The 5th Taste: Umami

Lifelong sensory experiences define favorite foods and ultimately our health.  Consider perceptions of taste (sweet, sour, bitter, salty), texture, mouthfeel, temperature, aroma, etc.  

The sense of taste diminishes naturally with age and can be negatively affected by numerous health conditions. The average adult has about 10,000 taste buds that are replaced every couple of weeks. As we age, some don’t get replaced.  Eventually, an older adult may have only ½ the number of working taste buds. 

The result is a change in taste threshold or the minimum amount of a taste sensation one needs to detect it.  Tangible examples are more shakes of the saltshaker or a higher preference for salty foods as one gets older. 

Common table salt contains sodium, an essential nutrient.  The federal government and leading health organizations report America’s eating habits to have too much (average 3400 mg), as based on evidence of the benefit of reducing sodium intake (to ~ 2300 mg) on heart disease and high blood pressure. A barrier to reducing sodium is its flavor-enhancing ability.

So, where does our intake of sodium come from? About 65% from packaged food, 10% from home cooking and table use, and 35% from fast food/restaurant meals.

tool for lowering sodium is incorporating, what is called, the 5th taste - umami.  Umami, from Japanese, is a pleasant brothy, savory taste imparted by glutamate, an abundant amino acid that makes up a protein. Umami deepens flavor by stimulating specific taste buds. 

As a seasoning ingredient: A sense of umami can be produced with monosodium glutamate (MSG), a widely used sodium-reducing and flavor-enhancing ingredient for the food industry. MSG contains 2/3 less sodium than table salt. Sodium in packaged foods can be lowered about 30% with MSG without compromising taste – a benefit for both the food industry and consumers.

While the use of MSG has been controversial, health experts and regulatory agencies have endorsed its safety. However, some individuals perceive a sensitivity to MSG and may want to avoid it.  If MSG is present, it will be included in the ingredient list on the product’s label.

Ac’cent, single-ingredient MSG, is found with spices in the market. It’s best used with savory, not sweet, foods and added early in cooking.  It’s not a 1:1 substitute for salt. Go light when experimenting with it; an excessive amount will be unpleasant.  Consider standardized recipes:

Naturally occurring umami: Glutamate is found notably in ripe tomatoes, mushrooms, hard aged cheese (like Parmesan, cheddar), asparagus, sweet corn, onions, black olives, sauerkraut., seafood, nutritional yeast, fish sauce, soy sauce, anchovies, sardines, beef, bone broth.  Dried shitake mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes are especially rich.  

Easy ways to impart a natural boost of umami: 

  • Sliced tomatoes or sautéed mushrooms on meat or veggie burger
  • Grilled portabella mushroom burger 
  • Parmesan cheese on pasta or any vegetable
  • Chopped mushrooms in scrambled eggs or omelet
  • Sun-dried tomatoes or mushrooms on pizza
  • Sauerkraut on a sandwich
  • Light use of soy-based sauces in meat, chicken, or vegetable stir fry
  • Nutritional yeast in homemade soup or over pasta 
  • Nutritional yeast as “cheese” flavor in any dish, especially in vegan cooking

About Mary Lynne Hixson, MA, RD:

Mary Lynne, a registered dietitian, helps others enhance their health through the advocacy of nutrient-rich food choices and safe food-handling practices. Her expertise also includes counseling patients who have Type 2 diabetes and advising those who are in medically-managed weight loss programs. After her 35+ year career, she retired and became involved with the launch of Harvest of Hope Pantry in 2012 as a Board of Directors member. Mary Lynne is a weekly volunteer with Cultivate’s Carry-Out Caravan program, shopping and delivering groceries to seniors in the Boulder area, and also a frequent volunteer with Harvest of Hope.