Umami: The Fifth Taste

by in Healthy Tips, February 20, 2009

You know what sweet, salty, bitter and sour taste like. But sometimes there’s that flavor you just can’t pinpoint. It’s a little bit savory but not salty. That’s the “fifth taste” — a.k.a. “umami.”

The Flavor
Umami (pronounced “oo-MA-mee”) means “delicious” or “yummy” in Japanese. A Japanese doctor, Dr. Kikunae Ikeda, first identified the taste in 1908 when he decided that kombu (an edible seaweed) didn’t fit into the standard food flavors (that is, sweet, salty, bitter and sour).

Umami is a pleasant, savory taste that’s found in foods with high amounts of the amino acid glutamate. Though it’s subtle to detect, an estimated 95% of the population can sense the taste of umami, while the other 5% have a relatively low sensitivity. Seafood, meats, certain veggies (such as mushrooms and tomatoes) and green tea are umami-rich foods. These foods contain an array of nutrients — ranging from the antioxidant selenium in seafood to a multitude of B-vitamins and iron in meats.

Umami Going Mainstream
MSG (monosodium glutamate) was introduced as an inexpensive, umami-flavored ingredient to help preserve food. In many parts of Asia, it’s common to add it to dishes to enhance them (for example, fish sauce has it). It’s similar to how we often add a pinch of salt or sugar to something here in the U.S. But MSG has had mixed results — many people are sensitive to the additive and can develop headaches after eating it.

These days food manufacturers and restaurants are also hopping on the umami bandwagon. Food companies such as Campbell’s replace the flavor lost in their low-sodium foods with umami-boosting add-ins. If you read the labels in your snack food aisle, you will find “hydrolyzed protein” — a form of glutamate added to snacks. But if you want to avoid these additives altogether, you can try more natural umami enhancers (more below).

The Mushroom Counsel is promoting their products to chefs as a way to bring out the taste of umami in food. Adding sautéed mushrooms to steak creates an intense flavor called a “U-bomb.” And the technique of combining umami-rich foods is becoming more and more popular at local restaurants.

Want to experiment with the umami flavor? Try these wholesome dishes:

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Comments (12)

  1. Carolina Caruso says:

    Are these mushrooms avaialble to find on Canadian grounds?

  2. Toby Amidor says:

    Hi Beth,
    Umami is a flavor found in many foods including mushrooms, seafood, meat and tomatoes. The reason MSG came about was to artificially add this flavor into food (meaning it was created as an artificial copy of the umami flavor). I agree that it's healthier to add the umami flavor using the natural foods (like the ones I listed). I tend to stay away from MSG myself.

  3. Mark says:

    Quote: "But MSG has had mixed results — many people have allergies to the additive and can develop headaches after eating it."

    Uh, you guys ought to watch your own shows. Food Detectives debunked this myth.

  4. Beth says:

    As a person who suffers devastating migraines from MSG and all the many hidden sources of MSG, I am disappointed to see umami touted in a health article. MSG and hydrolyzed protein are not naturally occurring and should not be in our food. Let’s stick to real food and flavors like mushrooms, salt, pepper, herbs and we will all be healthier.

  5. C. Henderson says:

    MSG Okay? Or healthy? What on earth are you trying to do to people? Facts are facts and years of studies on their adverse effects on many people’s health is to be dismissed for extra flavor. It also tenderizes meat immediately, and you stomach etc, is meat. Do the math.
    I mean Belladonna, has its glossy black berries, and is natural and is called also “deadly nightshade.” Sure atropine is the extracted and chemically produced medicine. But the plant still causes the same effect as the chemical. The structure of the matrix has to be created identically or the effect or taste is not there. They only produce things in the lab because it is cheaper, not because it is structure or effect is any different.

  6. Kristine Brabson says:

    To clarify, we’re not saying MSG is a healthy choice or necessarily a good thing. Toby referenced it because of its popular affiliation with the umami taste. Mark, I haven’t seen that Food Detectives episode and don’t know what experiments they ran. I know people who often have bad reactions when they accidentally eat foods with MSG added. Their headaches and stomach aches are definitely not a myth to them; we likely have different sensitivity levels (true of many foods). We believe a diet of varied healthy, whole foods is the goal, but ultimately, you should eat what your doctors, nutritionists and past experiences indicate are best for you personally.

  7. Julie Rogers says:

    Naturally occurring umami is cool. Enjoy everyone.
    And the unnatural kind, like MSG, can be enjoyed by a lot of people. It tastes good.
    But it can indeed by devestating to people with a sensitivity. “Mythbusters” be damned, because when the FDA did a test giving people MSG, a medical doctor went to the hospital because he had heart-attack symptoms. Turns out it was classic MSG chest pains. When a doc with no previous problems gets dosed with enough, he thinks he’s having a heart attack. It’s real.
    Thanks to the blogger for acknowledging it. Boo to the commenters who decided we all made up this MSG problem.

  8. KatyKatt says:

    This is interesting! Since I was a child, I’ve classified certain foods such as steak, sauteed mushrooms, and tomatoes in a category I called “brown” because they seemed to me to be similar to each other but not to other foods. Guess I was detecting umami and putting my own name to it. “Brown” has always been one of my favorite flavor categories, by the way. That’s why it was important enough to me to invent a name for it.

  9. Eric Brooks says:

    That ‘Food Detectives’ episode on MSG was a a bogus and dangerous industry manipulated joke. The supposed ‘scientific’ test that the show performed was to invite test subjects to a chinese food restaurant and secretly feed half of the subjects food with MSG and the other half the same food without. The show hosts then proceeded to completely screw up their own experiment by asking all of the diners, right after they had eaten, to report if they felt they had symptoms of MSG sickness. This of course led to immediate placebo effect false positive reporting; and since most of the false positives were on the no MSG side of the room, the show hosts smugly and triumphantly declared MSG sensitivity a myth…

    Any legitimate scientist who heard this ‘experiment’ described would rightly lambast its methodology as a complete joke.

    The alarming truth is that some people are indeed so allergic to MSG that it can actually kill hem if they eat it.

    If Food Network is smart it will pull that episode immediately and permanently to avoid facing a possible multi-million dollar wrongful death lawsuit.

  10. Hi, this has been a really good read through and I also have bookmarked this website, so I may check back now and then. Cheers!

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