What Is Umami? Diving Into This Unique Fifth Sense Of Taste

What Is Umami? Diving Into This Unique Fifth Sense Of Taste-Japanese Taste
Jump to:

    Umami is one of the 5 senses of taste that everyone is probably familiar with. It comes from the Japanese language and literally means ‘delicious taste’. It is often used to describe “savory” or “meaty” flavors, but it can also be used to describe a dish that has a “deep” flavor. But what exactly sets umami apart from other tastes? Is umami just a buzzword? Or is it worthy of being one of the 5 senses of taste? In this article, we’d like to answer the question “what is umami” by looking into its history, what it actually tastes like and what kind of dishes you can find its flavor in to understand what umami is fully. 

    History Of Umami

    Umami is more of a recent discovery made by a Japanese scientist named Dr. Kikunae Ikeda. It is said that back in 1908, Ikeda was enjoying a bowl of kombu dashi, and noticed that it had a distinctive taste that was different from the other four elements of taste – salty, sweet, bitter, and sour. Ikeda decided to name this newfound flavor profile “umami” and later attributed kombu’s unique umami flavor to glutamate.

    What Does Umami Taste Like?

    What Does Umami Taste Like?

    Umami is quite literally thought of as the “essence of deliciousness” in Japanese and is often used to describe foods that have a more savory, meaty, or deep flavor. Several components contribute to umami’s unique flavor profile, but the main contributing factors are
    glutamic acid, inosinic acid, and guanylic acid. All three of these naturally occurring compounds contribute to umami’s unique taste. That’s why when experiencing umami, you might notice a rich, full-bodied flavor sensation that enhances the overall taste of the food and lasts on your tongue for a while.

    Where Is Umami Flavor Found?

    There are so many different foods and even beverages that contain umami that the list can really go on forever, but here are different categories and kinds of foods that umami flavor is naturally present in: 

    • Meats: Beef, pork, chicken
    • Seafood: Mackerel, tuna, salmon
    • Mushrooms: Shiitake, porcini, portobello
    • Cheese: Parmesan, cheddar, gouda, and other aged cheeses
    • Tomatoes: fresh, sun-dried, and even tomato sauces
    • Soy Products: miso, soy sauce, and tofu
    • Fermented Foods & Sauces: fish sauce, Worcestershire sauce, fermented soybean paste, kimchi
    • Vegetables: Asparagus, Spinach
    • Green Tea: Matcha, Gyokuro, Sencha, Hojicha, Genmaicha

    When you taste umami flavor, your taste buds might experience a full-bodied flavor that adds to the overall flavor of the food you’re eating, thus elevating depth and complexity.

    Properties Of Umami

    Properties Of Umami

    Umami carries different properties that may help you determine its taste and flavor profile when you are eating something that contains umami flavor. 

    • Savory taste: Umami-rich foods have a more savory flavor profile than the other senses of taste. The savory aspect of umami is due to glutamate.
    • Enhancing flavor: Since umami taste is savory and rich, it has the ability to enhance flavor. This increases the satiation factor of umami-rich foods.
    • Complexity: It is not uncommon to link ‘umami’ with ‘complex flavor’. This is again due to its unique savory and rich flavor profile. Umami balances and complements other taste senses, therefore increasing the overall complexity of the food that you’re eating.
    • Mouthfeel: Foods that are rich in umami taste tend to linger on the tongue longer. Foods high in umami tend to leave behind a mouthwatering effect and lingering flavor which contribute to its uniqueness.

    What Is Glutamate?

    Glutamate is a naturally occurring amino acid that serves as one of the building blocks of proteins. In addition to this, glutamate plays a huge role in imparting umami flavor to foods. When glutamate is present in a certain food, it stimulates specific taste receptors on the tongue, which results in the perception of umami. 

    In the form of monosodium glutamate (MSG), glutamate is widely used as a flavor enhancer in cooking to intensify the savory or rich flavors in cuisine. 

    What Is MSG?

    What Is MSG?

    MSG, which stands for monosodium glutamate, is a popular manufactured seasoning comprised of salt and glutamic acid. Since MSG contains glutamate, this is what is primarily responsible for umami flavor. MSG is packed with umami flavor so it is commonly used as a seasoning to intensify umami flavors in food.

    Is MSG The Same As Umami?

    While MSG and Umami are closely related, they are not the same thing. Umami is one of the 5 senses of taste and is associated with savory flavor while MSG is a food additive used to enhance umami flavor in dishes.

    Pros And Cons Of Msg

    Pros And Cons Of Msg

    While MSG may sound like such an amazing seasoning, there have been many cons associated with it that may dissuade people from wanting to consume it regularly. But is MSG really all that bad? Let’s look at some pros and cons of MSG below. 

    Pros of MSG

    • Enhances flavor and umami of food: MSG enhances umami flavor in food, making it taste better. 
    • Reduces salt content: Since MSG enhances flavor, you can use a smaller amount of salt to therefore reduce your sodium intake.
    • Cost effective: MSG is cheap compared to other flavor enhancing seasonings. And it’s widely available.
    • Versatile seasoning: MSG can be added to a variety of foods including soups, sauces, and processed foods.

    Cons of MSG

    • Allergic reactions: Some people may be allergic to MSG and experience symptoms such as rash, headaches, and sweating. However, this is thought to be very rare and it is not yet well understood why this happens.
    • Often not listed as MSG on food labels: Because there is somewhat of a negative connotation with MSG, it is often labeled under different names on food labels. Such examples include "hydrolyzed vegetable protein" and “yeast extract”. This is to make it more challenging for the consumer to know if they’re consuming MSG or not.
    • Dependency on flavor enhancement: MSG makes food taste better, so it is possible to become dependent on its flavor-enhancing abilities. It is recommended to use it in small quantities for this reason.

    So there you have it, now you know more about umami and closely associated MSG. Were you familiar with umami flavor before? Let us know in the comments below.


    Leave a comment

    Please note, comments must be approved before they are published