What is Umami & How to boost taste of healthy food with it
Have you ever heard of the umami? It is a Japanese term, used to name the fifth taste: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and then umami, which literally means savory. And I don’t think anyone will object if I define it as the taste of ‘extremely yummy food‘!
I thought it would be useful to explore this topic, because knowing which foods are rich in umami taste could be a great advantage in the kitchen of those who have decided to lead a healthy and balanced diet.
Finding bland the healthy and natural food is a common problem for those who grew accustomed to the doped taste of industrial and non-industrial food: rich in salt, fat, sugar and chemical additives.
Even those who embark on a new diet, reducing or eliminating foods of animal origin, fall into the same despair: then they begin to overindulge in other nutritional errors, namely the too-frequent use of bouillon cubes, sauces, condiments, sauces, industrial plant-based meats and cheeses.
Appreciating the natural taste of food again is not easy, nor quick, but knowing about umami and naturally glutamate-rich foods could be an important and valuable ally along the way.
So what is umami
The umami taste is that something whereby its absence or presence determines the incredible deliciousness of the food; but it is nothing mysterious or magical!
On the other hand, like every event in the human body, chemistry is the conductor; all that violin sounds we hear when we chew a particularly tasty bite comes mainly from the harmonious and complex presence of three substances: glutamate, 5′-inosinate and 5′-guanylate.
Glutamate is an amino acid (C5H8NO4); it is also synthesized by the human body and, among other things, is considered to be one of the most abundant excitatory neurotransmitters in the brain and central nervous system; its role is crucial in memory management and learning.
The last two, on the other hand, are nucleotides. Compared to glutamate, inosinate and guanylate are decidedly less known and less studied; however, they are useful in creating a synergistic effect: together with glutamate, they are capable of transforming a simply good dish into something harmoniously delicious.
How does umami flavor taste so good
The answer of ‘what is umami’ was easy, but its flavor improving effect is tangible and very complex, however I can state that there are 3 main reasons:
1) The umami taste makes the mouth water: this is not just a statement; it is scientifically approved that umami increases the flow of salivation; thus the perceived taste of ingested food becomes greater.
2) Whereas the receptors of the other tastes are located in very delimited areas on the tongue, the fifth taste is perceived practically on the whole tongue, together with the soft palate, larynx, upper esophagus, stomach and even in the intestines.
3) The umami taste lasts much longer, unlike the others which, although they may be strong and clear, persist for only a few seconds: the brain loves to drug itself with happiness hormones, preferring more persistent happy sensations, just like the umami taste.
By the way, our brain, during millennia of evolution, has learnt to rely on receptors for its own survival. In this context:
– the salty taste is associated with minerals, i.e. substances essential to the body, and that is why it is appreciated;
– the sweet means energy, i.e. the fuel for the machine called body; that is why the brain urges us to refuel frequently;
– the sour taste could represent rotten food or unripe fruit: do you know how children react?
– the bitter taste generates an alarm buzzer to protect us from possible poisonous or toxic food (although there are many of us who love sugar-free coffee);
– the umami taste, on the other hand, according to the brain is associated with protein (since it is an amino acid), which is why it is highly desired and ‘succulent’.
In which foods you can find the umami taste
The umami taste is naturally present in various foods.
Very often it is only identified with the glutamate content. This approach, although not technically correct, is also not entirely wrong; as the two nucleotides only serve to further enhance the full flavour of glutamate, which alone is already decisive in determining whether a food is rich in umami, then tasty.
Glutamate exists in both animal and plant foods, but, drum roll, it is the green world that is full of it!
The nucleotide 5′-inosinate is of animal origin, whereas 5′-guanylate is mainly found in mushrooms.
The natural food (without any processing) that contains it in the highest amount is kombu seaweed, followed by other edible seaweeds such as nori and wakame.
Among mushrooms the top spot is occupied by dried shiitake, followed by fresh ones, truffle, porcini and common mushrooms such as champignons.
The foods of vegetable origin richest in glutamate are soy sauce, dried tomatoes and after fresh ones; peas, garlic, maize, onion, soy, broad beans, carrots, cabbage, asparagus, potatoes and others.
The most glutamate-rich foods of animal origin are Parmesan cheese, anchovies, shrimps, mussels, chicken, eggs, sardines and more.
