In daily life there are certain ingredient pairings that we naturally crave: burgers and cheese, potatoes and carrots, bacon and everything… These aren’t happy accidents, rather a desire to find Umami—“taste-bud zen”.
Thousands of years ago, philosophers hypothesized that chewing breaks down our food into fragments that fit into the “keyholes” of our taste-buds. Democritus narrowed down these basic tastes into sweet, salty, bitter, and sour with shapes ranging from large circular atoms to isosceles triangles.
By the late 1800s, culinary experts in France and Japan were creating broths and meals that tasted unlike any pairing of the original four puzzle pieces. Dr. Kikunae Ikeda took his curiosity to the next step and analyzed the mysterious meals in his chemistry lab. He found that glutamate was the main active ingredient behind each of these and named his fifth taste “umami” or “delicious” in Japanese.
Many years later, further study of the human tongue revealed that we do have a “keyhole” for L-glutamate—thus, cementing it as the tongue’s fifth sense. Glutamate is naturally present in many foods ranging from beef, pork, and chicken to Parmesan cheese, shellfish, and tomatoes. Umami is released naturally when cooking meats or fermenting cheese or artificially with a sprinkle of Monosodium Glutamate (MSG). We don’t recommend the latter option – many studies illustrate a number of health issues associated with chemical MSG.
Regardless, umami is not just a fifth taste, it may also be a key ingredient to feeling more satisfied with less food. A recent study found that those who ate food rich in umami taste ate less throughout the day while still feeling satisfied by the end of their meals.
Although umami originally bewildered philosophers and scientists alike, it is not very rare in the foods we eat. Choosing quality foods and being mindful of taste may help you get the best of both worlds: flavor and nutrition.