What is Umami: The Fifth Taste in the Global Spotlight

Umami may have been discovered in Japan, but chefs around the world have noted its impact and are now actively incorporating it into their cooking

By Umami Information Center

Umami basics Umami basicsUmami Information Center

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Umami: critical to delicious cooking

Umami has the ability to draw the maximum flavor from ingredients and is an international taste, joining sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. These unique tastes cannot be created by mixing other tastes, and are known as the basic, or primary, tastes. Umami is a general term used mainly for substances combining the amino acid glutamate, and/or the nucleotides inosinate and guanylate, with minerals such as sodium and potassium. Whether something tastes good or not is a comprehensive and subjective evaluation, determined by elements such as taste, aroma, texture, and temperature. This includes other factors, such as appearance, color, and shape, as well as physical condition, surrounding environment, cultural background, and previous experiences. Of these various elements, umami balances with the other basic tastes (sweet, sour, salty, and bitter) and plays an important role in determining the deliciousness of a dish.

Umami and “deliciousness” Umami and “deliciousness”Umami Information Center

Inosinate accounts for most of the umami in dried bonito (katsuobushi)Umami Information Center

What is in umami?

In scientific terms, umami is defined as the taste of salts combining glutamate, inosinate, or guanylate, as well as sodium ions, such as monosodium glutamate, or potassium ions. Here, except for sections requiring scientific precision, we describe umami as the taste of glutamate, inosinate, and guanylate. Salts of the amino acid aspartate and the nucleotide adenylate are also types of umami substance, which are weaker than glutamate. Succinic acid, which gives shellfish their distinctive taste, has also been identified as another possible umami substance.

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The basic tastes

For human beings, being able to distinguish the five basic tastes is an indispensable survival skill because it allows us to avoid risky foods and obtain nutrients safely. For example, by detecting the sour taste of organic acids in unripe fruit or rotting food, or the bitterness of alkaloids, our tongue warns us about the dangers of these foods. In contrast, when we detect the sweetness of sugars that serve as our energy source, or the saltiness of minerals necessary to maintain the balance of body fluids, we can consume them easily. Umami also serves as a signal to the body and sensing umami triggers the secretion of saliva and digestive juices, facilitating the smooth digestion of protein.

Common examples of foods/taste substances for each of the basic tastes Common examples of foods/taste substances for each of the basic tastesUmami Information Center

Umami in sea foodUmami Information Center

Where can we find umami?

The main components of umami are glutamate, inosinate, and guanylate. Glutamate is found in a variety of foods including meat, fish, and vegetables. Inosinate is found in generous quantities in animal-based foods such as meat and fish, while large amounts of guanylate can be found in dried mushroom products such as dried shiitake. We also know that the umami component of food increases as a result of processing, such as ripening and fermentation. Many traditional foods from around the world are excellent sources of umami, including soy sauce and other fermented condiments made from grain, fish sauces such as Thailand’s nam pla and nuoc mam from Vietnam, and cheeses.

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What is umami synergy?

It has been scientifically proven that umami is sensed more strongly when glutamate is combined with inosinate or guanylate. This is referred to as umami synergy. People have been capitalizing on umami synergy for centuries, long before this effect was scientifically proven. All over the world, in dishes from soups combining glutamate-rich vegetables and inosinate-rich meat and fish, to the tang of Chinese cuisine extracted from chicken or pork bones and green onions, to Japanese dashi made from kombu (high in glutamate) and katsuobushi (high in inosinate), people have acquired an empirical understanding of umami synergy and applied that knowledge to cooking.

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The strength of the umami synergy between glutamate and inosinate varies according to the ratios of each. When solutions containing slightly varying proportions of glutamate and inosinate were used to perform a sensory evaluation, umami was found to be most powerful with a glutamate to inosinate ratio of exactly 1:1. This proportion was deemed seven to eight times the intensity of tasting either glutamate or inosinate in isolation. An analysis of the ichiban (primary) dashi used at one Japanese restaurant revealed the glutamate/inosinate ratio to be exactly 1:1, suggesting that top restaurants know from experience the optimal proportions to get the most umami.

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Sea bream and cured ham carpaccioUmami Information Center

What does umami tastes like?

Umami is a delicate, mild, and subtle taste. It is a taste that spreads across the tongue, coating it completely. It is also a persistent and lingering taste, creating a mouthwatering sensation. This is how chefs who have experienced and recognized umami describe its characteristics. Let us take a look at three properties of umami...

What umami taste like: three properties What umami taste like: three propertiesUmami Information Center

Hamburg steak with shiitake mushroomUmami Information Center

Umami vs. salt

Umami helps to reduce salt content in cooking. Although salt can ehance the tast of food, numerous studies and statistics have linked excessive salt intake to many different lifestyle diseases. While drastically reducing salt is good for our bodies, a low-salt diet is difficult to maintain. It has been demonstrated that making use of umami allows salt content to be reduced without compromising taste. In an experiment comparing egg-drop soup prepared according to a standard recipe with a soup made with extra umami, it was found that salt could be reduced in the umami-boosted soup by around 30 percent, with no loss of taste. In a similar manner, some Japanese restaurants are experimenting with serving healthy kaiseki food, which can be savored, especially those on a salt-reduced diet, by focusing on boosting umami in food preparation.

Healthy Japanese cuisine in the global spotlightUmami Information Center

Putting healthy Japanese cuisine in the global spotlight

Recent years have seen a growing shift towards fewer calories and animal fats, as people look to prevent lifestyle diseases and maintain good health. As part of this dietary trend, Japanese cuisine has gained popularity, thanks to its health properties. Rather than relying on animal fats, Japanese cooking uses the umami of dashi (Japanese stock soup) to highlight the intrinsic flavors of ingredients, and chefs from all over the world have started visiting Japan to study these cooking techniques. Learning how to make Japanese dashi, they master the use of umami as an alternative to animal fats before going on to develop their own approaches to umami-oriented cooking.

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