What’s That Taste? Why, It’s Umami!

By Cynthia F. Catts

Sometimes it’s just hard to describe a particular taste of the food you’re enjoying. It’s not sweet. It’s not bitter or astringent, it’s … something else.

Maybe what you are trying to verbalize is the “umami” of the food.

Umami (pronounced oo-MAH-mee) is a Japanese word for a taste that can’t be categorized as one of the four tastes we traditionally recognize: sweet, salty, sour, or bitter. Umami usually is described as full bodied, meaty, or savory, like the flavor of stew or grilled steak. Parmesan cheese, anchovies, tomatoes, tomato paste, asparagus and mushrooms are foods said to have umami.

Glutamate and Receptors

What distinguishes foods with umami from other foods is the amino acid glutamate. Like the other flavors, we have receptors on our tongue for glutamate and other similar compounds. This phenomenon has been recognized by Japanese scientists for years.

Traditional Asian foods such as seaweed and mushrooms have long been used to flavor stews and sauces. Monosodium glutamate (MSG), under the brand name Accent was created in the 1950s to impart umami to dishes used in America. There are now several herb/spice blends available that impart this thick, meat-like flavor to foods, including Bragg Liquid Aminos and nutritional yeast products.

Avoid MSG

It is common for Asian cooks in Asian restaurants to add large amounts of MSG to dishes for this very purpose. We also see MSG and other glutamic acid salts (monopotassium glutamate and monoammonium glutamate) added to processed foods, including soups, chips, macaroni and cheese, and gravy mixes. Unfortunately, large amounts of MSG have been associated with allergic reactions, headaches, fluid retention and other symptoms. In my practice, I caution my clients to avoid MSG.

Seasoned vegan chefs also use foods with umami in dishes to instill a thicker, meatier or heartier component to the dish.

Instead of using Accent or MSG, consider adding mushrooms to dishes or get some kombu (dried seaweed available in the Asian section of the grocery store) and add a sheet of it to the soup, sauce or stew. It dissolves as the food is cooked. This will provide that thicker, more satisfying appeal to the casserole or stew.


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A licensed Clinical Nutrition Therapist practicing in Aiken, Cyndi Catts, RD, LD, sees clients who desire individualized programs to address weight reduction, metabolism measurement, menopause issues, cholesterol and triglyceride-lowering, blood pressure management, and diabetes management, in addition to eating disorders, anti-inflammation, and cancer prevention. Self-referred patients are welcome, as are referrals from medical personnel. Cyndi is a graduate of Florida State University in Food and Nutrition and has done graduate work at (now) Augusta State University. A longtime contributor to BELLA Magazine as a nutrition columnist, Cyndi can be reached at cattfood2@gmail.com and 803-642-9360 for appointments.