Umami is your fifth basic taste alongside sour, sweet, bitter, and salty. Japanese scientists discovered this fifth flavor in the early 20th century and called it "umami," which translates to "savory".
Umami Is a Basic Taste
The five basic tastes serve an important purpose for food safety and quality. Each taste category comes with a message attached. When you taste something sweet, you are being alerted to carbohydrates that will give you energy. Bitterness warns you that something might be toxic and unsafe to eat. Umami helps you recognize amino acids and protein. Since protein is vital to your health, this is an important taste.
Umami is the savory or meaty taste of foods. It comes from three compounds that are naturally found in plants and meat: glutamate, inosinate, and guanylate. The first, glutamate, is an amino acid found in vegetables and meat. Iosinate is primarily found in meat, and guanylate levels are the highest in plants.
When you eat foods with high levels of glutamate, the compound binds to the receptors on your taste buds. This causes the savory taste in your mouth. In response, your body creates more saliva and digestive juices to help you digest the proteins that the umami alerted you to.
There are two types of glutamate: glutamate that is bound to other amino acids in proteins and free or unbound glutamate. It is the free glutamate that causes the umami taste.
Finding Umami Flavor
Some food processes like curing, aging, and fermentation break down proteins and create free glutamate. These foods have a stronger umami flavor.
Natural umami taste can be subtle and sometimes hard to recognize. Some of the foods in which natural umami flavor is found include:
- Cooked meats
- Cured meats
- Fermented foods
Though hard to pinpoint it on its own, umami is a great flavor enhancer, making salty foods taste even saltier and sweet foods taste even sweeter. Adding the following foods to your recipes can create a dish with a brighter or deeper flavor.
Tomatoes. This fruit is high in glutamic acid and is one of the best sources of umami flavor. Adding tomatoes to a dish will help draw out the other flavors more. This might be why pizza and pasta are such popular foods, and why ketchup is a favorite condiment.
Cheese. You might enjoy cheese on its own, but it's also a great addition to a lot of meals recipes. A charcuterie board wouldn't be complete without a variety of cheeses, and parmesan sprinkled atop pasta is a common delight. Aged cheeses are especially high in glutamate. This is because as cheese ages, the proteins break down, which creates more free glutamate and more umami.
Meats. Cured meats like pepperoni, salami, and bacon have more glutamate than fresh meats. This is because the curing process breaks down the proteins and makes free glutamate compounds.
Fermented foods. Foods like soy sauce, kimchi, miso, and natto are fermented. The fermentation process, like the curing process, also breaks down glutamate into free glutamate and gives a stronger umami taste.
Umami vs. Monosodium Glutamate
The Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda who discovered umami also created monosodium glutamate, or MSG. After discovering that glutamate was responsible for the umami taste of some of his favorite foods, Ikeda made monosodium glutamate into a seasoning. That way, he could add umami flavor into every dish he made.
For a long time, umami wasn't recognized as a basic taste. Instead, monosodium glutamate (MSG) and umami were thought to be the same thing. It wasn't until the late 20th century that scientists agreed that umami was the fifth flavor, listing it alongside salty, bitter, sweet, and sour. They realized that, unlike umami, monosodium glutamate doesn’t naturally occur in foods. Rather, monosodium glutamate is an additive that makes umami stronger. This is similar to adding salt to food to make food taste salty.
Pros and Cons of Monosodium Glutamate
Some people may get short-term reactions to foods with added monosodium glutamate. There have been reports of symptoms such as nausea, migraines, sweating, and fast heartbeat. These symptoms don’t usually last long and don’t need medical treatment, but they can be uncomfortable. If you feel that MSG makes you sick, it’s important to read the nutritional labels on your foods. Monosodium glutamate can be called:
- Hydrolyzed protein
- Autolyzed yeast
- Yeast extract
- Soy extract
- Protein isolate
- Sodium caseinate
- Calcium caseinate
- Spices and flavoring
However, there is no definitive evidence that monosodium glutamate will cause these effects. Not everyone reacts to it negatively, and it is safe to eat. Monosodium glutamate can also be used to lower salt levels in foods while still creating a nice flavor. This might be helpful if you need to follow a low-sodium diet.
Umami is one of your five basic tastes. Adding foods that are packed with umami flavor to your dish can add a burst of delicious taste to your meal.