Umami, the Taste Tsunami

9cf1ff85-0c8e-11e1-8c15-0017a4aa266a Can you name the five tastes the human tongue can detect? Most people can come up with the first four — sweet, salty, sour, and bitter — but when it comes to the fifth, you might be stumped. It’s called umami, and even if you've never heard of it, you have definitely tasted it. In fact, you probably taste it all the time: Umami is that hearty, savory, full-flavor taste we get from foods like Parmesan cheese, tomatoes, mushrooms, and beef.

The name was coined in Japan in the late 1800s. Kikunae Ikeda was eating a bowl of the classic Japanese seaweed-and-fish dashi when he realized he couldn’t describe the flavor as any combination of sweet, bitter, sour, or salty. Being a chemist, Ikeda was able to take his curiosity to the lab, discovering the secret ingredient was glutamate. He named the yummy taste “umami,” which means “delicious” in Japanese. Nearly a century later, in 2000, researchers at the University of Miami, Florida discovered that the human tongue does in fact have a specific taste receptor for glutamate, and umami burst onto the scene in the West.

Like salt, umami isn’t necessarily pleasing on its own, but it enhances the flavor of food by altering our perception of the other four tastes. Umami makes salt saltier, sweet sweeter, and bitter and sour less unpleasant. It also creates the satisfied mouth sensation that we experience when eating high-fat foods. Some research suggests that cooking with foods rich in umami might help with weight loss by satisfying those taste buds with less! According to David Kasabian, author of Umami: Cooking with the Fifth Taste, “the truth of the matter is, foods that have umami we find to be very delicious and very satisfying. Foods that don’t have umami we tend to find very insipid and very thin and not very satisfying. And as a result we eat more food.”

The foods most notably rich in umami include: fish, beef, fermented foods such as cheeses and miso, and vegetables such as mushrooms, ripe tomatoes, and asparagus. Try dLife’s Mushroom & Fontina Frittata. This cheesy and scrumptious egg dish is packed with umami taste thanks to the mushrooms, cheese, and tomatoes.

SOURCES:

1 – Chen, Q.Y., S. Alarcon, A. Tharp, O.M. Ahmed, N.L. Estrella, T.A. Greene, J. Rucker, P.A.S. Breslin. 2009. Perceptual variation in umami taste and polymorphism in TAS1R taste receptor genes. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 90(3): 7705-7795.
2 – Donaldson, Lucy F., Lisa Bennett, Sue Baic, and Jan K. Melichar. 2009. Taste and weight: Is there a link? American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 90(3): 8005-8035.
3 – Kasabian, Anna, and David Kasabian. 2008. The fifth taste: Cooking with umami. Universe Publishing.
4 – National Public Radio. Sweet, sour, salty, bitter… and umami, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=15819485. (Accessed 11/9/11).
5 – USA Today. Recipes for the 'fifth' taste: Umami. http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/22575482/ns/today-food/t/recipes-fifth-taste-umami/#.Trvqg1YxowN. (Accessed 11/9/11).
6 – USA Today. Excerpt: “The fifth taste: Cooking with umami.” http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/22575932/ns/today-food/t/excerpt-fifth-taste-cooking-umami/#.Trv4QVYxowM. (Accessed 11/9/11).

Reviewed by Susan Weiner, RD, MS, CDE, CDN. 05/12

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Last Modified Date: November 28, 2012

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