Umami: How This ‘Fifth Taste’ Affects Your Food Experience

Our basic tastes are often said to be sweet, sour, salty and bitter. But in the early 1900s, the Japanese identified a “fifth taste” they called umami, which roughly translates to “delicious essence.” You have umami to thank anytime you savor sushi dipped in soy sauce or cheese sprinkled on your pasta. And research suggests it may be good for you.

What is Umami?

Umami can be more difficult to identify than the other four basic tastes. If you made a soup with no salt, it would obviously be fairly bland. Adding salt will enhance the saltiness, but it also gives the soup a certain complexity and richness that’s hard to describe. That richness is umami.

The amino acid glutamate is believed to bring umami to a food. Glutamate is a common building block of protein that’s found in most foods. Foods with more glutamate tend to naturally have more umami.

The term was created by the Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda in 1908. He was investigating the seaweed kombu, that has been used for over a thousand years in many Asian countries as a recognized flavor-enhancer. Ikeda isolated the components of kombu that were later developed into monosodium glutamate (MSG).

Commercial MSG was first produced in Japan in 1909 and quickly gained popularity throughout the world as an easy way to add umami to foods.

What Foods Have Umami?

Foods that are well aged or ripened often have higher amounts of glutamate, and the resulting umami flavor. For instance, aged or cured meats and cheeses have more glutamate than fresher, younger types.

Interestingly, the glutamate content of a tomato increases significantly as it ripens. This could explain why a store-bought tomato that was picked green for shipping often does not compare to the rich flavor of a garden-ripened tomato.

Other foods that are naturally high in glutamate and umami include:

  • Soy sauce
  • Walnuts
  • Grape juice
  • Peas
  • Mushrooms
  • Broccoli
  • Corn
  • Potatoes
  • Chicken
  • Fish

The Glutamate Association has more detailed information on foods with the highest glutamate content.

How you prepare foods can also increase their umami. Braising, drying, smoking, slow cooking and fermenting will all intensify foods’ perceived deliciousness. For example, shiitake mushrooms have 15 times more natural glutamate when dried.

Is Umami a Bad Thing?

Commercially refined MSG has been linked to many serious health conditions, such as obesity, brain damage, hormonal imbalances and migraine headaches.

Although, the MSG used as a food additive is a highly processed, concentrated product. Whereas glutamate is simply a component of most natural foods. More research is needed to determine if they affect your body in the same way.

Some preliminary studies actually suggest that umami flavors and glutamate can be beneficial. For instance, one study found that foods high in glutamate helped elderly patients with loss of appetite because it increased their saliva flow and made foods more palatable.

The researchers also pointed out that glutamate receptors are not only present on your tongue, they also exist at other locations in your gastrointestinal tract. Glutamate receptors in your stomach trigger certain physiologic actions that are beneficial to gut function. Dietary glutamate also appears to be an important energy source for gut tissue.

In addition, umami foods have been linked to a greater sense of satisfaction after eating, which can prevent overeating. This could be due to the glutamate receptors within your stomach. A Danish study suggested having better-tasting meals by effectively using umami would help reduce the consumption of excessive salt, fat and sugar common in Western diets.

People with an allergy to MSG should watch out for foods high in natural glutamate to make sure they do not cause an allergic reaction. Otherwise, umami appears to be a taste well worth exploring for its potential dietary and health benefits.

Related
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99 comments

Jan S
Jan S20 days ago

Thank you

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Sharon B
Sharon B29 days ago

Thanks for the info

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Patty Langford
Patty Labout a month ago

interesting.+ tyfs

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Kristal M
Kristal Mabout a month ago

This is the first time I have heard of this word. Now I'm confused. Is MSG good for me or not?

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Virgene L
Virgene Labout a month ago

Who knew? Thanks for this information about our "fifth" taste.
Chocolate, so good for you, bitter and umami!

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Lisa M
Lisa Mabout a month ago

No thanks.

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Lisa M
Lisa Mabout a month ago

No thanks.

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Marija M
Marija Mabout a month ago

tks for sharing

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Elena P
Elena Poensgenabout a month ago

Thank you

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Elena P
Elena Poensgenabout a month ago

Thank you

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