Umami, known as the fifth taste, is a Japanese word うま味 meaning “pleasant savory taste.” Are you falling into the American taste trap of too much salty, too much sweet and not enough of anything else? Well, don’t fast forward by bitter or pungent, either… but you really will benefit from exploring the savory protein flavor known as Umami.
In 1908 Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda coined the term for his discoveries around the taste by combining the words for Umai うまい meaning delicious and mi 味 meaning taste. In 1985 Umami was recognized as the scientific term for the taste of amino acid compounds called glutamates, and nucleotides.
We now know through the work of scientists studying Umami that this taste has its own unique receptors in the human palette. Before this discovery in the early 21st century it was largely considered to be an enhancement to other flavors or tastes. Certain amino acids, such as glutamate, react with certain nucleotides to greatly intensify the perception of this taste. Research indicates that when the Umami taste is already exhibited in glutamate rich foods, the nucleotide inosinate can increase the Umami by a factor of 8.
An article in Popular Mechanics observes, “All those strong-flavored, highly concentrated foods, like anchovies, prosciutto, Parmesan, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, fish sauce, Marmite, blue cheese, miso: those are the ones that are packed with available glutamate.”
I have long been a fan of vegetable broths and soup stocks as a way to get lots of nutrition (and healing comfort) into the body in a tasty way. One of the most savory broths is Miso, a traditional Japanese fermentation generally made from soybeans and aspergillus oryzae (Koji) and some times other ingredients such as seaweed, barley, or rice. Miso is also one of the most Umami foods, and correspondingly – one of the richest dietary sources of Glutamate.
Glutamate is a neurotransmitter which is one of the most abundant molecules, and most common excitatory neurotransmitters, in the brain. It is also a precursor to the inhibitory neurotransmitter amino acid GABA, which is often found to one of the greatest factors in relaxation and mental focus. The metabolism of glutamate is critical to both excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters.
Glutamate is also used by the body to help excrete excess nitrogen, and to produce energy as part of the citric acid cycle, being involved in the metabolism of pyruvate and alpha-ket o glutamic acid. This process is an intrinsic part of the creation of energy at a cellular level.
The taste of Umami, whether from a rich seaweed miso broth, from fermented fish, or from mushrooms, can be correlated with not just delicious taste; but potentially also great health benefits. A small number of individuals may have an allergic reaction to glutamate rich foods, and to glutamate rich food additives such as MSG (mono-s odium glutamate) which is sometimes added to foods as an intense flavor enhancer. For the majority of us, glutamate rich foods can be an important way to get our savory souper foods!