Does fish sauce have MSG in it?

In this blog post, we will answer the following question: Does fish sauce have MSG in it? 

We will talk about the importance of fish sauce as an ingredient and whether MSG is dangerous or not.

Does fish sauce have MSG in it?

No, most fish sauces don’t contain msg. However, fish sauces contain natural biogenic amines, which gives them the umami taste, similar to the taste of MSG. Adenosine 50-monophosphate (AMP) is abundant in fish and shellfish. In addition, the process of fish sauce production involves the fermentation and ripening of fish under conditions which lead to the hydrolysis of fish proteins through the action of endogenous proteolytic enzymes, leading to the formation of free glutamines, which contribute to the umami taste (2).

The Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Food Safety Association (EFSA) considered MSG to be a substance generally recognized as safe (GRAS) (3). The European Commission on food additives fixed a limit of 10g/kg on L-glutamate and salts present in food products, except for unprocessed foods, baby foods (in which glutamate and salts are not allowed) and ‘seasoning and spices’ (for which no maximum level is specified) (2).

 MSG has a savory flavor and it is among the lists of banned additives because of its harmful effects on human health. Thus, fish sauce manufacturers don’t use it in the making of the sauce.

According to the report, the global monosodium glutamate market was valued at USD 4,500.0 million in 2014, and is expected to generate revenue of USD 5,850.0 million by end of 2020, growing at an annual growth rate of 4.5% between 2015 and 2020 (1).

Having said that, some fish sauces do contain MSG in them, as one of the many flavour components. Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a salt that is used as a flavour enhancer extracted from the Kombu seaweed and it is an ingredient that contributes to the umami flavour of the fish sauces. 

In general, the umami flavour is common to foods that contain high levels of L-glutamate, IMP and GMP, especially in fish, shellfish, cured meats, meat extracts, mushrooms, vegetables (Chinese cabbage, spinach, celery, etc. ) (2).

Today you can find some natural Sodium Glutamate (MSG) in almost all foods, but the most obvious are (2,4): 

  • Ripe tomatoes
  • Cured meats
  • Dried mushrooms
  • Soy sauce
  • Cheese

Of all the glutamate-rich foods and condiments, fish sauce is the oldest. In ancient Greek and Roman civilizations, fish sauce was widely used as a condiment. Like wine and edible oil, it was an important commodity. The trade-in fish sauce used as a condiment dates back to the 17th century BC. 

There were more than a hundred factories and the fish sauce was shipped in large vessels called amphorae. Archaeologists have discovered amphoras with inscriptions alluding to the grade of the product, its manufacturer and the ingredients used. 

What is fish sauce?

Fish sauce is an extract of anchovies fermented in salt for months. The final product is a liquid with a strong odour, dark brown and an intense, salty taste. During this fermentation process, umami accumulates, a “delicious” element that multiplies the flavours of any dish or ingredient.

Fish sauce is a clear brown liquid produced by spontaneous fermentation of diverse fish such as anchovies, sardines, and menhaden. During fermentation, protein hydrolysis is caused by endogenous proteinases in the fish muscle and digestive tract as well as proteases produced by halophilic bacteria. The species most commonly used for fish sauce production is Indian anchovy (Stolephorus spp.) (5).

Why is the fish sauce so important? 

Fish sauce is like salt in European food/ Although it has a strong smell and is quite offensive, when it is heated, alone or with other ingredients, the smell disappears.

The reason that it is used a lot is that it is very versatile and for few who do not know its characteristics, it is an agent that changes the flavour of itself and that increases the flavour of the other ingredients with which it is mixed. 

That is, when you add it, it already produces a different flavour, for example, like sugar or lime juice, or more like meat broth. More than that, each cooking method brings out a different flavour as well. Grilled or steamed, boiled, sautéed or fried, all the results come out with a different flavour. Finally, the sauce also changes if it is added before or after cooking.

For example, when preparing soup, such as Pho, combining with the star flavour of aniseed, fennel, clove and burnt ginger and onion, then with the flavour of the fish sauce, a subtle salty comes out because they stand out more aroma of meat and spices that this sauce without overlapping the others.

