What are umami flavors? The magical fifth taste explained

by Joost Nusselder | Updated:  December 27, 2021

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If you hear the word umami, you’re probably talking about Japanese food. Foods like soy, fish sauce, dashi, mushroom broth can be described as having an umami flavor.

Umami means “pleasant savory flavor or taste”. Although it was discovered years ago, the word is still not that popular in the West.

As a result, you probably won’t hear people using this term outside of Japan. That’s because it was discovered by a Japanese scientist in the early 20th century.

What are umami flavors? The magical fifth taste explained

In Japan, umami refers to the fifth taste, known as savory, which comes from glutamate. It’s not sweet or salty, sour or bitter, but something else altogether. Umami is rich, like meat and broth.

In this post, I’m going to discuss all things umami, which foods contain it, how you can add it to your meals, and even tell you a brief history of its discovery.

What is umami?

Umami is one of the five basic tastes known as savory.

What makes a taste distinct is that you can’t recreate the flavor by mixing other tastes.

So, for example, you can’t create a sweet flavor if you mix umami with saltiness, or sour with bitter. Umami is distinct in flavor and you can’t replicate this savoriness with the other tastes.

Compared to the other four basic tastes (sweet, sour, salty, and bitter), umami is probably the mildest.

In a sense, umami is a very pleasant taste but subtle enough to go undetected by many when dining.

When you have some hot dashi broth with noodles and boiled beef, you probably won’t be blown away at its distinct taste. But, if you have a very bitter Goya (bitter cucumber) you’ll know the flavor at first taste.

When you eat umami food, it has a mild aftertaste that increases salivation and a sensation of fuzziness on the tongue.

It actually leaves the mouth-watering and wanting more by stimulating the roof of your mouth and throat.

So, umami is actually impossible to describe unless you taste it.

But, the closest you can get to describing it is savoriness. To detect umami, a different set of taste buds is used, not the same as those that taste sweet or salty.

What makes food umami?

It all has to do with chemistry, compounds, and amino acids.

So, where does umami flavor come from?

Umami is a result of compounds and amino acids.

The presence of glutamic acid (amino acid glutamate), or the compounds called inosinate and guanylate gives food an umami taste. These compounds and amino acids are usually found in high-protein foods.

Foods that have a high glutamate content, like dashi, are considered umami. This umami stock is a base for many tasty Japanese dishes.

Umami adds an interesting flavor to the food and also curbs the appetite so umami food is considered quite healthy.

When paired with other tastes, it makes a great well-rounded flavor that keeps people wanting more.

The reason why umami foods are so addictive like MSG-flavored fast foods is that this unique flavor makes your taste receptors crave more umami deliciousness.

How umami is balanced with the other basic tastes like sweet, sour, salty, and bitter will influence how tasty a dish is.

Umami has 3 distinct properties

Since umami is such a distinct flavor from the others, it has 3 specific properties:

  1. The taste of umami spreads all over your tongue.
  2. The aftertaste of umami is much longer than sweet, sour, salty, bitter.
  3. Eating an umami-flavored dish gives a mouthwatering sensation.

Why is meat umami?

Meat has a rich flavor and it’s considered to be a great representation of what umami tastes like.

Before the meat is sent for sale at the shop, it undergoes a natural aging process. Meat is mostly made of protein, but this protein is flavorless.

The protein, however, is made up of a really long chain of amino acids – 20 to be exact. About 15% of these amino acids are glutamate. That’s why the meat tastes umami.

As the meat’s protein breaks down, it gives the meat its particular and distinguishable flavor.

Where is umami detected on the tongue?

Of course, umami is detected on your tongue. When you ingest and chew substances that contain umami, your tongue notifies the brain and you will feel that yummy taste.

Umami activates taste buds (receptors) on your tongue. Then, once the buds identify umami, the nerves send signals to your brain.

There are also nerves and receptors in your stomach and these send your brain signals that they detect umami through the vagus nerve.

What does umami do to the body?

Umami doesn’t really have any negative impacts on the body. It’s not a seasoning like salt which can cause heart diseases and other health issues.

When your tongue’s taste buds sense glutamate, it tells the body that it has consumed protein.

When the body then senses umami, it causes salivation and the production of digestive juices which make it easy for the body to digest the food.

Why is umami so good?

The main reason why umami is so good is that it improves and enhances the flavors of any dish it is added to.

