamic acid (glutamate), found in natural foods is “bound” to other amino acids or proteins. The glutamic acid that is MSG is not. As reported by Smithsonian magazine:3
“Glutamates that occur naturally in food come intertwined with different chemicals or fiber, which the body is naturally inclined to regulate, explains Amy Cheng Vollmer, professor of biology at Swarthmore College. MSG, however, comes without the natural components of food that help the body regulate glutamic levels. It’s like taking an iron supplement versus obtaining iron from spinach or red meat: the iron supplement creates an expressway between the iron and your bloodstream that you wouldn’t find in natural iron sources. ‘The bottom line here is context is everything,’ Vollmer adds.”
As explained by Eden Foods, when you eat glutamic acid in real foods, your body controls how much is absorbed. Excess glutamic acid is passed off as waste, not stored in your body. They continue:4
“In the chemical MSG manufacturing plant, however, the bound glutamic acid… is broken down or made 'free of protein' by various processes (hydrolyzed, autolyzed, modified or fermented with strong chemicals, acids, bacteria, or enzymes, which are often genetically modified) and refined to a white crystal powder that resembles salt or sugar. Chemical MSG contains 78% glutamate, 12.2% sodium, and 9.6% water. This chemical form is known as D-glutamic acid. It usually contains some L-glutamic acid, pyroglutamic acid, and other contaminants. This factory-made version causes serious reactions.
From our research there is no D-glutamic acid, pyroglutamic acid or other contaminants in the protein found in plants and animals, only L-glutamic acid. When pure, manufactured, MSG is ingested a rapid effect occurs from the glutamate. This 'free of protein' glutamic acid, or glutamate unlike the naturally occurring 'protein bound' glutamate, is not attached to other amino acids. The normal digestive disassembly process does not happen because there are no 'peptide' bonds to slow the process. The sudden increase in free glutamic acid is then rapidly absorbed and can raise blood levels of glutamate eight to ten times causing toxicity.”
As mentioned earlier, if you are looking to shed pounds, consuming MSG is not a good choice. After analyzing MSG intake and weight gain among more than 10,000 Chinese adults, past research found that those who ate the most MSG (about 5 grams a day) were about 30 percent more likely to become overweight than those who ate the least (less than a half-gram a day).5 The researchers speculated that the hormone leptin may be involved in the weight gain, as those who consumed more MSG also produced more leptin. They noted that MSG consumption may cause leptin resistance.
How to Avoid MSG and Free Glutamate in Your Food
It can be difficult to determine if a food contains MSG, even though it's required by the FDA that food manufacturers list the ingredient "monosodium glutamate" on food labels. This is because they do not have to label ingredients that contain free glutamic acid, even though it's the main component of MSG. The easiest way to avoid MSG is to simply avoid processed foods, fast foods and restaurant food, its main hideouts. But in the event you need to check a label, here's an MSG "cheat sheet" that can help you identify it.
These ingredients contain MSG:
Autolyzed Yeast ||Calcium Caseinate ||Yeast Food
|Glutamate ||Glutamic Acid ||Hydrolyzed Protein
|Monopotassium Glutamate ||Monosodium Glutamate ||Sodium Caseinate
|Textured Protein ||Yeast Extract ||Yeast Nutrient
These ingredients can OFTEN contain MSG or create MSG during processing:
Flavors and Flavorings ||Seasonings ||Natural Flavors and Flavorings ||Natural Pork Flavoring ||Natural Beef Flavoring
|Natural Chicken Flavoring ||Soy Sauce ||Soy Protein Isolate ||Soy Protein ||Bouillon
|Stock ||Broth ||Malt Extract ||Malt Flavoring ||Barley Malt
|Anything Enzyme Modified
||Carrageenan ||Maltodextrin ||Pectin ||Enzymes
|Protease ||Corn Starch ||Citric Acid ||Powdered Milk ||Anything Protein Fortified
|Anything Ultra-Pasteurized ||Gelatin||
Are You Trying to Lose Weight? Here’s What You Should Know
If you are interested in optimizing your health and losing weight in the process, your BEST solution is to choose the highest quality foods possible, and eat a wide variety of whole organic foods. You can use my free nutrition plan and work your way up to the advanced stage. As described at length in other articles, to lose weight you need to:
- Avoid sugar, processed fructose, and grains if you are insulin and leptin resistant. This effectively means you must avoid most processed foods
- Eat a healthy diet of whole foods, ideally organic, and replace the grain carbs with:
- Large amounts of fresh organic locally grown vegetables
- Low-to-moderate amount of high-quality protein (think organically raised, pastured animals)
- As much high-quality healthy fat as you want (saturated and monounsaturated from animal and tropical oil sources). Most people actually need upwards of 50-85 percent fats in their diet for optimal health—a far cry from the 10 percent currently recommended. Sources of healthy fats to add to your diet include:
||Butter made from raw grass-fed organic milk
||Organic pastured egg yolks
|Coconuts and coconut oil
||Unheated organic nut oils
||Raw nuts, such as almonds, pecans, and macadamia, and seeds
Intermittent fasting is the most powerful strategy that I know of for shedding excess weight, as it will help your body shift to fat-burning mode. It typically takes several weeks to shift to burning fat as your primary fuel, but once you do, your cravings for unhealthy foods and carbs seem to disappear as you’re now actually able to burn your stored fat and not have to rely on new carbs for fuel. Once you've addressed your diet, exercise can truly begin to work its magic on your physique and help boost fat loss even further.
High-intensity interval exercises are at the core of my Peak Fitness routine. This short intense training protocol improves muscle energy utilization and expenditure due to its positive effects on increasing muscle mass and improving muscle fiber quality. Further, several studies have confirmed that exercising in shorter bursts with rest periods in between burns more fat than exercising continuously for an entire session. Together with a healthy diet and intermittent fasting, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) will likely be the last piece of the puzzle you need to reach your healthy, ideal weight.