Yummy Umami: The 6th Basic Taste?
Quick, name the 5 basic tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty…and the fifth one is umami. Umami is the word that describes the savory taste of food, or perhaps “meatiness” of a food. It is the taste of the amino acid L-glutamate. The Japanese singled out this flavor in the early 1900s thanks to a chemistry professor from the Imperial University of Tokyo, Kikunae Ikeda, who isolated the glutamic acid compound C5H9NO4. Glutamic acid is found in both free and bound forms. The free form, which is formed when the protein molecule breaks down and releases glutamic acid, is the one we taste. “Umami” means in Japanese, literally, deliciousness.
A few years ago, I remember there was some hype that spread virally through America’s highly-informed (and often misinformed) consumer culture about MSG.
What is this lethal-sounding additive in the foods we eat, so cleverly covered up by only using three letters to trick us when we know better? It was soon known that MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is an ingredient added to most processed foods in order to enhance their flavors. In the media, MSG was linked to many ills, including migraines, nausea, and cancer, among others.
Wariness and fear of MSG actually began in the 1970s, after Dr. Ho Man Kwok wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine that he was experiencing all sorts of uncomfortable after-effects from a Chinese dinner, including numbness, weakness, and palpitations. He did not specifically link his symptoms to MSG, but a year later a study was done on baby mice by injecting high dosages of MSG (up to 4 grams per kilogram of body weight) and observing the brain lesions the mice suffered afterwards. Thus was born Chinese Restaurant Syndrome (CRS). Studies, anecdotes, and reports were quick to follow suit afterwards, claiming that MSG was linked to all sorts of ills. Some prominent nutritionists today are convinced that added MSG is harmful, especially for children.
Relax, the FDA told us. It is a naturally occurring compound, and you won’t die from it.
Yes, it is a naturally occurring compound, an amino acid that our bodies need and produce in the amount of about 40 grams per day. It is found naturally in almost every food to some extent. Many other tests show no negative side effects at all from consuming a normal amount of MSG (about 4 or 5 grams a day). In fact, not only the FDA, but the EU, United States, Australian, and Japanese governments gave MSG a gold star for being one of the safest food additives, as long as it is consumed in moderation.
This is a confusing mix of evidence about industrially produced MSG. Some studies show that it is harmful, while others show no negative side effects at all.
Consuming food with naturally occurring levels of glutamic acid is absolutely fine. As for processed foods with added MSG, I figure it is best to avoid them as much as possible, as well as MSG’s alter egos (MSG hides under various labels – here’s a short list of common names and a great article detailing both sides of this debate). The amounts of MSG are higher, and even consuming vitamins and minerals in excess amounts can be toxic. Anyway, processed foods themselves are less healthy than real food and I avoid them as much as I can. Finally, while the glutamic acid compound is natural in and of itself, it has not occurred naturally in the processed food – and this is something that is always best to be cautious about.
What can be used to add umami flavor to your dishes instead of a .49 cent packet of pure MSG? In other words, where does the umami flavor naturally occur? In general, it occurs in some vegetables, fermented foods, aged meats, fish and shellfish, and cured cheeses. Here is a world map highlighting a cultural variety of umami dishes. Tomatoes, mushrooms, spinach, corn, potatoes, and celery are a few vegetable examples. Fermented foods include soy sauce, Italian fermented anchovy sauce called colatura, the Japanese nattō, and Korean kimchi, among many others. I was surprised to discover that green tea is a source of umami flavor. Prosciutto di Parma and other dry-cured meats are very rich in umami. Aged cheeses are high in umami flavor, and the king of them all is Parmigiano Reggiano, which has the highest amount of naturally-occurring umami flavor of any food in the world.