What do seaweed, breast milk and walnuts have in common? You guessed it! They all contain umami. (I know, the title kind of gave it away.)
Umami (pronounced ōō-mä’mē) is a Japanese word meaning “delicious”, “savory”, or “flavor”. This label was given by umami’s discoverer, Professor Kikunae Ikeda, in 1909.
While enjoying a bowl of classic Japanese soup made from seaweed called dashi, Ikeda decided he just had to figure out what the unidentified deliciousness was all about. He said the taste was “common to asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat but … not one of the four well-known tastes”. To this point, science recognized only sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. It wasn’t until the 1980’s when umami was officially recognized as the fifth taste.
He was able to isolate the delicious chemical with the molecular formula C5H9NO4. This formula and its other properties were identical to glutamic acid, an amino acid produced by the body and found in many foods. When the protein containing glutamic acid is broken down, it becomes glutamate. Breaking down the protein is achieved through cooking (like stock), aging (as in parmesan cheese) or as food ripens (such as a tomato). Ikeda proclaimed “this study has discovered two facts: one is that the broth of seaweed contains glutamate and the other that glutamate causes the taste sensation “umami”.”
Ikeda was doing pretty well for himself despite the reluctance of the scientific community to embrace his findings. He patented and began marketing umami under the name “Ajinomoto”, which means “essence of taste” in Japanese. He was able to mix the glutamate with ordinary salt and water to stabilize it for production, thus resulting in monosodium glutamate, or MSG, as it is commonly known.
Hailed as one of Japan’s 10 Greatest Inventors, Ikeda’s company is now owned by General Mills and produces about a third of the 1.5 million tons of MSG consumed annually.
Glutamate is a natural part of protein-containing foods and is found in two forms: “bound” glutamate which, as the name suggests, is linked to protein and “free” which is not. Flavor improvement is only found with the free glutamate, whether it is naturally occurring in the food or added.
Not only is glutamate found in foods, our bodies produce about 50 grams per day as a natural part of our metabolism. Glutamate is the primary energy source for the intestines and makes no distinction between glutamate from foods and glutamate from flavor enhancers.
The taste of umami is very subtle and blends well with other tastes to expand their flavors. Most people can’t recognize umami when they taste it but it plays a role in making the overall dish delicious.
On average, people consume between 10 and 20 grams of bound glutamate and about 1 gram of free glutamate from food daily.
The New England Journal of Medicine ran an article in 1968 written by Dr. Ho Man Kwok, who claimed northern Chinese food caused him to suffer numbness, weakness and palpitations. Dubbed “Chinese restaurant syndrome”, it was a jumping-off point for researchers to begin years of study into the dangers of MSG.
Websites like blessedquietness.com are spreading the word about the dangers of monosodium glutamate. Google “msg” and you’ll find it blamed for a host of ailments including obesity, Alzheimer’s, petit mal seizures, migraines, insomnia, cancer, fibromyalgia, attention deficit disorder, autism and numbness.
Despite the work of these researchers, however, the United Nations and British, Japanese and Australian governments have determined MSG to be safe. The US Food and Drug Administration has studied the additive three times, in 1958, 1991 and 1998, and found it to be safe at normal levels in the diet. The Umami Information Center, with the help of the Umami Manufacturer’s Association of Japan, was established in 1982 to market positive information concerning umami to the world.
Truthinlabeling.org, writes on their website: “If MSG isn’t harmful, why is it hidden?” Seems like a good question. To combat the negative press, glutamate marketing stepped up by using different names and touting the benefits of their product. Spinning glutamate to be healthy, pro-glutamate websites like glutamate.org suggest that the use of their flavoring in foods allows the consumer to use 30% less salt while achieving the same flavor profile.
It is interesting to note the terminology used for this flavoring. Those promoting its use refer to it as “umami” while those issuing a call to action against its use label it “MSG”.
When you are reading food labels looking for MSG or monosodium glutamate, also keep your eyes peeled for aliases like:
Of course, foods in which glutamate is naturally occurring will not be labeled as such. This table lists some natural sources of glutamate and the amounts (mg of free glutamate from food per 100 g) in the food item:
I mentioned in the opening paragraph that human breast milk contains glutamate – ten times more glutamate than is found in cow’s milk. Perhaps that helps explain why the human palate is so attune to umami.
As with anything we put on or in our bodies, there are those who believe it is harmful and those who continue using the product despite those claims. You’ll have to decide for yourself if you want to add the umami-rich parmesan cheese to your spaghetti…or not.