5 July 11 Who's Your Mami? Umami!

Don't feel bad if you have no idea what the title means. Umami is a term that is not well known outside of the foodie and chef world. It was discovered and named by a Japanese chemist (Ikeda) to describe the fifth basic taste – savory. The other four basic tastes are sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. For a great basic tutorial on the physiology of taste, check out Colorado State University's website on the subject.

Taste Receptors
So exactly what make us perceive a food as exquisitely savory? Apparently, we have receptors on our tongue that respond to a particular amino acid, glutamic acid. A modified form of this amino acid, free glutamate, is particularly good at binding to these receptors. Free glutamate occurs naturally in certain plant and animal foods. It is also the key ingredient in the food additive, MSG (monosodium glutamate). MSG is used as a potent flavor enhancer. Many processed and restaurant foods contain MSG, especially Asian-style foods.

Natural Food Sources of Umami

Although many equate umami with "meaty savoriness" – it isn't just about meat. Meat is certainly a good source of umami but certain types of seafood, veggies and aged cheeses are also excellent sources of umami. How food is handled or processed can also enhance its free glutamate content: ripening, maturation (e.g. aging a cheese), curing (e.g. cured ham), cooking (e.g. slow cooked stocks or tomato sauce).

The International Glutamate Information Service lists these foods as particularly high sources of naturally occurring free glutamate:

  • Kombu seaweed: 2240 mg/100g or 3.5 oz
  • Aged Parmesan cheese: 1680 mg/100g or 3.5 oz
  • Nori seaweed: 1378 mg/100g or 3.5 oz
  • Sauces (fish, oyster, soy, anchovy): 950 mg – 630 mg/100g or 3.5 oz
  • Cured ham: 337 mg/100g or 3.5 oz
  • Emmental cheese: 308 mg/100g or 3.5 oz
  • Tomatoes: 246 mg/100g or 3.5 oz
  • Cheddar cheese: 182 mg/100g or 3.5 oz
  • Scallops: 140 mg/100g or 3.5 oz
  • Corn: 106 mg/100g or 3.5 oz
  • Mushrooms: 42 mg/100g or 3.5 oz
  • Chicken (22 mg/100g or 3.5 oz)
  • Beef (10 mg/100g or 3.5 oz)
Does Umami Help with Weight Control?

Weight control always boils down to calories. Consuming more calories than your total expenditure means weight gain. However, it might be wise to consider if you are losing the fifth taste along with calories. That is, in an effort to control calories, are you forgetting to include foods that titillate your umami receptors? Get the flavor back into your foods by including more umami-rich choices. See if you are you more satisfied on your eating plan when you include high-umami foods (like those in the list above). I suspect that folks who learn how to balance flavor with healthful food choices while controlling calories are those that will be able to follow their plan for the long term.
Katherine Isacks, MPS, RD
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Disclaimer: The information provided here does not constitute medical advice. If you are seeking medical advice, please visit your healthcare provider or medical professional.

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