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Umami: What Is It?

We all have basic tastes – sweet, sour, bitter, and savory. While most of us can immediately tell if food is either sweet or savory, we may find it hard to describe certain food items. The early part of the twentieth century saw studies into different tastes but it wasn’t until the 1980s that a new basic taste was accepted – umami. However, we had to wait until 2002 for scientists to successfully identify umami taste receptors on the tongue.

umami taste

Umami, which also goes by the name monosodium glutamate, is one of the main fifth tastes that include sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. In Japanese, umami translates to “essence of deliciousness” with the taste often being described as the meaty, savory taste that helps to deepen a food’s flavor. 

Those who taste umami experience it through taste receptors that tend to respond to nucleotides and glutamates. These are typically present in fermented products and meat broths. Nucleotides are often added in the form of inosine monophosphate (IMP) while glutamates are added as monosodium glutamate (MSG).

Scientists have discovered that umami has its own receptors. This is instead of a combination of other recognized taste receptors. Therefore, umami is widely considered to be a distinct taste. 

Read on as we find out more about umami and how this fifth taste came about.

Umami History

Society has been working to increase umami in food since the earliest days of human civilization. Just travel through history and there are examples after examples of this occurring. For instance, the Greeks, Phoenicians, and Romans all used a fermented fish sauce known as “garum” as a seasoning in Ancient Europe. In Asia, people began creating soy sauce made from fermented soybeans. 

msg umami

This highly sought-after taste had compounds that were poorly understood. This was until 1907 when Japanese chemist Ikeda Kikunae managed to isolate glutamic acid from kelp. He stated that there was a link between the amino acids and the taste which he called umami. Unfortunately, his work was debated for many decades but the global scientific community finally validated it in 1985 when umami was accepted as a basic taste. 

So, to answer what umami is, it is a Japanese loan word that describes the fifth taste (as well as sweet, salty, sour, and bitter). We have specific taste receptors in our mouths that become triggered when exposed to foods that contain amino acids and/or nucleotides. 

What Does Umami Taste Like?

Most of us have experienced the umami taste. In general, it’s described as being savory but this is not just linked to salty foods. Even baked goods like cookies and cakes can benefit from umami. This is due to the amino acids contained in the butter and Maillard browning in sugar and flour. 

When it’s in its purest, most fundamental form, umami’s taste is of monosodium glutamate (MSG). MSG is actually produced in laboratories. This process involves fermenting proteins that contain glutamic acid. Despite this, glutamate is a compound that is widely found in nature. This is why it’s possible to produce umami-tasting foods without even adding MSG.

What Different Foods Contain Umami?

As we mentioned, MSG is typically produced in a laboratory. However, many foods that we consume are naturally abundant with a source of umami that produces amino acids. Some examples include rice, milk, and soybeans. When these are fermented to create products such as sake, cheese, and soy sauce, the protein degrades creating additional umami-producing amino acids. 

Other examples of foods that are sources of amino acids include meat and dried mushrooms. However, these tend to include IMP and GMP as well which can interact with some amino acids causing umami to multiply. 

Making Umami in Food

While umami is generally a hallmark of Japanese cuisine, it has become one of the pillars for taste in all regions of the world. Despite the taste receptors responsible for umami not being discovered until 2002, cooks have always strived to increase the levels of umami in food. Now that we understand umami a little better than in the past, you can increase the umami taste in foods at home. 

One way to increase the levels of umami taste in food is to use amino acid and nucleotide-tich ingredients. Eating foods that are rich in certain compounds will make our mouths interpret a dish as umami. Some examples of such ingredients include aspartic acid, alanine, glutamic acid, and proline. The good news is that these can be found in a wide range of plants, seafood, and meat. 

Nucleotides (IMP and GMP) have synergistic effects upon amino acids. This boosts the umami taste more than they could produce separately. IMP is a compound found in meat and seafood while GMP is abundant in dried mushrooms. 

When you’re cooking, the simple act of heating food results in protein degrading into their main amino acids. Just this alone can significantly increase the umami taste in food. Then, as the temperature rises as you cook the food, a form of non-enzymatic browning occurs known as the Maillard reaction. This reaction is a chemical reaction between the amino acids in the food and the reducing sugars. Whether it’s sauteed onions or a crust of bread, this creates brand new flavor compounds on top of umami. 

Fermentation is another way to increase the taste of umami in food. Although this is the most difficult method to do so, it can also be the most effective. This is because the enzymes and microbes released break down protein into amino acids. 

Some examples of this fermentation process are miso (soybeans and rice/barley), soy sauce (soybeans and wheat), and sake (rice). It’s also possible to add these fermented ingredients to non-fermented foods to increase the overall taste of umami. 

In Summary

Although civilizations have strived to increase the taste of umami in foods for thousands of years, scientists didn’t come to understand it until the last century. But this fifth taste is a mainstay on our palettes and is vital in all manners of dishes. Try increasing it in a recipe soon and you’ll notice how important umami is in our world of flavors.

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Written by Brian N

Brian has been an influencer in the food and beverage industry for over 20 years. He not only loves to eat and drink at restaurants on a regular basis, he also knows the business inside and out.