Umami is widely accepted as the fifth basic taste, along with the more commonly recognized sweet, sour, bitter and salty. Umami can best be described as “savoury”, and while it has been studied for over 100 years in Asia, only about 15 % of North Americans recognize the term. It is an important word to know – especially in the food industry! Here’s what you need to know about umami.
It Comes from Glutamate
Japanese Professor Kikunae Ikeda coined the term “umami” in 1908 to describe the unique savoury taste sensation found in seaweed. Taking its name from Japanese (umai = delicious and mi = taste), umami’s pleasant taste comes from the amino acid glutamate, and from the ribonucleotides inosinate and guanylate. These compounds occur naturally in many foods including meat, chicken, vegetables and cheese.
Some people are put off by sour or bitter foods, or may find certain tastes to be overly salty or sweet. However, umami is almost universally accepted and enjoyed – even by babies. In fact, glutamate accounts for more than half of the amino acid content in breast milk, so we learn to accept this flavour from a very young age!
Cut the Salt
We know that excess sodium intake is linked to high blood pressure, which increases the risk of heart disease. We also know that Canadians consume about 3,400 mg of sodium each day, even though the recommended intake is 1,500 – 2,300 mg/day. If you are looking for a unique way to cut the sodium content of meals, consider umami.
While “salty” and “umami” are both considered basic tastes and cannot replace each other, studies indicate that using more umami substances could reduce our preference for salty foods. Several studies show that foods that are higher in glutamate but lower in salt can be well accepted as pleasantly flavoured foods, despite the sodium reduction.,
Since umami is a subtle taste, it blends well with other flavours to expand and round out dishes. Most people don’t recognize umami when they taste it, but it plays an important role making food taste delicious.