Umami has exploded onto today’s culinary scene. Chefs in trendy restaurants are adding umami burgers and “U-Bombs” to their menus, while conglomerates like Nestlé and Campbell’s are using it to enhance the flavours in their packaged products. Even though umami is the next big thing in food, there’s still an air of mystery about it. Here we explore the origin, science and identity of “the fifth taste.”
Umami is often called “the fifth taste.” But unlike sour, sweet, salty and bitter—tastes that have been identified and accepted for centuries—umami is relatively new to our radar. Difficult to describe, umami is an underlying flavour that many people describe as mildly meaty or brothy, with a long-lasting aftertaste.
Umami’s flavour profile is found naturally in many foods: it’s in most meats and fish, as well as mushrooms, tomatoes, potatoes, spinach, aged cheeses, miso and green tea. Umami can also be added to food and is prevalent in sauces, salts and powders, such as soy sauce, oyster sauce, fish sauce, Worcestershire sauce, nutritional yeast and monosodium glutamate (MSG), to name a few.
Umami was first identified in 1908 by Kikunae Ikeda, a professor at Tokyo Imperial University. Legend has it, Ikeda was enjoying a bowl of kombu dashi (seaweed broth) when he noticed that the soup’s flavour was neither sour, sweet, salty nor bitter—it was outside those four tastes, a fifth taste, which he eventually discovered was the taste of a particular amino acid—glutamate. Ikeda named the taste umami, which comes from the Japanese words for delicious and taste.
Glutamate, the amino acid responsible for umami, balances taste and flavours, highlights sweetness, offset salitness and reduces bitterness.
In 1996, a team of researchers in Miami conducted a study that found receptors in our taste buds that exist only to recognize glutamate. The researches published their findings in 2000, which put umami on the map in the Western world. Although widely accepted in Eastern cultures, the existence of a fifth taste was heavily debated in the West prior to this study.
Many researchers now believe that humans have developed a taste for umami because it signals the presence of protein (similar to the way craving something salty is a sign that one’s sodium levels might be low).
Adding a natural umami ingredient is an excellent way to enhance the flavour of our favourite dishes without using salt or sugar. For example, adding some Parmesan or a dash of soy sauce to your standby pasta sauce will intensify the flavour. Umami has also been shown to support weight management because it provides a feeling of fullness.
Glutamate in its salt form is monosodium glutamate (MSG), which can cause headaches, nausea and chest pain in people who are sensitive to the additive. Chinese food, canned goods and processed meats often contain added MSG. t8n
Breast milk contains about the same amount of umami as most broths.
Combining several umami ingredients in one dish is called an umami bomb—or a U-Bomb—because diners experience an intense “flavour explosion” when eating the dish.