What Is Umami?
Umami is one of the five basic tastes, along with sour, sweet, bitter, and salty. It was discovered by a Japanese scientist named Kikunae Ikeda over 100 years ago. Umami is the savory flavor you find in foods such as meat, cheese, mushrooms, and soy sauce.
The five basic tastes serve an important purpose for food safety and quality. Each taste category comes with a message. When you taste something sweet, it signals the presence of 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 proteins. Since protein is vital to your health, this is an important taste.
Umami comes from three compounds that are naturally found in plants and meat: glutamate, inosinate, and guanylate. Glutamate is an amino acid found in vegetables and meat. Inosinate is primarily found in meat, and guanylate levels are the highest in plants.
Natural umami taste can be subtle and sometimes hard to recognize. Some of the foods with natural umami flavor include:
- Cooked meats
- Cured meats
- Fermented foods
Umami is a flavor enhancer. It can make foods taste richer, saltier, and more satisfying. Even though it's a savory flavor, it can also bring out sweetness in foods.
Adding the following foods to your recipes can increase umami:
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 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 such as 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 such as soy sauce, kimchi (fermented vegetables), miso (soybean paste), and natto (fermented whole soybeans) are fermented. The fermentation process, like the curing process, also breaks down glutamate into free glutamate and gives a stronger umami taste.
Sprinkling umami seasoning on your dishes is another way to add flavor to your foods. Umami seasoning is a powder made from ingredients such as dried mushrooms, garlic, tomato powder, seaweed, miso, nutritional yeast, and other umami foods. You can buy it premade or make your own. You can sprinkle umami powder on almost anything: pizza, pasta, cooked vegetables, salads, soups and stews, popcorn, potatoes, and more.
Umami sauce is another alternative to powder to bring the rich, savory flavor to your favorite dishes. There are many different recipes for this sauce. One version has vegetable stock, garlic, ginger, molasses, tomato paste, miso paste, lemon juice, and rice vinegar. Another version has soy sauce, olive oil, tomato paste, capers, olives, mushrooms, seaweed, garlic, miso, sesame oil, and cumin. Like umami seasoning, you can buy umami sauce already made or make it yourself.
Umami and MSG
Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is one of the most commonly used food additives. It comes from the glutamate found in foods. The same scientist who discovered umami came up with a way to manufacture MSG and patented it. It used to be made by taking glutamate from seaweed and drying it. Today, MSG is made by fermenting starch, sugar cane, molasses, or sugar beets. This process is similar to how yogurt, vinegar, and wine are made.
Pros and Cons of MSG
There's a lot of controversy around MSG. The FDA considers MSG to be safe to eat. But many people have reported side effects after eating it, such as nausea, migraines, sweating, and fast heartbeat. However, in studies, researchers have never been able to find a clear link between MSG and these reactions.
It's not clear where the claims that MSG is unsafe came from. MSG reactions have been called "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome." Chinese food often contains MSG, and the syndrome refers to the set of symptoms that many people claim to have as a reaction to MSG.
This myth about MSG may be rooted in racism against Asians. It's no longer acceptable to use the term "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome." It's now referred to as "MSG symptom complex," even though scientists haven't been able to find any evidence that MSG is the cause of these reactions.
Using MSG to flavor your foods can have benefits -- for example, if you need to limit your sodium intake for heart health. MSG contains little or no sodium, but it adds a lot of savory flavor. Some MSG seasonings may have salt added, so it's important to read labels. You should also ask your doctor if MSG is a good replacement for salt.
How to get umami flavor without MSG
If you feel that MSG makes you feel unwell after eating it, you can still get plenty of umami flavor by using umami seasonings or sauces made from whole foods.
Umami is recognized as the fifth taste. It's a savory flavor that's hard to pinpoint, but it makes foods taste rich and satisfying. Some foods that have an umami flavor include meats, cheeses, tomatoes, mushrooms, and fermented foods such as miso. MSG is a food additive that gives umami flavor, but it has a bad reputation for causing negative reactions. But there's no evidence to support this, and the FDA says it's safe to eat.
Is umami different than salty?
Umami and salty are two of the five different tastes. They are both savory flavors, but they are not the same thing.
Is umami good for you?
Umami itself isn't good or bad for you. Glutamate is an amino acid that has benefits for your body. Many foods with umami flavor are good for you, such as tomatoes, mushrooms, seaweed, and fermented foods. Other foods such as meat and cheese should be eaten in moderation. Cured meats generally aren't healthy to eat, except occasionally. And umami flavor might be added to some unhealthy processed foods, so it's important to read food labels.
Why is umami controversial?
MSG is an umami flavoring, and many people say that they have a bad reaction after eating it. But no scientific research can confirm this, and the FDA says MSG is safe to eat.