What is umami?
Umami is one of the five basic tastes, along with sweet, sour, salty and bitter. It is described as a pleasant, savory taste and is sometimes called the “fifth taste.” Foods that are high in umami include meats, fish, cheese, tomatoes, mushrooms, soy sauce, and seaweed.
Umami comes from the Japanese word meaning “delicious taste.” It was identified as a fundamental taste in 1908 by Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda. He discovered that the taste came from glutamate, an amino acid that is present in many foods. Our taste receptors specifically recognize glutamate as the umami taste.
Glutamate is a common amino acid found in plant and animal proteins. When proteins are broken down during cooking or digestion, glutamate is released. Foods highest in natural glutamate include:
- Aged cheeses like parmesan
- Cured meats like bacon
- Vegetables like tomatoes, mushrooms, and seaweed
- Soy sauce
- Mother’s milk
The additive monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a concentrated source of glutamate used to enhance umami flavor. MSG is controversial and some people claim sensitivity to large doses. However, normal levels of glutamate and MSG are safe for most people.
We have specific receptors on our taste buds designed to detect glutamate and give us that savory umami taste. The TAS1R taste receptors bind to glutamate and signal our brain. Having a receptor dedicated entirely to glutamate highlights the importance umami has played in human cuisine and diet throughout history.
It is believed that our taste for umami may have evolved to help us identify protein-rich foods. Eating ample protein from meat and fish was important for our ancestors’ survival and reproduction. The appealing umami flavor led them to seek out foods that provided key amino acids.
Getting enough salt was also critical, so we evolved a taste for that as well. Enjoying umami and salty flavors encouraged eating essential nutrients for health and survival.
Why we crave umami
We crave umami flavors for several key reasons:
As discussed, we are biologically programmed to find umami pleasant and appetizing. Our taste receptors are specifically tuned to identify glutamate. When umami foods hit our tongue, our brain lights up telling us “this is delicious and nutritious!”
It makes evolutionary sense that we developed a taste for proteins and amino acids. Eating sufficient protein was necessary for muscle synthesis, hair, skin, hormones, neurotransmitters and many other essential functions. Our brains reward us with pleasure when we eat umami-rich foods.
In addition to tasting delicious, umami foods are highly satiating. Protein and glutamate-rich foods fill us up and provide lasting satisfaction. They keep hunger at bay longer than foods lacking in umami flavors.
Several studies have shown adding MSG to dishes improves satiety compared to meals without added MSG. The umami taste stimulates appetite-control regions in the hypothalamus. This helps explain why umami foods curb hunger.
Umami just tastes really good! It improves and rounds out the flavor of dishes, giving depth, body and savoriness. Think of sizzling steak, savory mushrooms and hearty stews – all full of mouth-watering umami.
When cooking, we often add ingredients like tomato, cheese, bacon and soy sauce to enhance umami. This makes dishes more crave-worthy, more “ishigten desu” as the Japanese would say.
Some scientists speculate that certain compounds associated with umami may have mild addictive or drug-like qualities. Glutamate appears to activate our brain’s reward centers. Compounds like IMP and GMP that enhance umami (found in things like seaweed and dried mushrooms) may have similar effects.
This could lead to cravings for umami-rich cuisine in a similar way that sugar or salt elicit cravings. More research is needed to investigate these theories.
Eating umami foods brings nutritional and heart health benefits:
- Protein provides essential amino acids
- Glutamate may improve gut health
- Reduced salt dishes taste better with umami
- Potential heart benefits from garlic, onions, seaweed
- Enjoying savory flavors means less sugar needed
Our bodies crave umami because it often indicates nutrient-dense whole foods. Our taste buds lead us toward dishes that offer health perks.
Ways to satisfy umami cravings
Here are some tips for getting your umami fix in a healthy way:
- Add umami ingredients like mushrooms, tomatoes, Parmesan to dishes
- Use miso paste in soups or stir-fries
- Snack on nori seaweed strips
- Grill portobello mushroom burgers
- Drink unsweetened green or black tea
- Season with a splash of soy sauce or fish sauce
- Eat more plant sources rather than MSG shakes
Our innate preference for umami taste likely evolved to ensure we got enough protein. Umami indicates food is nutritionally-dense and satisfying. Compounds in umami foods may also mildly addictive. Enjoying the savory flavor from natural foods brings health benefits. Satisfy your umami cravings by cooking with shiitake mushrooms, seaweed, quality soy sauce and other whole foods sources. Just don’t overdo the MSG!