Table elaborated by data obtained from the “Umami Information Centre”
History of Umami (Glutamate)
Several traditional dishes (Dashi, the ubiquitous Japanese broth in the lead) confirm that the Japanese had been aware of the umami taste for several centuries; however, they had to wait until the chemist Ikeda purified glutamate for the first time in 1908 to place it alongside the basic tastes, giving it deserved recognition in transforming the taste of humble and meatless ingredients into something succulent.
But despite this sensational discovery, it took a long time for glutamate to achieve the notoriety it has today, in the Western world.
While Asian countries, under the leadership of China (that’s why we also see it under the name ‘the salt of China’), competed to synthesize it in the laboratory and market it by the thousands of tons under the name MSG (Mono Sodium Glutamate), it took 50 years to see glutamate become a food additive, as a ‘flavor enhancer’; throughout the western world it is known as E621.
Is glutamate bad for you?
Under the title “What is umami?” we have seen that glutamate is the main substance of umami complex. And we have said that glutamate can be naturally present, or artificially synthesized and added to food during preparation.
For reasons of space, I cannot address today the effects of consuming MSG (i.e. synthetic glutamate), as these would merit a separate article. Suffice it to say to my readers that in this article I am only recommending glutamate naturally present in food; if you have not yet grasped my implication, then I would like to emphasize the fact that, as an expert in the field, I personally avoid consuming foods containing the artificial version: it is true that science has not yet reached a strong and clear verdict on its unhealthiness[4,5] and the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has placed it in the category of GRAS (Generally Recognised As Safe); but, exonerated or not from the most serious accusations, glutamate (natural or synthetic, it makes no difference) can still be toxic if taken excessively, causing an increase in intracellular calcium, free radicals and protease activity; nevertheless, it must be said that reaching a dangerous level (for sensitive people, 3g is considered risky) is rather unlikely if taken naturally.
How to boost naturally the taste of healthy food with it
– Use edible seaweed in your recipes: it will help to enhance the taste of the final dish, especially in seafood. But, for example, seaweed combined with this delicious Portuguese specialty, Garden Fish, will allow us to experience the taste of the sea without using fish;
– Adding dried mushrooms (especially shiitake), or fresh ones, to your meatless dishes; this will not only strengthen the flavor of the final dish, but also will give it the typical chewiness of meat. Try pan-fried cheese with mushrooms;
– Use Parmesan cheese to enhance the flavor of dishes; however, excessive consumption is not advisable, as the rich calcium content may interfere with iron absorption.
– Use sun-dried tomatoes (try making your own next summer: follow my advice), or tomato paste, or fresh tomatoes: natural ‘doping’ for your dish’s unmistakable taste.
– Use soy sauce (better if it’s organic and salt-reduced) to make tofu or other neutral-flavored foods more palatable: but don’t overdo the quantities.
– Use garlic and onion generously: these two ingredients, as well as giving the dish a considerable umami taste, will also make it rich in antioxidants and vitamin C, die-hard allies of the immune system.
– Include fermented foods such as miso, natto or kimchi in your meals; at first their taste may not be very suitable for a Western palate, but with time you learn to appreciate almost anything. In the meantime, you can enhance the umami taste of your dishes by drinking fermented beverages: wine, beer, champagne or, if you like, sake; mind you don’t need to chug half a bottle, a few sips during meals will be more than enough; as already explained, the umami taste lasts for a long time.
May the umami taste accompany you in your healthy plates and good revolution to you all
1) Horio T, Kawamura Y: Salivary secretion induced by umami taste.Jpn J Oral Biol 1989, 31:107–111. 10.2330/joralbiosci1965.31.107
2) Sasano, T., Satoh-Kuriwada, S. & Shoji, N. The important role of umami taste in oral and overall health. Flavour 4, 10 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1186/2044-7248-4-10
3) Ikeda K: New seasonings.Chem Senses 2002, 27:847–849. [Translation of J Chem Soc Jpn 1909, 30:820–836 10.1093/chemse/27.9.847
4) Niaz K, Zaplatic E, Spoor J. Extensive use of monosodium glutamate: A threat to public health? EXCLI J. 2018 Mar 19;17:273-278. doi: 10.17179/excli2018-1092. PMID: 29743864; PMCID: PMC5938543.
5) Xiong JS, Branigan D, Li M. Deciphering the MSG controversy. Int J Clin Exp Med. 2009;2:329–336.
6) Lewerenz J, Maher P. Chronic Glutamate Toxicity in Neurodegenerative Diseases-What is the Evidence? Front Neurosci. 2015 Dec 16;9:469. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2015.00469. PMID: 26733784; PMCID: PMC4679930.
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