But, you probably also asking why do we love umami so much?

Our bodies are made of protein and water. The human body produces at least 40 grams of glutamate per day, thus we need it to survive.

The body naturally craves umami and denatured protein because it wants to refill its amino acid supply.

So, don’t feel guilty if you crave that umami taste all the time, it’s pretty normal. Amino acids are essential for the body.

Did you know that breast milk contains lots of glutamates – ten times that of cow’s milk? So we are conditioned to taste umami since birth, we crave it in adulthood too.

Are umami and MSG the same?

These days, manufacturers add MSG to food to give it that umami flavor.

MSG (monosodium glutamate) has a pretty bad reputation as unhealthy but consumed in small quantities, it is safe.

MSG also contains the same amino acid called glutamate as real umami. This molecule activates your taste receptors and makes food tastier.

So, yes, MSG and umami taste the same because they contain the same glutamic acid but getting umami from kombu in dashi stock, for example, is healthier than eating a bowl of takeout full of added MSG.

Are umami and savory the same?

Yes, umami and savory are the same because umami is best described as savory.

This refers to a distinctly rich, meaty flavor. Alternatively, vegans can compare the taste to mushrooms and seaweed (kombu).

Savory is often described as the opposite of sweet and salty.

How is umami different from saltiness?

People always ask “is umami just salty?” but this is an incorrect assumption.

The truth is that umami isn’t actually saltiness. Umami and salt/sodium are two different tastes. Sure, both are one of the five basic tastes but there’s a difference.

Umami refers to a sense of savoriness whereas saltiness refers to sodium and the specific flavors associated with sodium.

Salt is sodium chloride whereas umami is glutamate. The difference is the flavor.

Both salt and umami make Japanese cuisine taste different but umami gives it a more meaty, deep rich taste. You know what salt tastes like and how it changes the taste of a dish.

What is an example of umami? (Top umami foods)

Ok, so umami is savory, but which foods are actually considered true umami flavored?

Well, lots of foods contain umami elements or are completely umami.

The foods with the strongest umami flavors include:

  • meats
  • shellfish
  • fish
  • preserved fish (anchovies, sardines especially)
  • fish sauce
  • soy sauce
  • kombu (kelp)
  • dashi stock
  • mushrooms
  • garlic
  • oyster sauce
  • cheese
  • tomatoes & ketchup
  • hydrolyzed vegetable protein
  • oyster sauce
  • yeast extract
  • green peas
  • corn
  • miso

There are many umami foods, but basically, anything with a high glutamate content can be called umami. Much of Japanese cuisine contains delicious umami-flavored dishes that will leave your mouth watering.

How to get an umami flavor

You can get umami flavor from specific umami-flavored foods like kelp or fermented foods.

But, when you’re cooking you can incorporate more umami ingredients to improve the food’s taste.

The best way to do this is to use fermented foods with a high umami content like miso paste, or aged and fermented cheese.

You can use umami-rich foods like kelp when cooking soup. Or, add tomatoes and mushrooms alongside meat.

Cured meat is also full of umami taste and so are aged meats.

You can also add anchovy paste, ketchup, or minced garlic to soup, stew, and all other dishes to make it taste more umami.

Finally, you can just add pure MSG seasoning to the food. It will activate the taste receptors on your tongue and make you feel all that umami deliciousness.

Here’s a delicious dish with the PERFECT umami mix: Wafu pasta recipe with spaghetti and prawns

Can you buy umami?

Yes, you can buy certain foods which give you that umami taste you’re searching for.

The most popular cooking seasoning is MSG.

The Ajinomoto Umami Seasoning is a common seasoning from Japan and it is used in takeout dishes like Teriyaki chicken to give the dish that addictive mouthwatering aroma.

This seasoning is sold in powder form. While there are many debates whether MSG is bad for you or not, you can safely consume it in moderation that’s why it’s FDA approved.

So, besides the MSG powder that Kikunae Ikeda invented (more on that below), you can buy pastes and powders that give you umami taste.

Takii Umami Powder is a special umami seasoning made from shiitake mushrooms. It is rich in glutamate and gives food an authentic and basic taste of savoriness.

Takii Umami Powder, Magic Shiitake Mushroom Seasoning, Add Instant Flavor and Depth to All Your Favorite Dishes

Umami paste is another option to give your dishes an umami-rich flavor. It is rich in glutamate and can be made at home from miso, seaweed, olives, anchovies, and parmesan cheese, all blended together.

