Flavor is the essence of life and…well…food. Most of us are only familiar with four tastes- salty, sweet, sour and bitter, and all the other tastes is thought to be a combination of two or more of these tastes.
Now, ready to be mind blown? Well, there is a 5th flavor that has puzzled scientists and chefs equally, all across the world, with its hard to describe yet oh-so-pleasant taste. I am talking about Umami. Mild meaty and savory flavor is the best way to describe it, but for its true understanding it is something that you have to taste to fully experience.
The Fifth Pillar of Taste: Umami
Umami was discovered by a professor and chemist named Kikunae Ikada who while eating a bowl of soup made from seaweed, noticed its peculiar and delicious taste that was something other than the 4 basic pillars of taste everyone was all too familiar with. His curiosity made him investigate it more. In the lab he found the ingredient responsible for this taste, and it was glutamic acid.
Glutamates are found naturally in most living things. But when they break down, for example through the process of boiling, fermentation or cooking, the glutamate catabolizes into smaller molecules called L-glutamate. This is what gives kelp soup its special flavor. This is what umami tastes like.
Umami makes you feel fuller and eat less
Now here is where it gets even more interesting. In one research study, the researchers observed the eating habits of 26 participants who were given fixed portions of high energy carb and protein soup. The only difference was that half of them were given the soup with a special MSG combination added to it. Then they were asked questions about their appetite and satiety.
Results showed that food intake among the group that ate the protein and MSG loaded soup was significantly reduced when compared to the group that hadn’t. The addition of this flavor increased the pleasantness of the food as well as the satiety.
Getting Umami without MSG
Monosodium glutamate is not the only way to get umami, and thank goodness for that because research shows that MSG, mostly common in Chinese foods and processed items, causes a variety of health problems like headaches, facial tightness, numbness, heart palpitations, chest pains and nausea. MSG is an excitotoxin which can overstimulate our cells to dangerous levels.
Umami however naturally occurs in many food items. So you don’t have to rely on MSG laden processed junk to experience this fifth taste.
5 Umami Rich Natural Foods Sans MSG
- Tomato- The riper the tomato, the more glutamic acid it has. The inner portion of tomato contains higher level of umami than the outer part.
- Shiitake mushrooms- If you have ever had shiitake mushrooms, you are already familiar with its strong earthy taste. It contains high level of glutamate. Actually when dried, its umami increases.
- Nori- This sea vegetable is used in miso soup and when dried, nori is used as sheets for sushi rolls, and other Japanese dishes.
- Kelp- Also known as brown algae, kelp is famously used in dashi (cooking stock). Kelp is only used for cooking once it matures for two years. When small, it doesn’t contain the high amount of nutritious element that it’s so sought after for.
- Cheese- Among all types of cheeses, parmesan cheese contains the highest amount of free glutamate. In fact, it is almost equal to kombu (or kelp). Some of the other glutamate filled cheeses include elmmental cheese and cabrales cheese
The compounds that form umami is actually one of the building blocks of protein. This fifth flavor is important for our body which is why we love pouring marinara sauce, crumbling cheese and adding soy sauce on many of our food items. It takes our taste buds through an indescribable experience that helps us enjoy our food from the first bite to the last, and once done it leaves a mild and delicious aftertaste, keeping our appetite satisfied for hours after.
If you want to lose weight, this is the new taste you definitely have to include in your diet. But do remember to stick to foods that naturally contain umami because you don’t want to get addicted to the commercially produced version of this fifth taste predominantly found in canned foods and processed meats.
I am confident that each of us has tasted umami without knowing what it was. In the comments below, please tell me: If you know what umami taste like, how would you describe it?