Foods With This Flavor May Promote Healthier Eating — but There's a Catch

Jul 9, 2018 at 11:40 a.m. ET
Cup of broth on wooden plate on blue table
Image: Andrey Zhuravlev/Getty Images.

At this stage, we all know that certain foods come with benefits, whether they're vitamins, minerals or energy-producing protein. But new research suggests that consuming one type of food — or more specifically, a flavor — may actually make us healthier eaters.

Researchers at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center at Harvard Medical School found that consuming a broth rich in umami — a rich, savory taste — can trigger subtle changes in the brain that promote healthier eating and food choices, especially for women.

First, let's back up and talk about umami. Umami is a Japanese word used to describe a complex savory flavor beyond the four basic tastes of sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Certain foods — like aged cheese, fermented soy products, asparagus, grilled fatty meats or seafood — contain a molecule called L-glutamate, which is behind the flavor. 

The term was coined in 1908 by a chemistry professor from Tokyo Imperial University who went on to cofound Ajinomoto, one of the leading manufacturers of monosodium glutamate. As it turns out, this particular study was supported by a grant from Ajinomoto, though according to a statement from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, the company had no role in the design, analysis or writing of the article. 

Also worthy of note is the long racist history in America of MSG being blamed for everything from migraines to obesity to asthma, epilepsy and autism. There's no scientific evidence it does any of those things, but people still routinely avoid MSG or blame it for making them ill. So while having an essentially pro-MSG study partially funded by an MSG company is kind of a red flag, there are decades an anti-MSG junk science in existence, so conducting new research in this area does make sense.

More: It's Time to Get Over MSG Already — It's Just Not Bad for You

But getting back to the study, published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacologyresearchers were looking to test previous work that found that eating a broth or soup supplemented with MSG before a meal can decrease appetite and make you eat less. To do this, they analyzed any changes that occurred in the brains of healthy young women after they ate chicken broth, with or without MSG added, followed by  a buffet meal.

Turns out the group that ate the umami-rich broth had more control over how much they ate, paid closer attention to the meal and had higher levels of engagement of a part of the brain linked to successful self-regulation while eating.

More: We Know Fiber-Rich Foods Are Good for Us — Here's Why & What to Eat

“Previous research in humans studied the effects of umami broths on appetite, which is typically assessed with subjective measures. Here, we extended these findings replicating the beneficial effects of umami on healthy eating in women at higher risk of obesity, and we used new laboratory measures that are sensitive and objective,” Dr. Miguel Alonso-Alonso, senior author of the study and an assistant professor at the Center for the Study of Nutrition Medicine in BIDMC’s Department of Surgery, said in a statement

Alonso-Alonso also pointed out that a lot of the existing research on flavor has focused on the impact of sugar and sweetness on the brain and ignored the effects of eating savory foods. And he noted that more research outside laboratory settings needs to be done to see if these brain changes accumulate over time, having longer-term effects on our eating habits. Either way, we'll take this as an excuse to order the miso soup.

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