I like to use Taste #5 Umami Paste Laura Santini which is made with tomatoes.

You can also buy real kombu dashi stock, which is also high in glutamate from the seaweed.

It tastes umami and gives soup and noodle dishes an amazing savory and salty taste. This kombu dashi stock powder is great for cooking umami rich soups and broths.

Yondu Vegetable Umami is a plant-based seasoning sauce, suitable for vegetarians and vegans too.

Then, there’s the classic Kikkoman soy sauce which most people are familiar with.

It pairs well with meats, seafood, vegetables, rice, noodles, and even deep-fried dishes. It provides that basic taste of savory glutamate.

Read more about the famous Kikkoman brand and its sauces here.

Another easy way to add umami is to use ketchup as a topping on your food. The Noble Made Tomato Ketchup is a healthy bottled version with non-GMO and gluten-free ingredients.

Even miso paste is considered umami because it’s made of fermented soybeans. It adds a great flavor to Japanese dishes. It tastes pungent, sweet, sour, salty, and savory all at once.

Read all about the top 5 miso pastes for umami-rich flavors.

What food has the most umami?

Umami is present in all foods all over the world, not just Japanese cuisine.

I think you’ll be surprised to know that the food with the most umami flavor is tomatoes. All tomatoes and especially dried tomatoes are very glutamate-rich and have an intense savoriness.

Other very umami foods include:

How does food become umami?

Did you know that food components can become more umami after undergoing the process of ripening or fermentation, or both.

That’s why it’s not surprising that the most well-known and traditional savory ingredients are those that have been fermented.

Condiments like miso paste, fish sauce, oyster sauce, and soy sauce intensify their savory flavors over time. The same can be said about aged cheese which also contains cultured ingredients too.

Is avocado umami?

Avocados are one of the healthiest foods. But did you know that avocado is also umami?

Yes, it has glutamate and a savory flavor, thus it’s pretty much umami.

Avocado is also healthy and a super food because it has a high nutritious fat content. It’s made up of oleic acid, potassium, and vitamins B, C, E & K.

Who discovered umami?

Many people think umami was discovered centuries though, but no.

If you’re wondering when was umami discovered, you’ll be surprised to know it was only in the early 1900s.

In fact, umami was discovered in the early 20th century after lots of research.

In 1907, scientist Kikunae Ikeda of the Imperial University of Tokyo discovered umami. He was studying the flavors and compounds of kelp, commonly used to make soup stock.

Professor Kikunae Ikeda noticed an underlying savory flavor that linked many foods but he couldn’t exactly categorize it into something that tastes sweet, sour, salty, or bitter.

Thus, he discovered this new umami flavor, a fifth taste, when examining substances in food.

After studying his wife’s broth and soups, he discovered that kombu seaweed contained umami flavors. Thus he was able to identify glutamic acid as the amino acid responsible for umami in 1908.

But, it was only fairly recently, that umami was declared the official fifth human taste. In the 1980s, Japan recognized umami as a separate taste from sweet, sour, salty, and bitter.

The invention of umami seasoning

Umami flavor was very popular and beloved in early 20th century Japan. Therefore, professor Ikeda wanted to create unique umami flavored seasoning people could use for cooking.

He needed to make sure that glutamic acid has similar characteristics to other seasonings like salt and sugar. He wanted the seasoning to be water-soluble and resist humidity and avoid solidifying in time.

The professor came up with monosodium glutamate (MSG).

This had strong umami and savory taste and was stored well in bottles. In a short time, MSG became a popular seasoning in Japanese dishes.

Takeaway

Now that you know umami is basically any food with a savory flavor, you can start trying to identify it in your dishes. The taste of glutamate is really incomparable to the other four basic tastes.

Once you really develop your taste buds to identify this as one of the five basic tastes, you’ll realize why some foods are so much better than others.

The great thing is that you can make your own umami paste or use dashi stock to infuse recipes with the umami taste at home.

Also learn about Takoyaki’s unique taste, flavor variations & filling ideas

Ever had trouble finding Japanese recipes that were easy to make?

We now have "cooking Japanese with ease", our full recipe book and video course with step-by-step tutorials on your favorite recipes.

Joost Nusselder, the founder of Bite My Bun is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with Japanese food at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.