Umami: The Fifth Taste

You know what sweet, salty, bitter and sour taste like. But sometimes there's that flavor you just can't pinpoint -- that might be the "fifth taste" -- a.k.a. "umami."

You know what sweet, salty, bitter and sour taste like. But sometimes there's that flavor you just can't pinpoint. It's a little bit savory but not salty. That's the "fifth taste" -- a.k.a. "umami."

The Flavor

Umami (pronounced "oo-MA-mee") means "delicious" or "yummy" in Japanese. A Japanese doctor, Dr. Kikunae Ikeda, first identified the taste in 1908 when he decided that kombu (an edible seaweed) didn't fit into the standard food flavors (that is, sweet, salty, bitter and sour).

Umami is a pleasant, savory taste that's found in foods with high amounts of the amino acid glutamate. Though it’s subtle to detect, an estimated 95% of the population can sense the taste of umami, while the other 5% have a relatively low sensitivity. Seafood, meats, certain veggies (such as mushrooms and tomatoes) and green tea are umami-rich foods. These foods contain an array of nutrients -- ranging from the antioxidant selenium in seafood to a multitude of B-vitamins and iron in meats.

Umami Going Mainstream

MSG (monosodium glutamate) was introduced as an inexpensive, umami-flavored ingredient to help preserve food. In many parts of Asia, it’s common to add it to dishes to enhance them (for example, fish sauce has it). It's similar to how we often add a pinch of salt or sugar to something here in the U.S. But MSG has had mixed results -- many people are sensitive to the additive and can develop headaches after eating it.

These days food manufacturers and restaurants are also hopping on the umami bandwagon. Food companies such as Campbell’s replace the flavor lost in their low-sodium foods with umami-boosting add-ins. If you read the labels in your snack food aisle, you will find “hydrolyzed protein” -- a form of glutamate added to snacks. But if you want to avoid these additives altogether, you can try more natural umami enhancers (more below).

The Mushroom Counsel is promoting their products to chefs as a way to bring out the taste of umami in food. Adding sautéed mushrooms to steak creates an intense flavor called a “U-bomb.” And the technique of combining umami-rich foods is becoming more and more popular at local restaurants.

Want to experiment with the umami flavor? Try these wholesome dishes:

Next Up

Taste Test: Hummus

Hummus can be the perfect party food, a quick afterschool snack or a preamble to dinner with friends. With so many options at the grocery store, which brands stack up?

Taste Test: Salsa

Which brand of salsa is the best tasting and has the best nutrition? Get an RD's picks before your next fiesta.

Taste Test: Mayonnaise

We taste tested 5 different kinds of mayonnaise and analyze taste, texture, nutritional info and price.

Chocolate Tasting Guide

Learn how to taste and select chocolate like a pro.

Get Set for a Fifth Season of Fright-Night Spooktaculars on Halloween Wars

Get the latest details on the upcoming brand-new season of Halloween Wars, premiering Monday, Oct. 5 at 9|8c.

Tasting Atlanta, Years Later

One Georgia native revisits his hometown’s growing food scene.

Taste Test: Heirloom Tomatoes

Juicy tomatoes are at their peak, and that means farmers' markets are exploding with heirloom varieties. Heirloom tomatoes are special, because cultivators have saved the seeds and passed them down through the generations. They come in a range of sizes, colors and of course, flavors. We tested several varieties for taste and texture. Plus, a quick recipe for heirloom tomato sauce.

Taste Test: Snack Bars

We gave you some of our top snack bar picks; now we’re testing out a few of your favorites. See which common snack bars came out on top.

Taste Test: Juice Boxes

We tasted 5 popular apple juice boxes and rated them on taste, ingredients, portion size, cost and nutritional information. Find out how your favorite brand fared in our taste test.

Taste Test: Frozen Burritos

As more burritos have hit the frozen food aisle, we were curious to see which fit the “healthy” bill. Although at Healthy Eats we love to make our own, some nights you’re just in the mood for a grab-and-heat single serving meal.