A good flavor enhancer does for savory foods what a good pair of stilettos does for an outfit. When you add the right pair of heels to the right outfit, your whole look soars to new heights. (Of course, you could forego the heels, but the outfit may fall a little…flat.) Similarly, when added to the right foods at the right usage levels, a flavor enhancer can bring out all the great flavors in your dish, and really make your recipe pop.
One example of a (widely publicized) flavor enhancer is best known by three letters…M.S.G. MSG (Monosodium glutamate) can be found in soups, salad dressings, frozen dinners, dry blends, snack foods, and more. MAG (Monoammodium glutamate) and I&G (disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate) are other examples of popular flavor potentiators found in similar products. (Several food products also contain HVP (hydrolyzed vegetable protein) or autolyzed yeast extract, which often serves a similar purpose in prepared foods…but those are discussion for another day.)
What do flavor enhancers taste like? By itself, a flavor enhancer won’t taste salty, sweet, sour, or bitter. If you eat a spoonful of the stuff, you’ll likely get a big umami hit that tickles the sides of your tongue – but you won’t get a great flavor that beckons you back for more. However, if I gave you two samples of a food…say chicken soup…one with a flavor enhancer and one without, I’d be willing to bet (I’d even wager my favorite stilettos) that you’d prefer the sample with the flavor enhancer. This is because flavor enhancers brilliantly accomplish just what the name implies.
In addition to the heightened flavor profile brought on by these enhancers, some manufacturers have seen great success in reducing sodium by adding MSG, I&G, or other flavor enhancers. With other ingredients amplified, who needs an extra slug of salt?
A Food Science tid-bite: Other kitchen staples that heighten flavors? The citric acid in lemon juice brings out flavors in most recipes (and adds a lovely brightness). Salt also enhances flavor, but if you add too much, the result will be a boring one-dimensional flavor.