Salt, MSG, Palm Oil: What's in your stock cube, and what's the best solution?
They're a storecupboard staple used frequently in home cooking. But are there always hidden nasties, and should you be making your own? Resident dietitian Orla Walsh takes a closer look
Stock is often used to add flavour, colour and taste to meals during the cooking process. This flavoured liquid preparation forms the basis of many dishes, particularly soups and sauces. Stock cubes are readily used within home cooking. Are they a healthy option?
It's important to note that each brand differs quite a lot. One of the main ingredients to stock cubes is salt. It often contains herbs and spices as well as some dried vegetables. However, there may be other ingredients added to the stock cube that you may be trying to reduce in your diet - including sugar, monosodium glutamate (MSG) and palm oil.
One cup of soup has the same amount of salt as two cups of seawater. Why? Due to the stock. They may be handy, but their main ingredient is often salt. Each 100ml of stock contains about 1 gram of salt. Considering the aim is to keep salt to about 6 grams per day, this can really add up.
Salt is needed in very small amounts in the body. It's needed for healthy water balance, blood pressure, muscles and nerves. However, too much salt can result in fluid retention and high blood pressure.
Having high blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart attack, stroke and other heart issues. For instance, if everyone in Ireland reduced their salt intake by half a teaspoon, approximately 900 deaths each year from stroke and heart attack would be prevented.
Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is composed of sodium and glutamate. There are five basic tastes: bitter, sweet, salty, sour, and savoury. The savoury taste is also called umami. MSG is thought to enhance this flavour.
Some people associate MSG with eating too much and weight gain. Most studies on MSG's effects on food intake have been short-term trials, lasting less than 24 hours and typically less than 12. The vast majority of short-term trials showed no difference in the number of calories eaten between high MSG meals and meals without MSG.
A few long-term studies and observational studies have been conducted, with mixed results. Some studies linked MSG to weight gain, while others did not. Although it is unlikely to have a clinically meaningful effect on body weight, it would be more reassuring for people if MSG was never associated in any of the studies with increased intake of food.
Other concerns over MSG are to do with headaches. This is a difficult thing to test in research as MSG has a bad reputation, so people can bring their previously held opinions into the research setting and it's difficult to hide the fact that they're eating MSG, as it has a unique taste.
Generally speaking, MSG doesn't appear to increase the incidence of headaches. However, some people strongly feel that they are sensitive to MSG. In people who are sensitive to MSG, consuming a large dose of MSG might cause mild, temporary ill effects such as headaches and migraines. However, not all the time, as none of the participants in this particular study had negative symptoms every time they consumed MSG.
Palm oil, like most fats, shouldn't be deemed a 'bad fat'. There are some positives to this fat. For instance, palm oil has health benefits due to nutrients like carotenoids and vitamin E. However, a healthy diet is one that weighs the overall footprint of the food a person eats and encompasses the nutritional, environmental and social impacts of the food.
There have been many controversies in the palm oil industry which include the exploitation of workers, and that rapid expansion of palm oil has led to extensive deforestation, destruction of the rainforests and considerable harm to wildlife species. Palm oil, from a nutritional point of view, should not be feared. However, this doesn't mean it's the first choice. Olive oil and other vegetable oils would be a healthier choice, especially if eaten frequently.
There are stock cubes being sold that contain less salt, no palm oil or added MSG. However, for those that are up for a challenge, making your stock at home is easier than you may think.
As a general rule, it requires placing the bones leftover from, for example your roast chicken dinner, into a large pot and covering the carcass with water. You then gently heat the water, simmering the bones within the water. To make it taste even nicer, herbs like rosemary and thyme are added as well as vegetables like onion, celery, carrots and leeks.
The ingredients need to be cut in uniform chunks and not too small as they need to be able to withstand the heat. It's better to steer clear of very starchy vegetables as they cloud your stock, while green vegetables will colour it. It's important to keep the ingredients covered, so adding more cold water into the pot is sometimes needed. This process takes about three to four hours.
Stock can be frozen, especially when reduced down once the ingredients are removed, which is very handy, especially for winter cooking.
Health & Living