The Fifth Flavor


By Mary Carpenter

“UMAMI is a flavor we’re always chasing—and one we’re so often looking to add to our cooking,” writes the Serious Eats Team. Found in nonperishable items from tomato paste, Worcestershire and soy sauces, dried mushrooms and aged cheese to Marmite, according to the Team, “umami-heavy ingredients are a must when you’re stocking a pantry.”

Umami—which recently became the fifth generally accepted flavor for which humans have taste receptors or “bud”—in foods increases saliva production, according to Cleveland Clinic’s health essentials. “Literally they make your mouth water, which improves the way food tastes.”

The umami taste comes from different compounds, such as inosinate or guanylate—in meats and plants, but its purest form is MSG, or monosodium glutamate. MSG occurs naturally in vegetables—tomatoes, peas, mushrooms and garlic —as well as in yeast, green tea, soy, seaweed and kimchi.

MSG earned a bad reputation beginning in the late 1960s, based on a cluster of reported reactions ,such as headaches, that became known as MSG symptom complex, or “MSG attacks,” most often associated with Chinese food (Asian recipes often include umami, and it is an ingredient in soy sauce.) But according to WebMd, “researchers have never been able to find a clear link between MSG and these reactions.”

A small percentage of people may be sensitive to MSG, but effects should disappear in less than an hour. And though umami has been associated with higher rates of obesity, no effect of MSG has been found in cells or body parts related to weight gain. Notes Cleveland Clinic dietician Beth Czerwony, “When your food tastes better, you’re inclined to eat more of it.”

And the previously maligned MSG may now be changing its image—based on recent evidence that substituting it for table salt creates a salty flavor while reducing overall sodium consumption. MSG contains about 12 percent sodium—2/3 less than that in table salt—so that substituting MSG for salt in some foods can reduce sodium intake by 25 to 40 percent, according to George Mason University nutritionist Taylor Wallace.

Americans are beginning to understand that “MSG is completely safe,” says Wallace, who predicts “a shift toward using the ingredient as a replacement for some salt to improve health outcomes.” Umami-rich, high-protein foods may help curb the appetite because they are more filling.

In addition, a person’s ability to detect each of the five tastes can be important both for health and as a warning: sweet and salty can indicate foods rich in nutrients, while bitter or sour signals poisonous plants or protein-rich food that is rotting. The umami flavor, as it occurs in meats, aged cheeses and seafood, can signal a good source of protein.

With umami, too, the neurotransmitter glutamate plays a role in learning and memory. Variations in availability in the brain, too little or too much, can affect mood, depression and OCD; while excess has been linked to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.

Among other proposals for a fifth taste sensation are savory (similar to umami), calcium (bitter and chalky), kokumi (heartiness), piquance (spicy), coolness (minty, fresh), metallicity (gold and silver), fat and carbon dioxide (in carbonated soda). “There is no accepted definition of a basic taste,” said Michael Tordoff, a behavioral geneticist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. “The rules are changing as we speak.”

Smell, texture and temperature can also affect the taste sensations experienced with different foods. And spicy, while often described as a taste, is technically a pain signal sent by nerves sensitive to touch and temperature—caused by capsaicin in foods seasoned with chili peppers. Both taste recognition and sensitivity can diminish with age, with confusion occurring most often among sour, bitter and umami tastes. In a Finnish study at the Functional Foods Forum, those over age 50 and male exhibited less sensitivity generally to taste.

The FDA now classifies MSG as “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS), its category for food additives determined by experts to be safe—along with the statement that side effects can occur in someone with MSG sensitivity but only after consuming three grams or more of MSG without food. Bacon contains less than 200 mg of glutamate per 100 grams (3.5 ounces), while aged parmesan has about 2,500 mg.

Umami-based recipes are popping up everywhere—including from local DC-area umamimami Dyala Madani, who urges: “Think Parmesan, braised Beef, Chicken Soup and Shiitake Mushrooms. The deliciousness that is Umami is the flavor that we strive for when we cook and when we eat.”

What I remember from early MSG-attack days is an itchy scalp —what’s called “tingling” in the symptom list —after eating Chinese food. But since learning that MSG is present in almost all processed foods, I suspect my post-Chinese restaurant itchy scalp may be more closely linked to the power of suggestion—or to a coincidental manifestation of my perennially dry skin.

—Mary Carpenter regularly reports on topical subjects in health and medicine.


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