It’s All About the Umami
Umami. When spoken aloud, the word itself is poetic, almost floral. In Japanese it means “yummy” or “delicious.” Umami. It is “chicken soup” for the culinary soul. Umami. It makes the mouth water. It is the thing that makes you say “mmm”… umami.
Great, but What is Umami?
Umami is one of five known tastes that can be sensed by human taste buds. The others, or course, are sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. One can easily conjure up recollections of their favorite treats that fall into the other basic taste categories…a sugary sweet donut, perhaps, or the pleasant sourness of fresh-squeezed lemonade. But what about umami? What exactly does umami taste like?
Umami is a savory depth or richness found in many of our favorite foods. It is that satisfying sensation that you feel when you eat certain things – but you can’t quite put your finger on it. It is a subtle sensation that hits the palette and lingers there, leaving you craving more. We all taste umami every day, but few of us truly understand it.
The Science Behind Umami
The human tongue has taste receptors for each of the five basic tastes. Each of the receptors work a little differently, but the end result of each is a signal that is sent to the brain in the presence of certain substances. The brain uses this information to make decisions regarding the food you’re eating.
When you eat something sweet, your brain associates the sweet taste with high-calorie foods and makes you think “yes, I should eat more of this.” A sour taste can be associated with a food that has rotted, and makes you think “do not eat this!” Foods with intense bitter flavors can be associated with poisons, making you spit them out. The brain associates umami with foods that are high in proteins, making you think “Yum, this is delicious! More, please!” Umami-rich foods are essential to human health, and our taste buds use umami to help us maintain well-balanced, nutrient-rich diets. Of course most foods actually contain a hybrid of the five tastes- and it is the combination of these tastes that humans detect as a recognizable and memorable flavor profile.
Savory Does Not Mean Salty
A common misconception is that only salty foods contain umami. This is probably because many foods which are high in umami are also high in salt. Soy sauce, broth, and cured meats are classic examples. On the contrary, umami is chemically and physiologically quite different from salt. Umami receptors on the human tongue are stimulated by amino acids, which are found in many meats and vegetables. While there are several amino acids that can be recognized by humans as umami flavor, glutamate, insonate, and guanylate are the most common.
So, while many people associate the savory foods they crave with saltiness, it is actually umami that gives these foods their pleasant and memorable flavor. In fact, the most successful low-sodium dishes are ones that are high in umami. Understanding and identifying umami is the key to creating a mouth-watering gourmet menu that is low in salt.
The MSG Confusion
Umami is often mistaken for its not-so-healthy synthetic cousin monosodium glutamate (MSG). MSG imitates the amino acid glutamate, much in the way artificial sweeteners imitate real sugar, or sucrose. MSG is traditionally used in many Asian cuisines as a flavor enhancer, and can be purchased commercially as the seasoning Accent. There have been many claims over the years regarding the health effects of MSG, most of which have not been substantiated by the scientific community. Regardless of the validity of these claims, MSG is loaded with sodium- about 640 milligrams in teaspoon. So, why use the fake stuff when there are so many wonderful foods that are naturally low in sodium but pack a whollop of umami flavor?
Some web sources mistakenly confuse the amino acid glutamate with the synthetic stuff (MSG). These sources claim that mushrooms, tomatoes, and other umami-rich foods have the same affect on humans as MSG. This simply is not the case. On the contrary, umami rich foods are usually quite healthy- containing nutrients that our bodies need to survive.
Finding umami is not difficult. Many of the common foods that we eat every day are rich in these delicious amino acids. Tomatoes, low sodium beef and chicken broths, mushrooms, balsamic vinegar, and red wine are great examples of umami-rich foods. Combining foods with more than one type of amino acid intensifies the umami flavor even further. In addition, reducing and caramelizing these foods concentrates the umami flavor. Whenever you encounter a pleasing taste with depth and savoriness that isn’t sweet, salty, sour or bitter, you have found umami. Use your new umami knowledge to your advantage when experimenting with your own low-sodium recipes.
Are there More than Five Tastes?
Some scientists and culinary experts believe that the list of tastes that humans can sense will grow as the medical community continues to investigate the way that our tongue receptors work. Over the past few years evidence has come to light that supports the existence of taste receptors specifically for fatty substances. We’ll have to stay tuned to see where the research leads.
Other Elements of Food Acceptance
Of course there are other elements of the food we eat that determine its acceptability besides interaction with our taste receptors. Texture, for instance, plays an important role in our decision as to whether we accept or reject certain foods (would you eat yogurt if it wasn’t smooth and creamy?). In addition, the temperature of foods can also affect their palatability. And, of course, there is spiciness. Spicy foods activate nerves (not taste receptors) on the tongue, which bring about a sensation of heat or warmth.
Check Out Our Favorite Umami-Packed Recipes
These recipes are all high on flavor, low on salt.
Traditional Soy Sauce is loaded with salt. Even the “lower sodium” versions can still have almost 600 milligrams of sodium in a tablespoon. This alternative by Low Sodium Gourmet is easy to make at home and contains only 8.5 milligrams of sodium in a one tablespoon serving!
This is a great soy sauce substitute that is packed with flavor! There are …
Low Sodium Meat Lover’s Pizza
The tomato sauce, yeast-based dough, fresh mozzarella, and of course the delicious pork sausage all contribute to an umami experience that is just out of this world. And with only 71.7 mg of sodium per slice, this is a pizza you can feel great about eating.
Spicy Thai-Style Vegetable Soup
The low sodium chicken broth, tomatoes, and veggies really pack in the umami flavor. This soup is quick and easy to make, too. It will become a staple in your low-sodium household!
Chicken Skewers with Sweet Sesame Glaze
These chicken skewers are a little bit of work to make, but oh boy are they worth it! This umami-rich recipe is a perfect weekend treat, and can even be used for entertaining, even though they contain a measly 51.1 mg of sodium per two-skewer serving (trust us, nobody will even know that there’s no salt).
Tangy Garlic Edamame Dip
Oh my! The garlic, the rich, almost buttery flavor… this dip is just great. It’s a snap to make, too. Try it once and you’ll be hooked. It makes a healthy, low-cal, low-sodium snack!
Please speak with your doctor before starting a low sodium diet to ensure it’s right for your health needs.
Ferreti, Elena, “Oh Mama What’s Up with Umami?,” foxnew.com, January 5, 2012. <http://www.foxnews.com/leisure/2010/01/05/oh-mama-whats-umami/> (September 15, 2012).
Krulwich, Robert, “Sweet, Sour, Salty, Bitter… and Umami,” Krulwich Wonders: An NPR Sciencey Blog, November 5, 2007. <http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=15819485>(September 15, 2012).
Prince, Rose, “Umami: ‘I tried it and now I want more, and more’,” The Telegraph, February 12, 2010. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/7215687/Umami-I-tried-it-and-now-I-want-more-and-more.html> (September 16, 2012).
“What is Umami?,” Umami Information Center, <http://www.umamiinfo.com/what-is-umami/> (September 15, 2012).