Does fish sauce have MSG in it? (benefits and risks of MSG)

In this article, we will answer the following question: “Does fish sauce have MSG in it?” and discuss what is the composition of fish sauce, what are the benefits and risks of including MSG in food and what to use instead of fish sauce to avoid glutamate.

Does fish sauce have MSG in it?

No, most fish sauce does not contain MSG. MSG is the abbreviation of monosodium glutamate, a synthetic molecule used as a food enhancer that characterised the umami taste (1).

However, the fish sauce contains free glutamate, which results from the hydrolysis process of the fish protein. For this reason, fish sauce is often used as a food enhancer.

Free glutamate is a form of the amino acid glutamate that is found in the free form rather than bound to other amino acids, such as when composing a protein in food. It can be found in many foods and can be naturally occurring or derived from fermentation processes.

Some foods that contain free glutamate are ripe tomatoes, cured meats, dried mushrooms, soy sauce, and aged cheeses, such as cheddar, broccoli, chicken and potatoes (1, 3).

What is the composition of fish sauce?

Fish sauce is composed mainly of amino acids derived from the fermentation process of fish by microorganisms and salt. The sauce is obtained from fish species such as anchovies, sardines, menhaden, and seafood such as squid (2).

The fermentation, which can take some days to many months and even a year, results in the breakdown of the fish protein, which is hydrolysed by endogenous proteinases in the fish muscle and by the action of halophilic bacteria, which are bacteria that survive under a high salt containing environment.

Depending on the process, other ingredients may be added, such as acids, enzymes, spices and koji.

What are the benefits of adding MSG to food?

The benefits of adding MSG to food are flavour enhancement and the possibility of reducing the amount of salt in the food. Because MSG can interfere with the food taste by enhancing other tastes, the use of MSG in salty foods enables lower amounts of sodium to be added.

Ingestion of high amounts of sodium in the diet is related to a higher risk of developing diseases, such as high blood pressure and stroke (4). A reduction of the salt amount in food is recommended by health professionals to reduce the rates of these diseases in the population.

The use of MSG can also favour individuals suffering from loss of appetite or individuals of low body weight who need to gain weight. Enhancing the food flavour can promote food consumption by increasing appetite (1, 3).

What are the risks of adding MSG to food?

The risks of adding MSG in food are still unclear. Several scientists have investigated whether MSG is dangerous or not to humans. Some studies indicate that the high intake of this food additive may cause negative health effects (5).

Some of the risks of chronic exposure are damage to the liver, heart and behaviour, in addition to increasing the risks of some cancers. However, there is no robust published scientific literature determining the risks of moderate ingestion of MSG in the long term (1).

However, a high ingestion is not recommended. Doses between 0.5 g/kg and 1.5 g/kg caused an altered cardiac rhythm, leading to heart stroke in rats, as described in studies (5).

What is a glutamate-free alternative to fish sauce?

A glutamate-free alternative to fish sauce is peanut sauce. Peanut sauce can be produced with equal parts of peanut butter and coconut milk and the addition of water. The ingredients are mixed and boiled till they are fully homogeneous (6).

Although the free glutamate in fish sauce is not artificially added, thus not presenting a health risk, you can consider the use of peanut sauce due to other health or personal reasons.

Peanuts are a good source of proteins and contain nutrients, such as potassium, magnesium, iron and zinc, in addition to a high amount of unsaturated fatty acids and vitamin E, which may favour health due to their antioxidant properties.


In this article, we answered the following question: “Does fish sauce have MSG in it?” and discussed the composition of fish sauce, what are the benefits and risks of adding MSG in food and what is a possible alternative to fish sauce that is free from glutamate.

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Shivanne Gowda SG, Narayan B, Gopal S. Bacteriological properties and health-related biochemical components of fermented fish sauce: An overview. Food Reviews International. 2016 Apr 2;32(2):203-29.


Ghirri A, Bignetti E. Occurrence and role of umami molecules in foods. International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition. 2012 Nov 1;63(7):871-81.


Whelton PK, Appel LJ, Sacco RL, Anderson CA, Antman EM, Campbell N, Dunbar SB, Frohlich ED, Hall JE, Jessup M, Labarthe DR. Sodium, blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease: further evidence supporting the American Heart Association sodium reduction recommendations. Circulation. 2012 Dec 11;126(24):2880-9.


Zanfirescu A, Ungurianu A, Tsatsakis AM, Nițulescu GM, Kouretas D, Veskoukis A, Tsoukalas D, Engin AB, Aschner M, Margină D. A review of the alleged health hazards of monosodium glutamate. Comprehensive reviews in food science and food safety. 2019 Jul;18(4):1111-34.

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