Umami: the secret of the fifth taste

Sweet, salty, sour, bitter? No, it's Umami. The mysteries of a Japanese taste.

We have been taught since childhood that there are four flavors: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter, but there is the fifth flavor. Nobody told us about it. It's called Umami. Did you know it's the first taste we ever tasted?

Umami comes from Japan and is a combination of two terms: umai (delicious) and mi (taste).

Umami is the taste of salts that combine glutamate, inosinate, and guanylate. The salts of the amino acid aspartate and nucleotide adenylate are also types of umami substances, weaker than glutamate. Succinic acid, which gives shellfish their distinctive taste, has also been identified as another possible umami substance (umamiinfo.com).

Umami is not just a kind of salinity. It is one of the five basic tastes along with sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. Umami enhances the taste of a lot of foods, especially when it is mixed with other foods. 

It was discovered in Japan at the beginning of the last century and was identified as glutamate or glutamic acid. In Japan, it was called umami.

What is glutamate?

Umami: the secret of the fifth taste

Glutamate is one of the amino acids that are part of proteins. It is found in many foods, but the taste had not been identified until 1908. The tenacity of a Japanese scientist to detect it in Dashi broth made the discovery possible.

Monosodium glutamate (sodium glutamate, MSG) is the sodium salt of glutamic acid and is used as an additive to bring umami taste to foods. MSG is used and marketed by the food industry as a flavor enhancer because it balances, blends, and enhances the character of other flavors.

Foods rich in umami

Umami, common in fish

Glutamate and therefore the umami taste is naturally present in many types of meat and vegetables such as

Fun fact: our first contact with the umami taste is when we try mother's milk which contains almost as much umami flavor as Japanese dashi broth.

It is also interesting to note that foods rich in umami bring balance to the other flavors, lowering the bitterness and enhancing the sweetness, and thus achieving a more harmonious proportion of flavors.

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