Umami and the Science Behind the Savory Fifth Flavor

Health & Well Being

Umami – The Science of Savory

Every so often, a creative chef concocts a new dish or combines ingredients in such a way that the food world sits up and takes notice. Think blackened fish in the mid-80s, molten chocolate cake in the 90s, the kale craze that began in 2007, and our ongoing obsession with bacon. While not on the radar of most home cooks, a not-so-new taste sensation is rocking the food world (and has been for nearly 20 years). It’s called umami, and chances are it’s associated with some of your favorite foods.

The Fifth Flavor

University of Miami food scientists identified umami as our fifth flavor/ taste back in 1996, joining the ranks of sweet, salty, bitter, and sour. Umami is difficult to define, but most people would agree that “savory” is a fitting descriptor. Umami-rich ingredients like tomatoes and parmesan cheese improve the depth of flavor in many dishes, which explains the popularity of pizza and pasta. Umami. Cuisines worldwide depend on umami ingredients to give finished dishes their distinctive flavor, In Asian countries, fish sauce, fermented beans and soybeans, and shrimp paste are umami staples. Aged cheeses, cured ham, and anchovies used across Europe make everything taste better and richer because of umami. And in the U.S., tomato, bacon, and barbecue sauce are common umami-rich ingredients used regularly in cooking.


Umami and MSG

Umami owes its unique flavor to glutamates, which occur naturally in foods – most notably kombu, a seaweed used to flavor many Japanese soups and other savory dishes. In 1908, a Japanese biochemist who was trying to replicate the taste of kombu created the chemical form of these naturally occurring glutamates, known today as MSG or monosodium glutamate.

People with sensitivities to MSG may believe they will suffer headaches or stomach discomfort after eating foods with MSG, but researchers have never been able to clearly associate MSG with any health issues with any consistency. Consequently, most food-related governing bodies throughout the world – including the U.S. Food & Drug Administration – classify MSG as ‘generally recognized as safe” or GRAS. Food manufacturers regularly add MSG to foods intensify meaty and savory flavors.

Scientists say there is no difference between natural occurring glutamate in foods and in manufactured glutamates like MSG, however, naturally occurring glutamates in foods are associated with other components that helps the body regulate “glutamic levels” You get glutamates from food naturally, like the way to you get iron in your diet by eating shellfish, beans, spinach, and red meat. If you take too much of an iron supplement, your body has more difficulty regulating your iron levels.


Common Sources of Umami

You probably have some common sources of umami in your refrigerator right now like ketchup, tomato sauce, Worcestershire sauce, or anchovy paste. Foods with naturally occurring umami that most of us enjoy like meat (beef, pork, chicken), fish (tuna), shellfish (clams, mussels, oysters), vegetables (tomatoes, mushrooms, carrots) and even beverages (green tea).

To experience the savory goodness of umami at home, think about how you can combine some of the ingredients above.

Pasta with chicken, tomato and parmesan
Steak with mushrooms
Shrimp Creole

The Umami Information Center has more recipes on its website to try too.