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Let’s talk about all things umami! You might have heard of this term before, but whether or not you are familiar with umami, I want to do a deep dive to give you a clearer picture of what this means, and where you can find it.
What Is Umami?
Simply speaking, umami is one of the last few discovered tastes out there. It was originally discovered in 1908, by way of Professor Kikunae Ikeda (1). Umami was thought to be a mix between savory and salty, which leads us to an even greater discussion on different tastes…
The Case for Taste
Today, we have about 8 different tastes which we are aware of – and which we have named. The first four, which are classically recognized as the “main tastes,” are as follows:
Key Insight: The thing about some of these tastes is that they have taste bud receptors, which means that there are sports on the tongue which specifically respond to these tastes. As we move forward, we do have other tastes, but they do not react in the same way.
That leaves us with pungent, astringent, umami, and starchy. How do each of these ones differ? Well, let’s break them down…
This might otherwise be known as hot or spicy, but there is really no taste receptor that goes along with this one – it’s just plain heat! It’s a chemical irritation, and not a taste, which releases something that we call “substance P” (the ‘P’ is for pain) when we eat something that classifies as pungent. It goes into our bloodstream, our brains recognize that the spice hurts (even if we are enjoying it ourselves), but eventually we build up more and more of an immunity.
In the same way as pungent is, astringent is not a “true taste.” Instead, it is more of a drying, puckering feeling that is applied to the mouth. It’s something that you feel, and less something that you really can taste. Imagine that you took an unripe banana, and took three big bites of it. Due to how unripe it is, it would have a particularly drying sensation that would be classified as astringent (and not sour, so don’t be confused). There is a little bit of this in legumes, and some vegetables.
I wanted to parcel out umami from the more classic tastes, even though it does have a receptor (unlike those pungent and astringent tastes that I had previously mentioned).
Last, but not least, in the past year we have also come to recognize and identify a distinct starch taste that exists. When we taste things that are starchy, we taste them differently than something that would be sweet (2).
Bottom Line: The way we taste is so complex, and the way that taste affects how we interact with our bodies is an important “language” to understand. As we continue to dive into the world of taste, what you need to know is that these different forms of taste have different meanings. Knowing more about them can not only help you learn, but can help you feel better.
Have you ever heard of a taste threshold? This is the idea where different tastes themselves have different thresholds – differentiated by the lowest one that we can detect, and the highest one that we can find pleasant.
Bitter, for example, has the lowest threshold for detection. If you have a tiny amount of a bitter chemical simply in a glass of water, you would taste it. This means that things that have a naturally bitter taste, like certain vegetables, coffee, and others, suggests that the upper threshold of bitter (the one that is pleasant) is pretty low. This means that there is a narrower range between “I can taste that,” and “I do not like that.”
Key Insight: Particularly in the case of bitter, most bitter things are poisonous alkaloids that we can find in plants. This means that our protective system is trying to make us spit it out, so that it cannot have a negative effect on our bodies.
Interestingly enough, women (and, in most cases, pregnant women) have a more acute sense of detecting bitter things. This goes back to the idea that different alkaloids that are harmless to a normal adult, can be dangerous for a developing fetus. So, this is typically where those seemingly random food cravings and aversions in pregnant women typically come from (3).
On the flip side of the coin, the taste of sweet has the broadest range – which means that not only can we detect it, but we can take in a lot of it before it ultimately becomes overwhelming for our taste receptors. Salt and sour, alongside starchy, also fall somewhere in between these two ranges. Umami, as well, finds its home in between these two ranges as well – it exists as a very moderate taste.
One of the most interesting things about umami has to be the way that it affects our appetite. For quite some time, we have had an unfortunately flawed understanding of how these things work.
When mixed with proteins, umami has been known to have a biphasic response. This means that it affects your appetite in two different cycles:
In the context of having your meal, when it comes to umami your appetite is being stimulated both in the moment and after your meal. Basically, you are going to feel satisfied in the moment, satisfied afterward, and will stay full for longer.
One fascinating study involved 27 people, between the ages of 19 – 29, and they tested this idea of the umami taste being more satisfying (4).
For the sake of this study, and our discussion surrounding it, it also helps to make note of the fact that the participants were not smokers, not on any medications, did not have eating disorders, and typically had normal levels of restraint.
