Do you know why cheap noodles from your local Chinese taste so flipping good?
Probably the MSG in them, because it delivers precious umami to your tongue.
Umawhat? You may ask. Well, long-known in Asian cooking, umami is a dfficult-to-describe 'fifth taste' that takes flavour beyond sweet, salty, sour and bitter, and is regularly sprinkled over food in the form of MSG to enhance flavours, making food more satisfying and tasty.
And now it seems it this umami tongue-gasm may also hold the key to eating less.
New research has found that eating food with a strong umami element actually makes us eat less of it because a smaller amount is more satisfying, thanks to its full flavour.
More savoury than sweet, the umami flavour is actually glutamate, and is naturally found in a variety of foods including cooked meat and cheese, fermented soy and tomatoes, among others.
But unfortunately, to get the umami flavour more easily, cooks tend to reach for the chemical version MSG - monosodium glutamate - as a quick fix.
This substance looks like a white powder, is deliciously addictive and really rather bad for you. But it's not just found in Asian cuisine. When the West discovered how incredible it made food taste they promptly brought it back with them and it's now found in everything from canned goods to ready meals.
This new study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, investigated how full and satisfied 27 people felt after eating the same breakfast - half with added MSG and half without. And how much lunch they subsequently ate.
Those who had MSG in their breakfast ate less food at lunch but said they were more satisfied. So experts claim this shows umami is an important substance in the regulation of appetite.
But that doesn't mean chowing down on MSG-stufffed food will help you lose weight. Far from it.
MSG has been linked to a variety of side effects, from feeling faint and weak to headaches and nausea. More alarmingly there are a number of theories that link MSG to longer term health issues.
Experts have suggested it's a toxin that overexcites our cells beyond their natural capabilities, causing cell death and even brain damage in the form of Alzheimer's.
The Food and Drug Association in the US even states:
“Studies have shown that the body uses glutamate, an amino acid, as a nerve impulse transmitter in the brain and that there are glutamate-responsive tissues in other parts of the body, as well.
"Abnormal function of glutamate receptors has been linked with certain neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer's disease and Huntington's chorea. Injections of glutamate in laboratory animals have resulted in damage to nerve cells in the brain.”
It's not sounding like a longterm solution to the obesity crisis, then. But what we can take from this is how important it is to enjoy our food and make it flavourful and delicious (though not by artificial means).
A variety of flavours and eating different meals rather than relying on the same few on rotation will make you feel more satisfied by your diet and should encourage you not to pick between meals, helping you keep your weight down.
And it's not all doom and gloom. Eating a bit of MSG occasionally won't do too much harm, and if you're a big consumer of salt it may help you cut down. Just try to avoid it in high levels and if you notice any adverse affects, avoid.