What is umami?

According to Merriam-Webster, umami is defined as “a taste sensation that is meaty or savory and is produced by several amino acids and nucleotides.” You may recognize the fifth taste from the savoriness found in meats, mushrooms, soups, cheeses and green tea. Umami is paradoxically considered to be the most subtle yet intense of the tastes. While not as pronounced as, say, the tartness of a lemon, umami is responsible for making most of our meals delicious.

How was the flavor identified?

In the late 19th century, French chef Auguste Escoffier was cooking with veal stock and realized that the dish contained a taste that didn’t fit the traditional categories of sweet, sour, salty and bitter. There wasn’t scientific proof to support this claim until 1907 when Japanese chemist Dr. Kikunae Ikeda discovered glutamate, the amino acid responsible for the taste of umami. He called it “umami,” which means “yummy” or “pleasant savory taste” in Japanese.

How does umami work?

Glutamate is found in most living things. When they die and their organic matter breaks down, the glutamate molecule breaks apart into L-glutamate. This process can happen when meat is cooked, during the fermentation process of soy sauce, when a tomato ripens in the sun, or when Parmesan cheese is aged. The human tongue has receptors for L-glutamate, so when you bite into steak or a hunk of Parmesan, L-glutamate is what you taste. Scientists adopted Ikeda’s term, “umami,” to describe this new taste.

Does umami have any benefits?

While umami is responsible for the “yum” factor in most of our foods, it has other benefits. When we taste glutamate, we release endocrine hormones that make us feel full and satisfied with our meal. We are exposed to umami at a very young age — there is about as much umami in breast milk as there is in soup broth. This helps babies understand the sensation of being fed and how to recognize satiety. Since umami is found in many high-nutrient foods, it is also important in the diet of elderly people whose taste receptors have weakened with age, which commonly leads to a smaller appetite and generally worse nutrition.

What about MSG: friend or foe?

MSG, or monosodium glutamate, became famous for its ability to imbue the umami flavor into dishes, or enhance flavor. MSG is the sodium salt form of glutamatic acid. The taste of MSG by itself is often described as unpleasant. However, when MSG is added in low concentrations to appropriate foods, the flavor, pleasantness and acceptability of the food increases. That’s because MSG is a tastant: a substance that stimulates the sense of taste. While much controversy still lies around the issue, the Food and Drug Administration has classified MSG as a food ingredient that’s “generally recognized as safe.”