The results were really quite fascinating. The people who had the umami extract in their food enjoyed their food more in the moment, but were less likely to eat later – it was not due to being unhappy with the taste, they simply consumed less food due to the contents of their meal.
On the other hand, the other group in the study did not enjoy their food as much in the moment, and were more inclined to eat more food later on in the day.
Bottom Line: The link between umami and satiety, how full you feel after a meal, is clear. Thanks to the science that we have seen, albeit, on a relatively small sample size, we can see that the taste of umami has a profound effect on how much we enjoy our meals – and the lasting effect that our meals can have on our bodies.
What About MSG?
Inevitably, this question is always going to come up when we get to talking about umami. The major concern about these umami compounds is that they are often delivered through glutamate (5). MSG is a synthetic version of that.
Here’s a little tidbit that you might like to hear. When I was writing the Adrenal Reset Diet (6), I was planning on making MSG one of the harmful things that can disrupt the natural cycle of our body. Based on what I had read previously, I definitely thought that this was going to be the case.
After doing a lot of research, things changed quickly. I learned that the popular beliefs surrounding MSG disrupting our bodies really was unsubstantiated. There was not anything that really backed up the claim that I had read about, and that I was planning on making.
Bottom Line: The theoretical concerns behind glutamate and MSG are no doubt alive and well. The problem is that the practical concerns are not that risky-heavy. Some might get headaches, but the overall threshold for risk is very low. MSG is not a smoking gun.
What About Glutamate?
I have read ideas that glutamates in foods can be neuro-toxic and dangerous, but do you know the food with the highest amount of glutamate out there? Human breast milk. While a purified strain of glutamate on nerve cells has proven to hurt them in a test tube, it really has not been proven in many other capacities.
What we see in a lab, and what we see in real life, are two different things. The things that happen when purified glutamate is exposed to nerve cells is not what happens when we ingest naturally-occurring glutamate in foods. The way that our body processes these foods ensures that, and protects us from these potentially damaging effects (7).
Bottom Line: While the food itself might not be perfect, the glutamate itself is not something that should keep you up at night.
What are food sources of umami?
If you were trying to get some more umami into your diet, where would you start? You want to enjoy your food, while ensuring that you do not have to come back for seconds, thirds, or fourths. What we have learned is that umami in foods not only improves the way we interact with our food, but how satisfied we feel for a period of time afterwards.
Where do we find umami? Let’s start here:
- Ripe Vegetables
- Green Tea
This is a great place to start, and should really lay the foundation for where you want to find some more umami in your diet. But, when it comes to the highest levels of umami that we can find, here is where you should start to look:
- Fermented Foods
- Yeast (like nutritional yeast, vegemite, or marmite)
- Mushrooms (like shiitake)
- Some Aged Cheeses
- Soy Sauce
My Favourite Version of Umami
What is my personal favorite? Well, I have to let you know that it comes from the sea – but it might not necessarily be what you are expecting. It’s fish sauce! Fish sauce makes for a great version of glutamate.
Key Insight: The best versions of fish sauce often talk about the nitrogen content therein. 40% nitrogen means that these sauces have less random fish “stuff,” and more of the purified proteins that give the flavor you are seeking.
Fish sauce is fermented, has a long shelf life, and were even used as tonics for many different cultures throughout history. It is distinct, potent, and can add a unique element of flavor to just about any dish that you are making. Have some with dinner, and feel full for longer!
This is also something that I just had to mention, as I have seen them around before. You will often find these in little tubes, kind of like toothpaste, and are advertised as umami “bombs” that you can add to your cooking. They might have a combination of:
If you are looking to avoid dairy, you might want to pass (in case of the parmesan), but umami bombs definitely look like they are here to stay.
The Case for Umami
Do you feel like you need more food in your life that is actually doing the trick, instead of making you feel hungrier and less happy? Umami is definitely something you consider. While you are at it, maybe you should also consider some of the other aspects of your health that you might not have thought about before. Take the Thyroid Quiz (8), and learn a little bit more about your body – and how to benefit it – today.
Dr. Alan Glen Christianson (Dr. C) is a Naturopathic Endocrinologist and the author of The NY Times bestselling Adrenal Reset Diet.
Dr. C’s gift for figuring out what really works has helped hundreds of thousands of people reverse thyroid disease, lose weight, and regain energy. Learn more about the surprising story that started his quest.