Everyone knows the four basic flavors: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. But the fifth flavor with the mysterious Japanese name—umami—is often difficult for people to identify and describe. Today, we consider the gustatory delights of this vital and satisfying flavor that makes foodie life all the richer.
So what is umami, exactly?
It might surprise some to learn that it comes from the compound glutamate, which is synonymous with the widely-feared food additive MSG. The good news? Glutamate is naturally-occurring in many foods, lending that toothsome, pungent quality to foods like soy sauce, fish, mushrooms, and more.
When our taste buds sense a certain flavor, they send a helpful signal to our brains to let us know what effect the food we’re tasting will have on us. For example, sweet tastes signal that we’re about to gain energy from carbohydrates, and salty flavor signifies the presence of important minerals. So what does the taste of umami tell our brains? It tells us that we’re probably encountering a food chock-full of essential proteins.
Which foods have the most naturally-occurring glutamate—and the most umami flavor?
- Meats like beef, pork, and chicken
- Parmesan cheese
- Soy sauce (and other fermented products)
- Green tea
- Chicken eggs
- Seafood like oysters, tuna, squid, and sardines
- Root vegetables like potatoes, sweet potatoes, and carrots
- Some fresh produce including tomatoes, sweet corn, and asparagus
- Fungi like mushrooms and truffles
The Dark Side of Glutamate
Back in the 1960s, people started to become suspicious of MSG (which had been in use since a chemist named Kikunae Ikeda formulated it as an additive in 1909). Suddenly, restaurants and producers promoted a “No MSG” label on their foods to ease the minds of additive-opposed health advocates. The Mayo Clinic reports that some people experience adverse symptoms when they ingest MSG, including headache, flushing, sweating, heart palpitations, numbness, and nausea.
On the bright side, symptoms are rarely if ever severe and typically don’t require medical treatment. Nevertheless, the stigma against MSG endures, and its presence in (usually inexpensive) foods raises concerns about making poor-quality products downright addictive.
The Redemption of MSG
These days, nutrition scientists are brainstorming ways to use MSG to actually improve health—such as adding it to foods for under-nourished people like children living in extreme poverty or to boost the appetites of elderly people in nursing facilities.
Fortunately, nature provides plenty of flavor—no additives needed!—to satisfy even the most umami-obsessed foodies among us. Crack apart a nice Parmigiano-Reggiano, caramelize a top sirloin, and enjoy some truffle butter or fermented veggies for a rich umami feast this weekend!
Happy Foodie Friday!
(Sources: FoodDive.com, TheGuardian.com, UmamiInfo.com, MayoClinic.org)
And, of course, for something a little weird…
The New York City grand opening of Umami Burger, a hugely popular West Coast upscale hamburger joint, had built up so much anticipation that initial customers endured a 3-hour wait to get a table! Read more about the experience of trying Chef Adam Fleischman’s uber-umami creations—complete with a signature “umami dust”—here.