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Umami: Science and Lore of Healthy Eating

By June 17, 2017April 12th, 2021News

A detailed review of the science behind Umami, the recognized fifth taste (alongside sweet, sour, bitter, and salty), has recently been published by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Evidence Analysis Library. The Evidence Analysis Library is an online resource providing a series of systematic reviews and evidence-based nutrition practice guidelines for dietitians and nutritionists.

The Review Paper’s focus is explained as follows: “Although the complexity of umami taste makes it difficult to both describe and recognize, we are unconsciously exposed to umami in everyday meals. What exactly is umami? What is the connection between umami and deliciousness? What are the interactions of umami with our eating behaviors? The information here will help you understand the unique characteristics of umami and its potential benefits on taste and food consumption. This paper reviews the current scientific evidence on umami, its role in human body, the connection between umami and deliciousness, safety concerns of umami ingredients, and potential health benefits of adding umami compounds during food preparation.” 

Umami review by Evidence Analysis Library

Science of Umami

The 23-page detailed report (view pdf) makes the following key points:

    • “In Western societies, the word umami is often confused with deliciousness, possibly because the definition of umami also refers to the degree of food deliciousness from a sensory perspective in Japanese culture. From a scientific perspective, umami is a taste, not deliciousness by itself. Umami does not have a simple English translation. Savory, mouth fullness, or meatiness is close. It is important to clarify the relationship between umami and deliciousness from a scientific perspective to better understand what umami is.”
    • “Umami substances such as glutamate and 5’-ribonucleotides can be found in most of living things, including our body, foods such as vegetables, most protein-rich foods, fermented foods, fermented seasonings, and breast milk.”
    • “Glutamate – widely present in foods and our body – is the key to trigger the umami taste sensation. Glutamate exists in two forms: protein-bound and free glutamate, which is not bound to proteins. Within foods in liquid form, free glutamate often binds together with ions such as sodium, calcium, and magnesium. These derivatives include sodium glutamate, potassium glutamate, ammonium glutamate, calcium diglutamate, and magnesium diglutamate. Just like table salt, sodium chloride, which is made up of one molecule of sodium ion plus one molecule of chloride ion, MSG is monosodium glutamate, which also consists of one molecule of sodium ion plus one molecule of glutamate along with one molecule of water.”
    • Is MSG Safe?
      “Along with recent intensive studies, the FDA has repeatedly confirmed the safety of MSG at levels normally consumed by the general population. Consistent with the FDA’s report, our evidence-based analysis from 1995 onwards also showed no clear evidence linking MSG consumption to any serious, potential adverse reactions. However, inconsistent findings reported in some studies still pointed out methodological issues once observed in early studies. Thus, the results cannot be fully generalized to the whole population.”
      “Bottom Line: On the basis of the available evidence, no clear association was reported regarding adverse reactions following MSG consumption.”
    • Does Umami Allow for Less Salt?
      “We do know that cutting down on salt intake is good for our health, yet maintaining a low-sodium diet is challenging because food prepared with reduced salt is less tasty in general. Current research consistently demonstrates that use of umami-containing seasonings such as MSG and soy sauce allows for less salt without compromising the palatability of food.”
      “Bottom Line: Small quantities of umami-rich seasonings used in combination with a reduced amount of table salt during cooking allow for less salt while maintaining palatability of the food.”

Title: Umami: The Science and Lore of Healthy Eating
Author: Atsuko Sasaki, RD, MS, MPH
Umami brochure published by: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics ©2017. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. All rights. Reserved.

Interview about Umami at FNCEWatch this short video interview with the author, Ms. Sasaki, by IGIS Secretariat Ana San Gabriel, DVM, MS, about umami, the application of the umami brochure, and umami’s role in sodium reduction. Interview with FNCE Ms Sasaki