Perhaps you’ve heard of umami but really aren’t sure what it is. Here’s why it’s been a huge food trend over the last few years and how to incorporate the satiety-inducing taste in your diet...
Sushi. Miso. Nori. Daikon. Bento.
Maybe you’re familiar with these Japanese offerings. But there’s one Japanese foodie term you’ve heard but aren’t quite sure what it is: umami.
If you shop at Trader Joe’s perhaps you’ve seen the supermarket’s branded multipurpose umami seasoning. You’re intrigued but without really knowing what umami is all about, you decided to skip it.
Or maybe you’ve heard about umami on a cooking show but didn’t quite digest what it was all about.
Ready to learn about umami and how it may actually help with weight management?
Then keep reading.
What Is Umami?
True/False pop quiz: There are 4 taste profiles.
The answer: false.
You already know sweet, salty, bitter and sour.
But there’s one more and you guessed it, it’s umami.
Umami can best be summed up as savory. But there’s more to the story behind the fifth taste profile than savory. After all, you can sprinkle savory spices like onion or garlic powder. But spices tend to have a salty natural taste.
And salty is already one of the 5 taste profiles that your tongue’s 10,000 or so taste buds can detect.
(It’s important to note here that “spicy” is not considered a taste profile because spiciness is interpreted by the brain, not the taste buds.)
More than just tasting pleasant without being sweet or excessively salty, umami implies a deliciousness that’s most often associated with meaty, fatty foods.
Umami-rich foods include meat, fish, fish sauce, and shellfish.
But if you’re a plant-based eater there are plenty of foods that contain umami essence.
Best Umami Plant-Based Foods
Umami foods contain the amino acid, glutamate. Some foods naturally contain glutamate or glutamic acid, while other foods have monosodium glutamate (MSG) added to them.
MSG remains a controversial additive because for decades, it was ubiquitous in Chinese food. Many Chinese restaurants have stopped adding MSG due to the bad press surrounding MSG, which is classified by the Food & Drug Administration as generally safe.
But some people may be sensitive to MSG, which can cause headaches and an increased heartbeat, to name a couple side effects. To be sure, some studies failed to show an association between MSG and headaches.
The good news is that if you’re skeptical about added MSG and follow a 100% plant-based diet, there are some vegan-friendly foods that have umami flavor:
- Mushrooms and dried mushroom powder
- Soy-based foods (edamame, tempeh, natto, miso, soy sauce)
- Kimchi (spicy fermented cabbage; popular in Korea)
- Other fermented foods such as sauerkraut
- Dried tomatoes
- Organic Umami Puree
In addition to these foods—there are other plant-based foods that contain glutamate such as corn, green beans and potatoes, albeit in lower amounts that the foods above—you can buy umami seasoning, which not only will make your food taste better, but there may be another benefit…
Using Umami For Weight Loss: Does It Work?
Research in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition examined this question. The scholarly article concluded that umami flavor, although it enhances appetite, also increases satiety.
It seems, based on this result, that umami tickles the taste buds but the savory and protein-rich flavors satisfy the belly more quickly than sugary or pure-salty foods.
Dr. Ole G. Mouritsen, who heads the Taste for Life center in Copenhagen, is a professor of gastrophysics and food innovation at the Department of Food Science at the University of Copenhagen.
Writing in the journal, Nutrition and Health, Dr. Mouristen suggests that umami may help combat the epidemic of metabolic diseases in the west.
“The consequences of malnutrition and critical unbalances in the diet with regard to sugar, salt and fat are becoming increasingly manifest in the Western world and are also gradually influencing the general health condition for populations in developing countries,” Mouristen writes.
Dr. Mouristen in part blames the overfed-undernourished paradox on the lack of deliciousness and umami (savoury) flavour in prepared meals.
“A better informed use of the current scientific understanding of umami and its dependence of the synergetic relationship between monosodium glutamate and … [its] action on the umami taste receptors will not only provide better-tasting and more flavoursome meals but may also help to regulate food intake, in relation to both overeating and nutritional management of elderly and sick individuals,” Dr. Mouristen explains.
But are Japanese more fine-tuned to detecting umami? After all, hasn’t the Standard American Diet hijacked the collective taste buds of consumers in the west? Not so, suggests a research article in Physiology & Behavior. The author states, “Research on the comparison of umami sensitivity of Japanese and Americans revealed no difference.”
A Savory Conclusion
Taste profiles involve very detailed, nuanced scientific exploration. This is why food manufacturers have been able to get millions of people hooked on salty and sugary snacks and packaged foods.
If you want to satisfy your taste buds without triggering your brain to eat more than you need to, eat foods and seasonings with a umami taste profile. The savory, protein metabolites will whet your appetite but satisfy it more quickly than junk food.