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How Flavor Enhancers Work

Natural Flavor Enhancers

Salt is the original and universal natural flavor enhancer. The salt shaker on the diner counter and in your kitchen cupboard is filled with table salt, which is produced by solution mining, injecting water into underground salt beds and evaporating the brine into crystals. Salt that's marketed as "sea salt" is evaporated by the sun directly from ocean or salty lake water [source: Maldon Salt].

Salt has been mined, traded and consumed in vast quantities for at least the past 5,000 to 10,000 years. Salt was the world's first preservative, helping to cure meats and ferment vegetables. The average human living thousands of years ago would have eaten 3,000 to 5,000 milligrams of sodium – almost exclusively through salt – each day [source: Henney et al.].

That's not so different from today; the average American consumed about 3,400 milligrams of the stuff in 2013 every day, although the recommended daily sodium intake for adults is 2,300 milligrams [source: Mayo Clinic].

As a flavor enhancer, salt is unmatched. Studies show that the flavor of processed food improves directly with the addition of more and more salt, up to a tipping point. (And don't think that food scientists aren't pushing that limit.) Salt is believed to work by suppressing the body's sensory perception of naturally bitter compounds like caffeine, magnesium sulfate and potassium chloride [source: Henney et al.]. That's why sweet foods tend to taste sweeter and savory foods even richer and brighter when salt is added.

MSG, a synthetic umami enhancer, is a glutamate bomb, but there are plenty of foods with high levels of naturally occurring glutamic acid. In Japan, stocks made from kombu, a sea kelp, are rich in glutamate. Shiitake mushrooms, Parmesan cheese, anchovies, tomatoes, dried shrimp and egg yolks are also used by chefs and home cooks worldwide to boost the savory, well-rounded umami flavor of foods [sources: Moskin, Turner].

Home cooks looking for a healthy, natural way to enhance the flavors of family meals can use some classic kitchen tricks. Fresh herbs mixed into a finished dish – like fresh parsley into pasta, or chopped cilantro into taco filling – can add bright layers of flavor without extra salt. A dash of vinegar or a squeeze of fresh lemon or lime can also zest up a plate of fish or stew with much the same effect as salt [source: Clower].