You may have heard the name before, but what is it exactly?
Known as the fifth taste (added to bitter, sweet, salty and sour), umami is basically what makes certain savory foods have their deep flavors. Think about taking a bite of a hearty, savory dish and the taste and pleasure that amounts from it. In fact, umami means “delicious” or “yummy” in Japanese.
People taste umami through receptors of glutamate, and umami is essentially glutamate that has broken down, be it in a cooked meat or an aged cheese. While it’s mostly a taste that’s associated with meat products, good vegetarians and vegans know the right ingredients that either contain umami or help to boost flavor, for more savory, heartier dishes.
Umami was discovered by Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda when he pondered why his bowl of dashi, a classic seaweed soup, had a meaty flavor. Being a chemist, he isolated the main ingredient of the soup, seaweed, and then ran it through a series of experiments to isolate a specific compound. End result? He was left with a pile of crystals, which when he tasted them, gave the exact same distinct taste he appreciated in his soup.
He gave the compound the same molecular formula as glutamic acid and in 1909 he began mass-marketing Ajinomoto, basically a sodium salt form of glutamic acid. You know what that became? Good ole MSG, the thing we love to hate.
And yet we hate one and idolize the other. As the Smithsonian points out in a recent article on the topic, “What few people understand is that the hated MSG and the adored umami are chemically related: umami is tasted by the very receptors that MSG targets.”
So which one is better?
According to the Smithsonian, it’s complicated, and it has to do with how your body regulates ingredients.
“Glutamtes that occur naturally in food come intertwined with different chemicals or fiber, which the body is naturally inclined to regulate, explains Amy Cheng Vollmer, professor of biology at Swarthmore College. MSG, however, comes without the natural components of food that help the body regulate glutamic levels. It’s like taking an iron supplement versus obtaining iron from spinach or red meat: the iron supplement creates an expressway between the iron and your bloodstream that you wouldn’t find in natural iron sources. The bottom line here is context is everything,” Vollmer adds.”
In other words, same same, but different, and with the taste profile, it’s no surprise that umami has skyrocketed in the foodie world.
Then again, better to douse your broccoli that you picked at the farm yourself in some soy sauce, then buy sweet orange chicken from the fast food Chinese joint down the street or MSG-infused snack packs.
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