If you've tried and failed to convince yourself that you really want a healthful salad instead of a slice of pizza or bag of potato chips, researchers have found a ridiculously easy way to curb your junk-food cravings: sip on a savory broth, they say, and you're more likely to reach for veggies.
Pictured Recipe: Super-Simple Vegetable Broth
It's simple in theory and perhaps sounds too good to be true: a taste of umami, a savory flavor, can change your brain, so your impulse is to eat nutritious foods, such as fruits and vegetables—and reject unhealthy options.
In a study published in the scientific journal Neuropsychopharmacology, researchers examined what happens to young, healthy women when they drink chicken broth, with and without MSG. (MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is what is used to create an umami flavor. It's already been shown to momentarily reduce appetite; this research builds on those previous findings.)
To see what happened, researchers used three tests: a computer scan to measure their inhibitory control; eyeglasses that recorded the women's eye movements as they ate freely at a buffet; and a brain scan that tracked the women's brains when they chose food.
Here's what they found: the women who sipped on an umami-rich broth—i.e., a broth containing MSG—before a meal were better able to control their food impulses, were more focused at the buffet line, and used their brains more, literally, when they made their food choices. What's more, the women who indulged in pre-meal MSG also chose foods that contained less saturated fat than those who sampled broth without an umami flavor.
A cup of broth could be the key to helping people—especially women at a high risk of obesity—curb their junk-food cravings in a sustainable way. "Many cultures around the world advocate drinking a broth before a meal," says the study's senior author Miguel Alonso-Alonso, M.D., Ph.D., and an assistant professor at the Center for the Study of Nutrition Medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Alonso-Alonso adds that, "our study suggests the possibility that people at high risk of obesity could benefit from an umami-rich broth before a meal to facilitate healthy eating and healthy food choice."
However, the researchers also admit their study evaluated only the immediate effects of drinking an MSG-laden broth, and that more research is necessary to determine whether adding broth to a diet could aid in weight loss as well as help people make better choices.
Of course, you've heard of MSG—and you may be wary of adding it to your diet no matter its health benefits. MSG, after all, has a bad rep: a lot of people have complained that they have an MSG allergy that causes them chest pain or mild mood changes. But research has shown there isn't a link between these symptoms and MSG—when MSG is consumed with a meal. When taken on an empty stomach, MSG can cause headaches, blood pressure spikes, an increased heart rate, and more. As such, MSG shouldn't be eaten alone or in large doses. (And if you feel symptoms, you should avoid MSG.)
Eaten before a meal, as part of broth, there seems to be a clear benefit. It's easy to find broth with added umami and MSG: check the nutrition label on the broth you buy and look for "monosodium glutamate." If MSG has been added to the broth, you'll see those words on the panel. But if "monosodium glutamate" isn't listed, that doesn't mean the broth is void of MSG. Many foods—including yeasts, soy extracts and vegetable protein—naturally contain MSG, and the FDA does not require food companies to call this out on nutrition labels.
You can also get savory flavor, and glutamate, from natural sources. Alonso-Alonso notes, "Many natural ingredients have high amounts of free glutamate that is chemically indistinguishable from MSG. For example, Parmesan cheese, kombu seaweed, cured ham, miso sauce, soy sauce, mushrooms and ripe tomatoes. Not surprisingly, these foods are actually the basis for home-style soups, stews and casseroles in many traditional cuisines." The women in the study were given 1.44 grams of MSG, which is a amount that can be achieved with natural sources.
Soup is a powerhouse weight-loss food to begin with: it's filling, hydrating and typically low in calories. If you're not into drinking broth on its own, try adding vegetables for the ultimate weight-loss soup.
There's at least one other thing to consider when buying a broth with added, not natural, MSG: these products often contain a lot of sodium, which isn't good for your health. Read the nutrition labels carefully to make sure you're buying the best broth overall.