Botanical Nutrition

by Rob Seeman official blogger of the health food movement


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うま味 Umami : the Fifth Taste of Super Foods

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.

boneless broth mushroom bowl

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!


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Dulse Sea Vegetable : Amazing Nutrition from the Ocean

Let me just say this – if you’re not eating sea veggies you are missing out.  We talk a lot about super foods; but I can say with absolute certainty there are few foods that rival the nutritional benefits from seaweed.

There are many varieties of sea veggies; Kelp, Nori, Wakame, Irish Moss – the list goes on and on.  Some of them are savory and slightly sweet, others more bitter or earthy tasting.  One of the most beneficial kinds of sea vegetable for my money is Dulse (Palmaria palmata) a vegetable that grows in the North regions of the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans.

0715_Dulse1

Dulse has a really nice umami sort of taste to it, and some folks even use it as a plant-based substitute for Bacon flavoring.  Ever tried a DLT (Dulse, lettuce and tomato) sandwich?  Try it and you might be surprised.

In addition to being a very flavorful food, Dulse has a host of health benefits.  Like all sea veggies, it contains a wide variety of beneficial trace minerals, including energizing electrolytes and the essential nutrient Iodine.  A growing body of research suggests that Americans may be largely deficient in Iodine, some even going so far as to label the deficiency a public health crisis.

But it isn’t just the minerals, like Iodine, that Dulse contains.  Scientific research published in the journal Food Research International indicates that the phycobiliproteins and chlorophyll in Dulse contribute to an anti-inflammatory effect.  Inflammation is one of the leading cause of negative health outcomes, and a major contributor to pain and discomfort in the body.

Another study showed that these same compounds in Dulse can inhibit ACE (angiotensin-converting enzyme).  The Mayo Clinic says this about ACE inhibitors “Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors help relax blood vessels. ACE inhibitors prevent an enzyme in your body from producing angiotensin II, a substance in your body that narrows your blood vessels and releases hormones that can raise your blood pressure. This narrowing can cause high blood pressure and force your heart to work harder.”

When you add a sea vegetable like Dulse into your diet, you aren’t just satisfying your taste buds – you also satisfy your hunger (iodine being a major factor in normal thyroid function), you are re-energizing your entire system with trace mineral nutrients that work on every level of the human body to help promote balance.  You’re also quite possibly helping to relax blood vessels and fight inflammation at a cellular level.

In short – if you don’t have Dulse in your cupboard, you might be missing out!


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Philosophy is Alive and so is the Ocean (So Eat Seaweed)

Stephen Hawking has recently been quoted as saying “philosophy is dead” (or at least that little machine he speaks through did) and I couldn’t disagree with him more.  Philosophy is alive and well in natural medicine; in order to believe in vis Medicatrix naturae (Latin for “by the healing power of nature”) one must believe in the wisdom of nature.  We may need science to understand more about it; but when we can point to a long tradition of safe use that is a philosophical kind of data (more in the realm of say -ethnobotany) that we should not ignore.

Science seats itself on a lofty perch, the sometimes overly-haughty halls of academia.  While I love a good double-blind study as much as the human or herbalist – give me the good ole common sense parameters derived from hundreds, even thousands, of years of safe and effective use over a narrow study that can be spun and reinterpreted ad nauseum.

IrishMoss

One possible victim of that spinful extrapolation is a sea vegetable called Irish Moss, also called carageenan moss, which grows abundantly in the Atlantic ocean. Irish Moss (Chondrus crispus) is a type of red algae, used in traditional cultures as a food and a medicine.  It is also best known commercially as a source for carageenan (a polysaccharide fraction naturally occuring in the plant) to be extracted from.

Carageenan is used in industry as a plant-based alternative to gelatin, and as a thickener and stabilizer in processed food products.  Somewhat alarmingly, in animal studies a high dose of carageenan injected in vivo has been shown to cause severe inflammation.  This kind of animal study data on the carageenan polysaccharides is distrurbing, if not altogether damning.

Irish Moss on the other hand, is now being condemened – apparently based almost solely conjecture from scientists – because it contains carageenan.  This seems to me to be a leap of faith that defies both philosophy and science; and a big extrapolation that is contradicted by thousands of years of cultural use of Irish Moss.  It is what is commonly knows as discarding the baby along with the bath water.

In Ireland (not surprisingly) Irish Moss is mixed with whiskey and spices to make a type of pudding.  In Jamaica it is used medicinally as an aphrodisiac.  In Venezuela it is boiled in milk and used a home remedy for sore throat and chest congestion.

These traditional uses support the huge difference between Irish moss and carageenan.  It would be presumptuous to assume that a food with hundreds if not thousands of years of culinary and medicinal use is in fact dangerous and worth avoiding.  We need to learn how to properly weigh the information in modern scientific analysis, rather than being reactive to it.  Always put food first.