When it comes to marinating meats, their strong odour, strong salty flavour characteristics may not yet have changed. But in a few minutes when the meat touches the hot plate, it is already transforming the aroma, texture and flavour of the meat itself.

To make the dipping sauce to accompany the Nems (Vietnamese rolls), which does not need to be cooked, it leaves an intense flavour and smell to increase the flavour of the rolls. The rolls without the fish sauce would not turn out as good.

To experiment with using this product, instead of adding a pinch of salt, add a teaspoon of fish sauce and see how the flavour comes out. From there, you can experiment with the other ingredients.

Is MSG dangerous?

Several scientists have investigated whether MSG is dangerous or not to humans. 

Studies indicated that MSG administration increased cardiac tissue oxidative stress and also determined biochemical changes, namely increasing some heart disease biomarkers. Doses between 0.5 g/kg and 1.5 g/kg induced changes of cardiac rhythm, as well as lethal tachyarrhythmia in myocardial infarcted rats (3). 

There is insufficient evidence provided by studies that show whether diet-added MSG could induce behavioral, biochemical, and morphological changes in structures such as cerebrum, hippocampus, and cerebellum of adult mammals (3). 

Studies based on animal models have been inconsistent regarding a relationship between MSG consumption and body weight: while some reported a negative correlation, others suggested a direct link, associating MSG intake with higher energy intake and weight gain (3).

One of them, Dr John W. Olney, a researcher at the University of Washington, injected MSG into newborn mice and monkeys. In them, he observed that they grew obese, with dead tissue in the brain, atrophied or sterile body parts.

However, 19 other studies on the effects of MSG conducted in monkeys did not reach the same conclusion or even a similar one.

Human studies were also done. 71 volunteers were divided into two groups, one giving high-dose monosodium glutamate and the other a placebo. The researchers found that the so-called “Chinese restaurant syndrome” was developed by both participants in one group and the other.

In response, the FDA tried to bury the controversy once and for all and commissioned the Federation of Experimental Biology Societies to investigate the alleged evidence.

The experts concluded that there was insufficient scientific evidence to suggest that a healthy part of the population responded poorly to normal doses of MSG within an hour of its ingestion. According to the agency, the common dose would be about 0.55 grams of glutamate added to food.

Conclusions

In this blog post, we answered the following question: Does fish sauce have MSG in it? 

We talked about the importance of fish sauce as an ingredient and whether MSG is dangerous or not.

Generally, most brands of fish sauces content MSG, which is the main element to create the umami flavour, that is the taste that we all long for in our food – the right combination of salty, sweet, bitter and sour. 

The sodium salt of glutamic acid was discovered in 1908 by Kikunae Ikeda, a professor of chemistry at the University of Tokyo, and has the peculiarity of adding to food that flavour that the Japanese call “umami”.

Glutamate is found naturally in tomatoes, Parmesan cheese, dried mushrooms, soy sauce, various vegetables and fruits, and human milk. Kikunae isolated it from dried seaweed.

If you have any questions or comments on the content, please let us know!

Other FAQs about Sauces which you may be interested in.

Do vegetarians eat fish sauce?

Does curry sauce have dairy?

Does Thai fish sauce taste fishy?

Do sauces thicken as they cool?

References

  1. Datta, Arup, Aslam Hossain, and Sanjay Roy. An Overview on Monosodium Glutamate: Its direct and indirect effects. Res J Pharm Technol, 2019, 12, 6187-6192. 
  2. Ghirri, Alessia, and Enrico Bignetti. Occurrence and role of umami molecules in foods. Int J Food Sci Nutr, 2012, 63, 871-881.  
  3. Zanfirescu, Anca, et al. A review of the alleged health hazards of monosodium glutamate. Comprehen rev food sci food safe, 2019, 18, 1111-1134.
  4. Populin, Tiziana, et al. A survey on the presence of free glutamic acid in foodstuffs, with and without added monosodium glutamate. Food chem, 2007, 104, 1712-1717.
  5. Tran, Quang Hieu, Thanh Tan Nguyen, and Kim Phuong Pham. Development of the high sensitivity and selectivity method for the determination of histamine in fish and fish sauce from vietnam by UPLC-MS/MS. Int j analyt chem, 2020.