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Can food be too umami?

Umami is one of the five basic tastes, along with sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. It refers to the savory, meaty, broth-like flavor that comes from glutamate, an amino acid found in many foods. Umami is known for enhancing and rounding out flavors, but some wonder if it’s possible for a dish or ingredient to have too much umami flavor. Let’s explore what umami is, where it’s found, and whether it’s possible to have too much of this rich, savory taste.

What is Umami?

The term “umami” comes from the Japanese word meaning “pleasant savory taste.” It was identified as a fundamental taste in 1908 by Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda, who isolated glutamate as the source of this taste. Glutamate is found naturally in foods like meat, fish, mushrooms, tomatoes, cheese, and green tea.

When glutamate binds to taste receptors on the tongue, it sends signals to the brain that create the potent, broth-like umami flavor. Glutamate is not the only source of umami – nucleotides like inosinate and guanylate can also create an umami taste when combined with glutamate. That’s why foods with both glutamate and nucleotides, like meat and mushrooms, taste especially savory.

Some examples of foods naturally high in umami compounds include:

  • Aged cheeses like parmesan
  • Cured meats like prosciutto
  • Mushrooms
  • Tomatoes
  • Green tea
  • Boned chicken
  • Shellfish
  • Miso paste
  • Soy sauce
  • Beef or veal stock

Umami-rich foods have a full, rounded, mouth-filling flavor that makes dishes more delicious. That’s why cooks use umami ingredients like Parmesan, tomato paste, anchovies, and mushroom powder to add more savoriness to recipes.

Is Umami a New Taste?

While the term “umami” was only coined in the early 1900s, cooks have been using umami-rich ingredients to boost flavor for centuries. Anchovies, cheese, mushrooms and meats have long been staples in European cuisine. Asian cuisines like Chinese, Japanese and Korean cooking have also traditionally used ingredients like seaweed, fish sauce, miso and shiitake mushrooms to add satisfying umami flavors.

So while umami was scientifically identified as a basic taste relatively recently, cooks have intuitively been using umami-rich foods to make meals more delicious for hundreds of years.

Health Benefits of Umami

In addition to making food taste better, ingredients that provide umami flavor have some health benefits:

  • Promotes satiety – Studies show that umami flavors increase salivation and promote a feeling of fullness and satisfaction after eating. The glutamate in umami foods may stimulate appetite-regulating hormones.
  • Reduces salt intake – Adding small amounts of umami flavors from ingredients like mushrooms or Parmesan can reduce the amount of salt needed in a dish while still making it taste savory.
  • Protects cells – Glutamate helps digestive system cells regenerate and aids recovery from injuries in the gut. It acts as an energy source for intestinal cells.

Of course, these benefits depend on getting umami from whole, natural foods instead of isolated glutamate additives. But when enjoyed in moderation from quality ingredients, umami-rich foods can potentially offer some nutritional upsides.

Can You Have Too Much Umami Flavor?

Since umami has a pleasant, savory taste that enhances other flavors, what could be wrong with amping up the umami levels? It turns out there is such a thing as too much umami flavor, depending on the dish.

Potential downsides of too much umami include:

  • Overpowering flavor – In excessive amounts, umami can overtake more delicate flavors in a dish. Subtleties can be lost in an overly umami-forward meal.
  • Unbalanced taste – Just like dishes need a balance of salty, sweet, sour and bitter, umami flavor should complement the other tastes instead of dominating.
  • Unpleasant aftertaste – Some people report a unpleasant metallic or bitter aftertaste from foods with too much added glutamate.
  • Reduced enjoyment – Research suggests that above a certain concentration threshold, umami flavor starts to have a diminishing impact on the overall deliciousness of a dish.

So while umami can improve flavor at moderate levels, more is not necessarily better. Let’s look at some examples of foods and ingredients where too much umami can ruin the dining experience.

Meat Stocks and Broths

Meat-based stocks and broths get their rich, mouth-filling flavor from the natural glutamates and nucleotides in animal ingredients like bones, connective tissue and meat scraps. As these ingredients simmer, more and more umami compounds are released into the liquid.

However, broth can go past the point of being deliciously savory to unpleasantly overpowering. If meat stock simmers for too long, the umami flavor compounds build up so much that other tastes are drowned out. The broth can start to taste harsh and one-noted.

To keep meat broths tasting balanced, they should be simmered just long enough to extract flavor and body – often 3-4 hours. Extended boiling results in a flat, cloying umami flavor.

Tomato Sauces and Pastes

Canned tomato products like sauce and paste are high in natural umami compounds. While a small amount of tomato puree can add nice flavor to sauces and stews, going overboard can make the dish taste unpleasant.

Cook’s Illustrated found that more than 2 tablespoons of tomato paste per quart of liquid resulted in an overly sharp umami flavor. Too much tomato concentrate caused the other ingredients’ flavors to be drowned out.

When using tomato sauces or paste, add a little at a time and stop when the savory notes are nicely rounded without excess harshness.

Fish Sauce

Fish sauce is used heavily in Southeast Asian cuisines like Thai and Vietnamese cooking. The brown, ultra-savory sauce is made from fermented anchovies, salt and water. This long fermentation process yields intensely umami flavors.

Because it’s already so strongly flavored, fish sauce must be used judiciously in recipes. More than 1-2 tablespoons per dish can usually overpower the other ingredients. Just a splash of fish sauce as a seasoning or marinade is plenty to add a flavor boost without going over the top.


Monosodium glutamate, commonly known as MSG, is a popular flavor enhancer used in many cuisines. It consists of concentrated glutamate combined with sodium ions. MSG provides a concentrated umami flavor punch.

Many professional chefs and home cooks use a small amount of MSG to add a savory boost to recipes. However, used in excess, the flavor can become unpleasant and diminish overall enjoyment of the dish.

Studies have found that above certain thresholds, which vary based on the food, MSG can give an unfavorable metallic taste. Levels of 1% or higher resulted in less acceptability among testers.

If using MSG, it’s best to add it in moderation starting with just a pinch or two per dish. Too much MSG can make food taste artificial and overly salty.

How to Achieve the Right Umami Balance

When used judiciously, umami-rich ingredients can greatly enhance the overall deliciousness of both savory and sweet recipes. Follow these tips for getting the right umami balance:

  • Use whole, natural umami ingredients instead of isolated additives.
  • Layer multiple sources of umami like tomatoes, mushrooms and parmesan.
  • Add a little at a time, tasting as you go before adding more.
  • Use other flavors like sour, bitter and sweet to balance the umami.
  • Try reducing added salt when using ingredients high in glutamates.
  • Stick to cooking times that extract umami without over-concentrating the flavor.

With the right touch, that hard-to-pin-down umami flavor can bring dishes to the next level without overpowering the palate. get creative with how you use natural umami-rich ingredients to make your cooking more craveable.


Umami, with its full-bodied and savory taste, can greatly enhance the deliciousness of foods when used properly. But there is a point at which this flavor can become too strong and overpowering. Moderation is key when using umami-rich ingredients to achieve the right balance with other tastes.

Many common ingredients naturally contain high levels of umami compounds like glutamates and nucleotides. Cooks have intuited their flavor-boosting power for centuries. But care must be taken not to go overboard and flatten all subtleties with too much umami.

Following some simple guidelines like starting with small amounts, using whole foods instead of additives, and combining umami with other tastes can help unlock its full flavor-enhancing potential. Harnessing umami correctly can turn an ordinary dish into something craveably delicious.