Umami – The Fifth Taste and Culinary Lifeline

Umami FoodsUmami, the fifth taste, mystified even our greatest philosophers, Aristotle and Plato. Even they believed that there were but four tastes; sweet, sour, salty and bitter, according to NPR’s Jonah Lehrer. In fact, that was the belief of every philosopher, scientist and cook until the 1800s when French chef Auguste Escoffier changed everything.

Escoffier invented veal stock. When he did, he gave the world much more than just another starter for soups and sauces. Neither sweet, sour, salty nor bitter, its earthy savoriness changed cuisine forever. He gave us the fifth, but yet to be named taste, umami.

A century later, umami led to scientific intrigue. Perplexed about the defining flavor of dashi, a traditional broth, Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda took to his lab. There he isolated the chemical compound and ground zero of the fifth taste – glutamate. He then mass-produced it as Ajinomoto or essence of taste. We know it as monosodium glutamate, abbreviated by those three scary letters MSG.

Today, the term umami – translated as ‘pleasant savory taste’ – is both official and universal. With the discovery of glutamate in breast milk and receptors on the tongue and stomach, its scientific legitimacy is no longer questioned. Further, revered by foodies more than ever, umami-dedicated cookbooks and even restaurants highlight its overdue place in the spotlight.

So, if the concept of umami is well established, where does all the confusion and controversy over glutamate come from? Why is it demonized in some circles while revered in others? Likely, the answer lies in the difference between natural forms of glutamate versus the manufactured forms. How are they different?

How is Natural Glutamate Different From Manufactured Glutamate?

  • First, glutamate is found in most living things. The amount of glutamate and the presence of a few other specific food chemicals determine a food’s umami potential.
  • Second, as food cooks, ages, ferments or dries glutamate breaks down and becomes more concentrated.
  • Third, the glutamate found in whole foods is chemically the same as the glutamate in powdered MSG. However, mass production generates impurities, which may explain the undesirable side effects experienced by some people. In contrast, the glutamate in whole foods comes packed with fiber, slowing its metabolism.

As for the reverence, multifaceted umami enhances the other flavor siblings. It can boost salty and sweet as well as subdue bitter and sour. But, as a fifth taste, it also elevates food, providing richness and complexity while increasing satiety. Coating the tongue, it helps flavors linger. Health-supportive chefs embrace umami-rich foods as they bring a meaty and salty essence to vegan and or low sodium dishes. Umami even enhances digestion, stimulating saliva and digestive juices.

If you are new to this concept, take notice of these following items’ ‘umami-ness’. Play with them in the kitchen and you’ll see how just a small amount can transform a dish. You’ll thank Escoffier.

Examples of Umami Foods

  • Beef, pork, lamb
  • Chicken, duck, turkey
  • Anchovies, tuna, shellfish, oysters, seaweed
  • Asparagus, corn, mushrooms, peas, potatoes, red bell peppers, tomatoes, winter squash
  • Fermented and aged foods, such as aged cheese, nutritional yeast, soy sauce, tempeh, miso and umeboshi paste
  • Other: tree nuts, black olives, legumes, green tea, black garlic

RESOURCES

Sweet, Sour, Salty, Bitter …and Umami – NPR
Put the Science of Umami to Work for You – Popular Science
It’s the Umami Stupid – Smithsonian Magazine
Umamai Information Center
Free amino acid content in infant formulas; comparison with human breast milk – Journal of the American  College of Nutrition

Image: Tomatoes, red bell pepper, black garlic, walnuts and almonds, shiitake mushrooms, black beans, anchovy paste, tomato paste, seaweed, spoons with light and dark miso and umeboshi paste, bowls with parmesan cheese and nutritional yeast

This article was first published at Natural Gourmet Institute.

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