Could MSG-spiked chicken soup save the world? If the world's problem is obesity in otherwise healthy young women, maybe. A paper published in Nature Neuropsychopharmacology this month shows how the savory broth triggers helpful changes in brain activity: it helps the women make better food choices.
Drinking chicken broth "rich in umami", meaning laden with monosodium glutamate, before eating was associated with relatively inhibited consumption at a buffet, researchers from the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center report.
The paper Greta Magerowski and colleagues explained why they only tested women: they wanted to build on previous studies that had shown MSG to have more of an effect on that group, and to reduce outcome variability related to gender.
There are caveats, one being that they tested only healthy young women, and there are other types of overweight people out there.
Two is that it was done on only 35 women, which is too small a group to warrant earth-shaking conclusions.
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Three is that we can't know whether developing an umami soup habit will have any long-term effect. You might slurp down the rich-flavored savory potage before one meal and behave with miraculous restraint, but maybe it won't work twice, or maybe the effect will wear off, or maybe éclairs overpower the influence. We could develop umami soup resistance. Who knows.
Meanwhile, the results show how MSG influences our eating choices: by affecting our brain.
Monosodium glutamate is an artificially manufactured salt of the amino acid glutamate, which other things helps regulate digestion. Umami has been shown to affect appetite more than sweet or bland hors d'oeuvres, most markedly in women.
The experiment consisted of feeding healthy young women chicken broth with or without MSG, then testing the women's reactions to a buffet situation: their self-control, their eye movements, and brain's reactions to the sight of the various foods.
Eating the laced soup improved the women's inhibitory control, they report. Eating regular chicken soup did not. Nor does it cure the common cold, but that's another story.
"We found evidence for improvement in key parameters related to inhibitory control following intake of the MSG+ broth, particularly in subjects with high levels of eating disinhibition," which is another way to say, women prone to binging were particularly prone to the influence of the savory soup, wrote study leader Miguel Alonso-Alonso of the BIDMC's Department of Surgery and colleagues.
The women given the spiked soup also ate less saturated fat during the meal, say the scientists. That touches on better food choices, albeit subconscious ones.
Regarding their eyes, eating the broth with the MSG helped the women focus on the food on their plate rather than check out with the competition is eating.
And finally, drinking MSG broth increased activity in the left prefrontal cortex that other studies have associated with successful self-control while deciding what to eat.
Yes, the MSG soup seems to have helped the healthy young women make smarter eating decisions, the scientists infer.
All in all results won't make your doctor prescribe monosodium glutamate-spiked soup just yet, but they do suggest that eating umami soup before a meal helps healthy young women with weight issues achieve healthier eating behavior. Perhaps we will find out one day what it does to chubby elderly men. It probably can't hurt: "Many cultures around the world advocate drinking a broth before a meal," Alonso-Alonso points out.
Umami is a Japanese word to express a fifth basic taste: savory. The other four are sweet, salty, bitter, and sour. Glutamate, a key component of the umami flavor, is widespread in foods, especially animal protein. The form MSG is very widely used as a food additive, not only in western-style so-called "Chinese food" but in canned vegetables and industrial foods, including – yes – soup powders. Manufacturers like it because MSG enhances flavor.
What else MSG does remains to be seen. Regulators tend to wax cautious but in fact no proof has been found that MSG causes cancer, as had once been feared. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration calls it "generally recognized as safe." Nor has allergy to MSG been scientifically proven, though the Mayo Clinic points out that some people may feel have short-term reactions to MSG that are usually mild. If you think you're sensitive, don't eat it.